Perfect: Enemy of the Good & Missile Defense

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In congressional testimony earlier this month, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral “Sandy” Winnefeld, described the recently released Quadrennial Defense Review’s emphasis on protecting the U.S. homeland as “the highest national security interest…we have.”  He noted that America’s survival depends on its ability to prevent “catastrophic attacks,” such as a nuclear missile launched against the United States.  “We have always prioritized defending the homeland,” he stated.

Unfortunately, when it comes to missile defense, reality suggests otherwise.

The Obama administration’s latest budget request reflects the lowest level of missile defense funding since the Clinton administration.  Promising missile defense programs have been scrapped, increasing the risk that ballistic missile threats to the United States will outpace our ability to counter them. 

Recently, North Korea has engaged in a ballistic missile firing frenzy, launching more than 50 missiles and threatening to conduct another nuclear test.  In February, Iran successfully test-fired what it called a “new generation” long-range missile.  Moreover, Russia and China continue their extensive nuclear and ballistic missile modernization programs. Russia has been particularly aggressive, upgrading all legs of its strategic nuclear triad and conducting large-scale strategic force exercises simulating attacks on the West.  Yet the official U.S. response is to assure both countries that the United States has no intention of improving its missile defense capabilities in ways that would undermine their capabilities to threaten the U.S. homeland with nuclear destruction.

Efforts to enhance U.S. missile defense capabilities are foundering on the shoals of overly optimistic threat assessments, ill-advised budget cuts, technological challenges, and the lack of an appropriate official sense of urgency.  Perhaps nowhere is the disconnect between strategy and capabilities so stark, and the gulf between ends, ways, and means so wide, as in the effort to defend the U.S. homeland from ballistic missile strikes.

Today the United States relies on a modest deployment of 30 Ground-Based Interceptors (GBIs) in Alaska and California to defend against limited missile attacks from rogue states like North Korea.  After initial resistance, the Obama administration now plans to add an additional 14 GBIs to the mix by 2017.  These interceptors have suffered a repeated string of test failures, calling their reliability into question.  Almost seven years have passed since the last fully successful test intercept.  As a result, Vice Admiral James Syring, head of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), has called for a redesign of the GBI’s warhead, or “kill vehicle,” to improve its reliability and performance.  The MDA has requested nearly $100 million in fiscal year 2015 for this effort.

While this approach makes sense, the MDA’s focus is being diluted by efforts to develop a brand new kill vehicle dubbed the Common Kill Vehicle.  In his 2015 budget, the president requested an initial $26 million in seed money for such an effort.  This is a long-term strategy that will take years and may divert attention from a shorter-term solution.  In the meantime, the MDA should focus on fixing problems with the existing kill vehicle, while drawing upon lessoned learned from the highly successful Standard Missile-3.  Failing to do so would squander this substantial investment and would mean further delay in ensuring the capabilities necessary to protect the nation from ballistic missile attack. 

Missile defense critics have highlighted the problems with the current ground-based interceptors to argue that the Congress should not throw good money after bad.  But such an “either-or” choice would mean ignoring the rapid evolution of the threat.  Reengineering the existing GBI kill vehicle to improve its reliability would be faster and cheaper than developing a new concept from scratch, even if doing so is a worthy policy in the longer term. 

America’s adversaries aren’t standing still and waiting for the United States to perfect its missile defense system.  On the contrary, they are building better and more sophisticated ballistic missiles.  The nation simply does not have the time to start over. 

In a just-released report, the Defense Department stated that it would scrap plans to fix the GBI kill vehicle should sequestration occur again in fiscal year 2016.  However, Congress should not let the MDA off the hook when it comes to fixing the current generation of GBI interceptors.  Rather, it should require a specific plan to do so that leverages the best technical expertise and identifies the actions to be taken, how they will be accomplished, and a timeframe for achieving them. 

The American people deserve the best missile defense possible.  But the perfect is often the enemy of the good.  A start-from-scratch kill vehicle is a long-term solution that may be necessary, but not at the expense of failing to fix the current GBIs and addressing the rapidly evolving threat.   

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