2016-08-28 By Garth McLennan
The United States Congress is contemplating changes to the standards it uses to define its defense architecture against ballistic missile threats. Any such changes are likely to be more symbolic than substantive in the short term, but over time will create more political space for the development of new ballistic missile defense systems (BMDS).
At the same time, any moves to strengthen Washington’s ballistic defense posture will be met with opposition from Russia and China.
More immediately, real revisions to the way Washington defends against potential missile threats will develop as facts on the ground outpace existing structures more so than through congressional mandate.
Regardless of any rhetorical changes made or considered to America’s ballistic defence architecture today, the future of missile defense more generally is in for significant change.
This dynamic will be driven by technological advancement, particularly in the domain of hypersonic missiles capable of traveling as fast as Mach-10.
The United States and China have been successfully conducting experimental hypersonic tests for several years, and both are aiming to test a fully field-ready prototype by 2020, and Russia is not far behind. The introduction of such weapons, which follow different, far less predictable flight patterns that exceed the capacity of existing missile defence systems designed to counter incoming ballistic targets, will change how countries organize, structure, and resource their defence strategies.
Politically, these manifestations are already becoming apparent; with Beijing testing its DF-ZF hypersonic platform a full seven times in the last two years, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) included amendments to the 2017 NDAA tasking the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) with building the doctrinal frameworks needed to guide and regulate America’s approach to defending against such hypersonic attacks, as well as to bolster US space-based interception capabilities.
Financial changes have and will continue to come as well with significant investment in the development of directed energy weapons; the House’s NDAA bill passed on May 18 included $15 million for the stalled directed energy low-power laser demonstrator, and another $25 million for joint research work with Israel.
The imperative of organizing and maintaining a layered dense in depth against a multitude of threats will nonetheless ensure the continued prominence of ballistic defense systems (sky-high development and acquisition costs will leave hypersonic missiles beyond the reach of many American adversaries for years to come), but the unique threat of hypersonic weapons equipped with nuclear warheads could lead to new doctrines built around ideas of pre-emptive military action before an enemy can use, or possibly even acquire, them. The likelihood of such a scenario will only increase if effective tools in countering hypersonic missiles are slow to develop.
The proliferation of precision-guided, medium-range ballistic missiles, particularly to state and non-state actors across the Middle East, is a viable rationale for stronger BMDS networks. The spread of precision-enhancing terminal guidance technology has lowered the previously prohibitive cost of obtaining such weapons.
As these and other technologies proliferate, US and allied defense frameworks must keep pace; existing structures like the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) may find their bandwidth taxed. The spread of medium-range ballistic missile capability could result in more countries armed with smaller quantities of such missiles, resulting in a lowered threshold for conventional combat.
For core US allies like Israel, this is a principal national security threat (something that should be factored in as well when determining the scope of American missile defense in Washington). Ten years ago, when the Jewish state went to war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, the inaccurate nature of Hezbollah rockets prevented them from posing a major strategic threat.
Today, however, with a battle-hardened Hezbollah now possessed of offensive organizational experience in support of the al Assad regime in Syria and in control of an increasing stockpile of Iranian-provided missiles, the threat of precision-guided rockets raining down on cities and critical infrastructure like power plants anywhere in Israel is both terrifying and very real.
Likewise, the evolution of direct-ascent and co-orbital anti-satellite missiles capable of threatening Washington’s C4ISR infrastructure will mean new priorities, with the attendant funding that comes with them.
With China having conducted extensive testing in this domain, showcasing an ability to reach targets into the High Earth Orbit (35,700 km and up) in the process, and with Russia, North Korea, and Iran all aggressively working to augment their own space-based launch capabilities, proposed countermeasures have included calls for the development of a space-based interceptor (SBI) platform that can destroy targets in their ascent and boost phases over enemy territory.
In opposition to threats emanating from countries like Iran, which attempts to thinly cloak its efforts at ballistic missile development under the guise of testing for its national space program, an SBI system can be viewed as a particularly attractive solution.
Guidance from documents like the 1999 Missile Defense Act, which calls for defense against limited ballistic missile attack, also serves as an acknowledgement of the fact that no system capable of offering a perfect defense against long-range ballistic missile threats exists, but that reality does not diminish the potency, depth, and absolute strategic necessity of America’s BMDS.
Comprised of formidable Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) platforms, Aegis SM-3 missile interceptor systems like the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) deployment to eastern Europe, and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery in conjunction with the road-mobile PATRIOT Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) interceptor recently sent to South Korea, the depth of America’s ballistic defense shield should not be in dispute.
If anything, the requirement of a “limited” ballistic missile defense capacity affords Washington a greater degree of political and diplomatic flexibility. The Obama administration found this beneficial when it felt the need for room to maneuver on the EPAA deployment and a Bush administration-led initiative for a GBI site in Poland.
That said, at a time of great uncertainty amid unprecedented military aggression by Moscow in multiple theaters, few signs would be stronger in response than strengthening American missile defense networks.
The removal of “limited” and the adoption of “robust layered” from US missile defense doctrine would provide the conceptual underpinning that allows for the political space needed to accelerate SBI development, but shaping an effective way ahead requires investments in key technologies, deployment decisions and commitments by the next Administration.
Garth McLennan is a strategic affairs analyst who has written previously for Second Line of Defense and 38 North. He graduated from Arizona State University in 2015, and currently resides in Vancouver, British Columbia.
 Omar Lamrani, What the Next Arms Race Will Look Like”, March 21, 2016, Stratfor Global Intelligence, https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/what-next-arms-race-will-look
 Press Release, “National Defense Authorization Act Amendment Victories for EMP Protections, Missile Defense, and the Fight Against ISIS”, May 5, 2016, United States Congressman Trent Franks Representing Arizona’s 8th District, https://franks.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/national-defense-authorization-act-amendment-victories-emp-protections
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