A Way Forward on Ballistic Missile Defense

A Way Forward on Ballistic Missile Defense
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For several years now, one of the biggest debates regarding missile defense in Congress has been surrounding whether or not to construct a new interceptor site on the East Coast of the United States.  Supporters of a more comprehensive missile shield for the U.S. homeland – including myself – have long suggested that an East Coast site would improve our ability to ensure the destruction of an incoming missile from a rogue regime such as Iran or North Korea.  And so it would.  However, in an environment of limited resources and cost/benefit trade-offs, putting this debate to the side for the time being is both practical and potentially useful. 

One of the main criticisms of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system is that it has reliability concerns, having only achieved one successful intercept during flight testing in the last five years.  These concerns have fueled critics of an East Coast interceptor site who argue that it is a waste of money to expand a system that remains unproven.  Allaying these concerns should be a priority of missile defense advocates and the U.S. should devote the time, energy, and resources necessary to improve the functionality and reliability of the current system.

First and foremost, Congress needs to give the Missile Defense Agency clear and consistent guidance on what can and should be accomplished in the short and medium terms.  Too often, resources are directed toward projects that distract from the goal of having the most functionally capable system in place to address the threats the country faces in the near term.  There are plenty of examples of active MDA programs that were simply not ready for primetime – think directed energy weapons (lasers) or a practicable boost-phase defense system.   In order to ensure the protection of the U.S. homeland, the most important task at present is the redesign of the kill vehicle that sits atop the interceptors.   

Thankfully, both the Administration and Congress are suggesting an increase of funding in FY2016 for the development of an RKV.  Unfortunately, Congress also continues to entertain policies that either pursue bad ideas or rush good ones.  The National Defense Authorization Act recently passed by the House of Representatives includes a provision requiring MDA to pursue a boost-phase missile defense, system despite a 2012 study done by the National Research Council concluding such a system would be neither feasible, practical, nor affordable.  There is also a requirement for the MDA to spend its time conducting a study and cost analysis on a space-based missile defense system.  A study is not needed - a space-based BMD system might be technologically feasible, but one that achieves full coverage (a necessity) is simply not practical nor affordable. 

The most controversial provision in the House bill is the $30 million dedicated for the development of a construction plan for the East Coast interceptor site.  The bill that was unveiled by the Senate Armed Services Committee does not contain dedicated funding, but did require the MDA to craft a plan for an expedited deployment of the site in the event it is determined that it is needed.  This is the right approach.  Congress should keep funding dedicated to continuing RKV development as a stepping stone toward an eventual common kill vehicle or the so-called Multiple Object Kill Vehicle that would be interchangeable for various missile defense systems. 

The improved RKV will utilize components from proven, existing systems and will have greater reliability, maintainability, and affordability compared to the current EKV.  Rather than demanding the construction of a third interceptor site now, focusing on performance enhancements and flight testing will lead to the demonstrated effectiveness of the system.  This in turn will remove a key argument of the critics of an East Coast site, paving the way for its eventual construction and the subsequent improvement of the U.S. homeland defense capability.     

On Feb. 2 of this year, Iran launched a small satellite into orbit, the latest example of the progress in Tehran’s space and missile programs.  The U.S. needs a proven missile defense system in the near term and that means focusing on reliability rather than expansion.  As MDA Director Vice Admiral James Syring says, "when it comes to homeland defense, ensuring successful intercept is the be all and end all." 

Jonathan Bergner is an independent expert on national security policy issues. He has written extensively about nuclear proliferation, deterrence, and ballistic missile defense.

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