Rebalancing Missile Defense
Despite development by Russia and China of newer and more sophisticated nuclear-armed ballistic missiles capable of striking the American homeland, U.S. missile defense policy remains rigidly mired in the Cold War thinking that downplays these threats and considers defenses against them to be “destabilizing.” It is time to rethink this approach.
The United States withdrew 14 years ago from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which prohibited nationwide defenses against missile attacks, but policymakers remain firmly wedded to the doctrine of mutual vulnerability it enshrined. Consequently, U.S. missile defenses remain modest and focused on the least robust missile threats while leaving Americans deliberately vulnerable to the most robust.
China’s growing assertiveness in Asia is backed by its expanding nuclear capabilities and Beijing has bragged openly about its improved ability to target America’s largest cities with long-range ballistic missiles. Senior American military officials have declared that Moscow now poses the greatest threat to the United States. While the United States has reduced its deployed nuclear weapons under the New START Treaty, Russia’s totals have actually increased. And Russia’s military doctrine, nuclear modernization programs, and strategic forces exercises suggest that Moscow takes nuclear weapons seriously even if Washington doesn’t.
Missile defense of the U.S. homeland relies on the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system consisting primarily of 30 Ground-Based Interceptors (GBIs). Despite plans to add 14 interceptors by the end of next year, this modest capability is hardly a counter to the hundreds of long-range missiles carrying well more than a thousand nuclear warheads Russia can launch against the United States.
The administration has proposed improving the near-term “hit-to-kill” capability of the GBIs by developing a redesigned kill vehicle (RKV) with better reliability, performance, and discrimination capability. This is a good move. However, the FY17 funding request of $274 million for the RKV is less than last year’s appropriated amount. And while funding is projected to increase in the future, “outyear” projections that extend into a subsequent administration often go unrealized. In addition, the first actual RKV intercept test would not occur until at least 2019. Barring congressional action, the return of sequestration next year could force additional delays in this critical effort.
Funding for other hit-to-kill technologies like the proposed Multi-Object Kill Vehicle (MOKV) – a future successor to the RKV that can destroy multiple incoming warheads with a single shot – is also being cut in FY17. Given both Russia’s and China’s development of new multiple warhead ICBMs, the MOKV program could help shift the cost equation in favor of the defense and improve deterrence. But again, most of the requested $71.5 million for the MOKV is in the outyears.
Other hit-to-kill technologies are also at risk as a result of budget cuts, including the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) intended to defeat shorter-range missile threats. These reductions will impact interceptor inventory on systems that directly counter growing threats in the Asia-Pacific region, Europe, and the Middle East.
Vice Admiral James Syring, MDA’s Director, has noted that cuts to U.S. missile defense programs have been disproportionately severe compared to cuts in the overall DoD budget resulting from last year’s Bipartisan Budget Agreement. Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Jeff Sessions has pointed out that over the last decade the MDA budget has shrunk by 14 percent while funding for technology research and development has dropped twice as much in percentage terms. All of this reflects a disturbing lack of urgency.
Decreasing missile defense budgets in the face of increasing ballistic missile threats just doesn’t add up, and this trend must be reversed.
The missile defense test program is also operationally challenged, as a recent Government Accountability Office report concludes. An MDA fact sheet states that testing “contributes to U.S. non-proliferation goals by sending a very credible message to the international community on our ability to defeat ballistic missiles in flight, thus reducing their value to potential adversaries.” But no GMD flight tests occurred last year and only one has taken place so far this year. This is hardly the hallmark of a serious effort. If we don’t take our missile defense program seriously, why should our adversaries?
It is also time to move forward with other measures that could bolster American defenses and strengthen deterrence. These include space-based defenses designed to destroy ballistic missiles in their early phases of flight; an east coast interceptor site to improve defensive coverage of the U.S. homeland; options against shorter-range missiles that can be launched from off our coasts; and directed energy capabilities for missile defense – including on unmanned platforms – capable of defeating missiles within minutes of launch. These efforts should be pursued in addition to, and not at the expense of, near-term necessities like RKV.
Congress now has an opportunity to rebalance U.S. missile defense priorities. In its recently-passed version of the FY17 National Defense Authorization Act, the House Armed Services Committee included a provision that supports greater research, development, and integration of space-based defenses into the ballistic missile defense architecture. The SASC should follow suit.
Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution establishes the Congress’ responsibility to “provide for the common defense.” Exercising that responsibility is not optional. When it comes to protecting Americans against the threat of ballistic missile attack, it is time to get on with this task.