2016-08-15 By Richard Weitz
Congress is making progress finalizing this year’s draft FY2017 National Missile Defense Act (NDAA).
As The Washington Post recently noted, one likely revision we will see from previous years will be a change in congressional guidance on U.S. ballistic missile defenses (BMD); specifically, the Senate and the House look set to remove the word “limited” in their description of the goal for such defenses.
The House version goes the furthest in calling for “robust (multi-)layered” protection from missile attacks on U.S. territory. It would change the wording that has continued for more than a decade from the following:
“It is the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized, or deliberate).”
to the following wording:
“It is the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possible a robust layered National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized, or deliberate).”
Furthermore, the draft House language for “Sec. 1665. NATIONAL MISSILE DEFENSE POLICY,” would read:
(a) Policy. — It is the policy of the United States to maintain and improve a robust layered missile defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States, allies, deployed forces, and capabilities against the developing and increasingly complex ballistic missile threat with funding subject to the annual authorization of appropriations and the annual appropriations of funds for missile defense
Opponents of the move argue that it will alarm Russia, China and other countries and unleash a spending spree on half-backed BMD technologies and concepts.
However, the proposed language change is unlikely to have any adverse impact on the already poor relations with Moscow and Beijing and could allow for a more comprehensive discussion of U.S. options for BMD planning and more importantly procurement, testing and R&D.
Russia and China already suspect that the U.S. would like to build a missile defense shield that would protect the United States and its allies from their nuclear-armed missiles.
Meanwhile, some NATO allies and some in Japan and South Korea would welcome signs that the United States would try to protect them from a wider range of possible threats.
It is unlikely that the proposed change in congressional language will prompt major BMD spending or program initiatives for the next few years.
Neither Clinton nor Trump seem like strong partisans of missile defense and would probably push for other priorities as president until they saw greater evidence that a major spending increase would yield major benefits for American security.
Nonetheless, the linguistic shift could help encourage a broader discussion of important missile defense issues.
For starters, the current technology of launching unarmed interceptor missiles at incoming warheads or missiles, while constantly improving and already useful for defending against short- and intermediate-range attacks, is fundamentally constrained in the kinds of national threats to the U.S. homeland that it can address—at best a few incoming ICBMs with modest decoys and other penetration aides.
If we stick with this technology, then any capacity will indeed be limited even as the threat environment is becoming more complex, complicated, and contentious.
Lt. Gen. (ret.) Trey Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) from 2004 to 2008, has observed that “technological breakthroughs are needed “to overcome things like advance countermeasures, maneuvering warheads, hypersonic vehicles and much more.”
Hopefully, new technologies could also reduce cost as well as boost effectiveness.
The current cost-curve clearly favors the attacker since it is more expensive to intercept an incoming missile than to launch one. At a recent talk, Major General Francis Mahon (USA, ret.), remarked that,
“The pursuit of the multi-missile launcher also offers a solution to the UAS [unmanned aerial system] and the cruise missile.
There may be other near-term low cost options if we really take our hats off and start thinking here about multi-mission systems vis single mission systems.
Are there ways to leverage other programs for a more cost efficient and effective interceptor?
What about the Navy’s Standard missile family?
Is there some way for the Army to integrate those into our systems?
Will IBCS allow us to integrate a family of interceptors under one unit’s command?
Can left of launch and non-kinetic options lighten the load?
The capability challenge may be easier to solve if we really start to think a little bit out of the box, assuming we write realistic requirements, accept good enough versus outstanding performance, and have the fiscal resources and the fortitude to see a program through development and fielding.”
Making substantial progress in national missile defense will require some combination of better integration of BMD and preemptive strike capabilities with new types of missile defense technologies.
Some experts believe that we have already made much progress in the fundamental scientific and technologies issues and could soon field effective directed energy, space-based, or other novel BMD systems.
While others disagree, it seems prudent to accept the recommendation in the House draft defense policy bill to at least consider more options in planning:
“Not later than 30 days after the date of the enactment of the act, the director of the Missile Defense Agency … shall commence planning for the concept definition, design, research, development, engineering evaluation, and test of a space-based ballistic missile intercept and defeat layer to the ballistic missile defense system,”
As a planning exercise, such a review, along with a consideration of other BMD options for what the United States might achieve and at what financial cost, would help U.S. decision makers better weigh the costs and benefits (militarily, diplomatically, and fiscal) of this option.
The review should also address the issue of relieving the MDA of some lower priority requirements to allow it to focus more on researching and developing better missile defenses.
Second, there needs to be a fuller discussion of how to integrate defenses against long-range systems with protections against battlefield and cruise missiles and air defenses.
Safeguarding the United States from a full-scale Russian or Chinese nuclear attack seems impossible from a technological and resource point of view, but being able to counter some of their battlefield options in Europe and Asia remains possible and operationally and diplomatically valuable.
The United States would have to overcome these A2AD systems to defend allies attacked by these countries.
For diplomatic reasons, it may be better to keep most U.S. BMD assets for even expeditionary warfare based in the United States, but they would need opportunities for forward deployment on exercises.
The Russian and Chinese regional missile threats are growing in quantity and quality and clearly a part of their A2AD strategy.
We could consider more robust responses if we recognize the unlikelihood of assuring current Russian and Chinese military leaders that we do not ever plan to target their deterrent.
We also need to address future Iranian and especially North Korean capabilities.