Pentagon’s Flawed Approach to Homeland Missile Defense Puts Nation at Risk
There are reports that Pyongyang may be restarting its nuclear weapons program, and Kim Jong-un has promised some kind of ballistic missile Christmas surprise. Iran likewise continues to develop its long-range ballistic missile capabilities. Yet, this is the time the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) chose to cancel its program to develop an improved warhead, called a kill vehicle, for the Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) that is the core of the military's ability to defend the U.S. Instead, the Pentagon decided to build both a new interceptor and kill vehicle from scratch. Such a program will take at least a decade to come to fruition. In the meantime, there are no plans to put in place any additional or stopgap capabilities to address the growing threat. This is an unacceptable situation.
Today, the defense of the American homeland against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) relies on the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. This system currently consists of 44 GBIs, based in Alaska and California. The Trump Administration intends to add 20 more GBIs to the Alaska deployment. The GBI delivers an Exo-Atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) to the predicted location of the incoming ICBM warhead. From that point, the EKV has the demanding task of using its own sensors to precisely locate the warhead and drive into it.
The GBI/EKV system was initially deployed in 2004 to provide the U.S. military with a basic capability to defend the homeland from a limited attack. From the beginning, MDA invested in programs to improve the basic system through a series of capability enhancements intended to improve the GMD's reliability and lethality.
One of these enhancements was a replacement for the EKV, which had been rushed into service in order to meet the urgent need for a way to repel small attacks launched by rogue regimes such as North Korea or Iran. Faced with a North Korean missile program that appeared to be close to fielding an ICBM capable of reaching any of the fifty states, MDA decided in 2016 to accelerate a program to develop a new warhead for the GBI. The Replacement Kill Vehicle (RKV) was to be more reliable, more producible, more effective, easier to maintain, and cheaper to build than the current kill vehicle. The original schedule proposed by MDA for the RKV envisioned the kill vehicle tested against an ICBM-like target in 2019, and the system reaching initial operating capability in 2020. This was a compressed schedule that provided little room to accommodate any technical problems or time delays.
Unfortunately, the RKV failed to meet either its performance or scheduling targets. This past August, the Pentagon decided to terminate the RKV program. The decision was made to take a more deliberate but expansive approach to developing a new capability. Instead of just developing an improved warhead for the GBI, MDA has now proposed to pursue an expanded program that involved both a new missile and warhead.
The new Next Generation Interceptor (NGI) appears to be much more than a capability enhancement of the GBI/EKV system. The Pentagon wants a system that can address a wide range of threats, not just the first-generation North Korean or Iranian ICBM. Moreover, it wants this new interceptor no later than 2026. This seems to repeat the risks taken in the now-terminated RKV program.
The vision laid out for the NGI involves overcoming numerous technical, procedural, production and sustainment hurdles. According to the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, the decision to go back to the drawing board and develop an entirely new ground-based interceptor and warhead “will delay the deployment of any additional GBIs for the defense of the United States homeland to the 2030 timeframe at the earliest under the current acquisition requirements.”
Perhaps MDA will be able to develop and deploy the NGI in just six years. The Agency’s history with previous complex development programs argues against it.
The Pentagon cannot wait to see if the NGI will make its performance or schedule goals. North Korea is ramping up its ballistic missile activities. At the same time, the one system available to protect the homeland against a rogue regime’s nuclear-tipped ICBMs—the GBI armed with the EKV—is aging. That system was based largely on 1990s technologies and had a projected service life of just 20 years. MDA had not invested in improving the EKV because it expected to replace that warhead with the RKV.
MDA and the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering need to put in place an interim program to ensure the viability of the current GMD system. Progress has been made in a number of theater missile defense programs. Several of these have demonstrated significant enhancements in system reliability and effectiveness. Drawing on existing investments in missile defense technologies and decades of industry experience in this area, the Pentagon could put together a plan to develop and deploy a stopgap capability that would be better than the EKV, even if it doesn’t meet all the requirements being levied on the NGI.
It is critical that the Administration and the Department of Defense ensure that resources are available to support both the NGI and an interim capability. It has been reported that there are no funds in the proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget for the NGI. Existing funds that will not be spent on the RKV program should be reprogrammed to support the development of an interim solution to problems presented by the EKV.
It is absolutely vital that the United States have an effective capability to defend the homeland from a North Korean or Iranian ICBM threat. A robust GMD system could, at a minimum, deter a regional adversary from threatening the U.S. A robust deployment of advanced homeland missile defense may even dissuade Pyongyang from continuing its costly effort to develop an ICBM. For the GMD program to stand still for up to a decade while the threat advances is putting the nation's security at unnecessary risk. President Trump needs to demand a near-term capability improvement program for the GMD system.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.