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"In my home there are few publications that we actually get hard copies of, but [Arms Control Today] is one and it's the only one my husband and I fight over who gets to read it first."

– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Missile Defense

U.S. Missile Defense Programs at a Glance

An overview of the current U.S. approach to national and regional missile defense, its costs, and sustainability.

For more information on the European system, see European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) at a Glance.

Updated: January 2019

Contact: Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, 202-463-8270 x104


Executive Summary

Two Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors are launched during a successful intercept test. (Photo: US Missile Defense Agency Flickr)

According to Missile Defense Agency (MDA) estimates, Congress has appropriated over $200 billion for the agency’s programs between fiscal years 1985 and 2019. That total does not include spending by the military services on programs such as the Patriot system or the many additional tens of billions of dollars spent since work on anti-missile systems first began in the 1950s.

For nearly two decades, U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) policy has sought to protect the homeland against limited long-range missile strikes from states such as Iran and North Korea, but not major nuclear powers like Russia and China, because that mission would pose significant technical, financial, and geopolitical challenges. The United States has also pursued programs to defend U.S. troops and facilities abroad, and some close allies, from attacks by ballistic missiles—and to a much lesser extent cruise missiles.

The overall U.S. missile defense effort enjoys strong bipartisan support in Congress. Additionally, many U.S. allies place a high value on missile defense cooperation with the United States.

However, the U.S. pursuit of effective missile defenses has been accompanied by intense debate about the technical capabilities of the system and realism of testing, the scope of the ballistic missile threat, the deterrence and assurance benefits of defenses, the cost-effectiveness of shooting down relatively inexpensive offensive missiles with expensive defensive ones, and the repercussions for U.S. strategic stability with Russia and China.

According to the Defense Department’s independent testing office, existing U.S. missile defenses have "demonstrated capability" to defend the U.S. homeland against a small number of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threats that employ "simple countermeasures." The testing office assesses that defenses to protect allies and U.S. troops deployed abroad possess only a “limited capability” to defend against small numbers of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs). The capability of defenses against short-range ballistic missiles is labeled as “fair.” Apart from the point-defense Patriot system, no systems in the U.S. BMD arsenal have been used in combat.

Leaders of the U.S. missile defense enterprise have increasingly voiced concerns that the current U.S. approach to national and regional missile defense is unsustainable and that existing defenses must be augmented with emerging capabilities to reduce the cost of missile defense and keep pace with advancing adversary missile threats.

Background

Bush Administration

Ballistic missile defense ranked high among the priorities of the George W. Bush administration, which withdrew the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 so that it could attempt to develop and deploy a nationwide defense against a limited number of long-range ballistic missiles. The United States had attempted to implement ground-based long-range ballistic missile defense only once before over the last 50 years. The first effort, Safeguard, was shut down within a few months of being declared operational in October 1975 because Congress concluded it was too expensive and ineffectual. Safeguard was allowed under the ABM Treaty since it was limited to no more than 100 interceptors protecting a single intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) base in North Dakota.

Obama Administration

Upon taking office in 2009, the Obama administration took steps to curtail the Bush administration’s rush to expand the U.S. homeland missile defense footprint and instead place greater emphasis on regional defense, particularly in Europe. The Obama administration decided to alter its predecessor’s plans for missile defense in Europe, announcing on Sept. 17, 2009, that the United States would adopt a European “Phased Adaptive Approach” to missile defense (EPAA). This approach primarily uses the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system to address the threat posed by short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles from Iran. The Aegis system uses the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors, which are deployed on Arleigh-Burke class destroyers in the Baltic Sea (Aegis Afloat), as well as on land in Romania and Poland (Aegis Ashore).

President Obama's first Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, also canceled a number of next generation programs, including two designed to intercept missiles during their boost phase, due to "escalating costs, operational problems, and technical challenges."

However, while continuing to invest in regional defense, the Obama administration also made substantial investments in homeland defense largely in response to North Korea. The Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system comprises missile fields in Ft. Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and is designed to protect the United States against limited, long-range missile strikes from North Korea and Iran. Despite concerns about the system’s technical viability, from 2013 to 2017, the Obama administration expanded the number of ground-based interceptors (GBIs) in these fields from 30 to 44.

The administration also oversaw the deployment of additional regional missile interceptor and sensor capabilities to allies in Northeast Asia in response to North Korea, including the deployment of the terminal high-altitude area defense (THAAD) system to Guam and South Korea and two advanced radars to Japan.

Trump Administration

In May 2017, pursuant to direction from President Donald Trump and Congress, Defense Secretary James Mattis formally announced the beginning of the department’s Ballistic Missile Defense Review, which is taking a wide-ranging look at missile defense policy and strategy. The review was originally slated to be published alongside the Nuclear Posture Review in February 2018, but has been delayed. The reasons for the delay in the completion of the review are unclear. The Defense Department has stated that the review will focus on defense not only against ballistic missiles, but other missile threats as well, including hypersonic and cruise missiles.

Since President Trump’s inauguration, the administration has vowed to expand national and regional missile defense systems of every kind and Congress has supported these efforts. In fiscal year 2018, Congress approved $11.5 billion for the Missile Defense Agency, an increase of $3.6 billion, or 46 percent, from the Trump administration’s May 2017 initial budget request.

The appropriation is the largest Congress has ever provided for the agency after adjusting for inflation. The administration, with Congress’ support, is planning to expand the number of ground-based interceptors from 44 to 64 and purchasing additional regional missile defense interceptors.

Congress approved another big increase for fiscal year 2019, approving $10.3 billion for the agency, an increase of $1.4 billion above the budget request of $9.9 billion.

Ballistic Missile Basics

Ballistic missiles are powered by rockets initially but then follow an unpowered, parabolic trajectory toward their target. They are classified by the maximum distance that they can travel, which is a function of how powerful the missile’s engines (rockets) are and the weight of the missile’s warhead. To add more distance to a missile’s range, rockets are stacked on top of each other in a configuration referred to as staging.

Four classifications of ballistic missiles:

  • Short-range ballistic missiles, traveling less than 1,000 kilometers (approximately 620 miles)
  • Medium-range ballistic missiles, traveling between 1,000–3,000 kilometers (approximately 620-1,860 miles)
  • Intermediate-range ballistic missiles, traveling between 3,000–5,500 kilometers (approximately 1,860-3,410 miles)
  • Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), traveling more than 5,500 kilometers (approximately 3,410 miles)

Short- and medium-range ballistic missiles are referred to as “theater” ballistic missiles, whereas ICBMs or long-range ballistic missiles are described as “strategic” ballistic missiles. The ABM Treaty had prohibited the development of large-scale, nationwide strategic defenses, but permitted development of theater missile defenses, as well as single-site strategic defenses.

Three stages of flight:

Boost phase:

  • Begins at launch and lasts until the rocket engines stop firing and pushing the missile away from Earth.
  • Depending on the missile, lasts between three and five minutes.
  • Generally the missile is traveling relatively slowly, although toward the end of this stage an ICBM can reach speeds of more than 24,000 kilometers per hour. Most of this phase takes place in the atmosphere (endoatmospheric).

Midcourse phase:

  • Begins after the rockets finish firing and the missile is on a ballistic course toward its target.
  • Longest stage of a missile’s flight, lasting up to 20 minutes for ICBMs.
  • During the early part of the midcourse stage, the missile is still ascending toward its apogee, while during the latter part it is descending toward Earth.
  • During this stage the missile’s warhead(s), as well as any decoys, separate from the delivery platform, or "bus." This phase takes place in space (exoatmospheric).

Terminal phase:

  • Begins when the missile’s warhead re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere (endoatmospheric), and it continues until impact or detonation.
  • This stage takes less than a minute for a strategic warhead, which can be traveling at speeds greater than 3,200 kilometers per hour.

Other Types of Missiles

Cruise missiles and hypersonic missiles are two additional categories of missiles. Unlike ballistic missiles, cruise missiles remain within the atmosphere for the duration of their flight. Cruise missiles are propelled by jet engines and can be launched from land-, air-, or sea-based platforms. due to their constant propellants, they are more maneuverable than ballistic missiles, though they are also slower than their ballistic counterparts. Two types of hypersonic missiles are currently under development. A hypersonic boost-glide vehicle is fired by rockets into space and then released to fly to its target along the upper atmosphere. Unlike ballistic missiles, a boost-glide vehicle flies at a lower altitude and can change its intended target and trajectory repeatedly during its flight. The second type, a hypersonic cruise missile, is powered through its entire flight by advanced rockets or high-speed jet engines. It is a faster version of existing cruise missiles.

Elements of the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense System

The following charts provides a brief look at some of the major missile defense programs maintained by the United States. It contains information on what type of ballistic missile each defense would be intended to counter and at which stage of the enemy missile’s flight an attempted intercept would take place. Also included are Pentagon estimates on when each defense may have an initial, rudimentary capability as well as when it could be fully operational.

 

GROUND-BASED MIDCOURSE DEFENSE

Program & Key Elements

  • Key element: ground-based missile interceptor consisting of a multistage booster and an exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV).
  • EKV separates from the booster in space and seeks out its target through radar updates and use of its onboard visual and infrared sensors.
  • The EKV destroys its target by colliding with it. This process is referred to as "hit-to-kill" or "kinetic kill."

Designed to Counter

  • Goal: intercept strategic ballistic missile warheads in midcourse stage.

Status

  • Initially fielded in 2004.
  • As of the end of 2018, the total cost of the GMD system is estimated to be over $67 billion.
  • MDA claims that the system has had ten successful intercepts in 18 tests. Only two of the past five intercept tests after 2008 has been successful.
  • The first test of the GMD system against an ICBM-class target with simple countermeasures took place on May 30, 2017 and was deemed successful.
  • The next test of the GMD system is scheduled for late 2018 and, for the first time, will involve firing two interceptors against one ICBM target. In a real-world scenario, multiple interceptors would be fired at an incoming missile.

Capability / Schedule

  • As of April 2018, the Pentagon deploys 44 ground-based interceptors (GBIs)–40 at Fort Greely, Alaska, and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Twenty of the 40 interceptors deployed in Alaska are armed with an older CE-1 kill vehicle that has not had a successful flight intercept test since 2008. In 2017 the Trump administration announced its plan to deploy twenty more GBIs, to be installed in a fourth missile field in Ft. Greely beginning in the FY 2021 timeframe. These interceptors will be armed with the new, under-development Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV), which is intended to enhance the performance of the current EKV. The development of the RKV is being accelerated to meet this deployment schedule.
  • The interceptors are supported by land- and sea-based radars. Early Warning Radar units are being upgraded to support the system. As of June 2018, upgrades have been carried out at Beale Air Force Base, California and at Fylingdales, the United Kingdom, as well as Thule Air Force Base, Greenland and Clear, Alaska. The less powerful, westward-facing COBRA Dane radar on Shemya Island, in the Aleutian archipelago, was also upgraded in February 2010.
  • Former MDA Director Adm. James Syring told a Senate panel in 2013 that the MDA tests the GMD system “in a controlled, scripted environment based on the amount of time and money each one of these tests costs.” This means there are limits to the realism of the test scenarios.
  • MDA is investing in the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV), which is intended to enhance the performance of the current EKV, which have been plagued by reliability problems. The RKV is expected to be deployed in 2022.
  • Following the May 30, 2017 test, the Pentagon's testing office updated its assessment, which had described the GMD system as having only a “limited capability" to defend the U.S. homeland from a small number of simple long-range missiles launched from North Korea or Iran. In a June 6, 2017 memo, the office said that the system has "demonstrated capability" to defend against a small number of long-range missiles threats that employ "simple countermeasures." However, researchers with the Union of Concerned Scientists noted in a 2017 report that the only test of the GMD system against an ICBM-class target was “simplified in important ways that enhanced the test’s chance of success instead of challenging the system to work in a realistic way.”
  • In February and April 2016, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessed that MDA has not “demonstrated through flight testing that it can defend the U.S. homeland against the current missile defense threat.” It did not repeat this assessment in a May 2018 report, noting the success of a May 2017 test in intercepting an ICBM-class target. 
  • GAO also said that MDA is relying on “a highly optimistic, aggressive schedule” to upgrade the system “which has resulted in MDA: (1) accepting a proven risk of undue concurrency; (2) compromising interceptor reliability and extending risk to the warfighter; and (3) risking the efficacy of its planned flight tests in order to maintain schedule-driven deadlines necessary to meet its 2017 fielding deadline.” A May 2017 GAO report raised several red flags about the RKV program. For example, both U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Strategic Command are questioning whether the seeker planned for the kill vehicle will be able "to detect and track threats in an ICBM-range environment."

 

AEGIS BALLISTIC MISSILE DEFENSE (BMD)

Program & Key Elements

  • Key elements include: the RIM-161 Standard Missile-3 (SM-3), RIM-174 Standard Missile-6 (SM-6), and the Aegis combat system.
  • The SM-3 is a hit-to-kill missile comprised of a three-stage booster with a kill vehicle. There are three variations of the SM-3 missile: Block IA, Block IB, and Block IIA. Each variation will be deployed in different phases.
  • The SM-6 is a hit-to-kill missile based on the SM-3 but offers extended range and firepower against cruise missile targets deep inland.
  • The Navy’s component of the missile defense system, the Aegis system is central to the defense footprint in Asia and the Phased Adaptive Approach to missile defense in Europe. Aegis is a sea-based system, with missile launchers and radars mounted on cruisers and destroyers but is adaptable to land systems as well.

Designed to Counter

  • Geared toward defending against short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles during their midcourse phase with an emphasis on the ascent stage.

Status

  • In 2005 the role of Aegis missile defense evolved from that of a forward sensor to include engagement capability.
  • As of December 2018, the SM-3 has a test record of 40 intercepts in 49 attempts, comprising both the SM-3 and SM-6 missiles. 
  • Japan’s four KONGO Class Destroyers have been upgraded with BMD capabilities. Japan and the United States are co-developing the SM-3 block IIA.

Capability / Schedule

  • Under the FY19 budget submission, by the end of FY2019, there are scheduled to be 41 Aegis BMD ships, and by the end of FY2023, there are scheduled to be 57 Aegis BMD ships.
  • As of October 2017, thirty-three ships are currently deployed. Of these, 17 are assigned to the Pacific Fleet and 16 to the Atlantic Fleet.
  • A land-based SM-3 block IB deployment occurred in Romania in 2016, the same year ground was broken in Poland on a site to house land-based SM-3 IIAs. The Polish site was originally scheduled to become operational in 2018, but has been delayed until 2020.
  • The first intercept test of the new SM-3 IIA interceptor occurred in February 2017 and was successful. However, the second and third intercept tests of the missile in June 2017 and January 2018 failed to destroy their targets. There were two more tests before the end of 2018 on Oct. 26 and Dec. 11, both successful, with the December test particularly notable for being the first successful intercept of an IRBM target and using the ability to "engage on remote" using a forward-based sensor.

 

TERMINAL HIGH ALTITUDE AREA DEFENSE (THAAD)

Program & Key Elements

  • Key elements include: 1) an interceptor missile comprising a single rocket booster with a separating kill-vehicle, 2) an advanced AN/TPY-2 radar unit to identify and discriminate between incoming missiles, and 3) an infrared seeker to home in on its target.
  • The THAAD kill vehicle relies on hit-to-kill kinetic interception.
  • THAAD batteries have four components: launcher, interceptors, radar, and fire control. Each battery can carry 48-72 interceptors (there are eight interceptors per launcher and typically each battery is believed to contain six to nine launch vehicles).
  • THAAD missiles are fired from a truck-mounted launcher.

Designed to Counter

  • THAAD’s mission is to intercept short- and medium-range ballistic missiles at the end of their midcourse stage and in the terminal stage.
  • Intercepts could take place inside or outside the atmosphere.

Status

  • As of March 2018, THAAD has succeeded in completing 15 interceptions in 15 tests since 2006. Four other THAAD tests, as of March 2018, have been classed as “no-tests.” (Note: A “no-test” occurs when the target malfunctions after launch so the interceptor is not launched.)
  • On July 11, 2017, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency executed a successful intercept test of the THAAD system against an air-launched intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) target. The test was the first against an IRBM-class target.

Capability / Schedule

  • The U.S. Army operates six THAAD batteries, each with its own AN/TPY-2 radar. Three batteries, each comprising six launchers, are deployed in the Pacific: one in South Korea, one in Guam, and one in Hawaii.
  • Production of the first THAAD interceptors began in March 2011. The Army will field 210 THAAD interceptors by September 2018, the Missile Defense Agency told Congress in June 2017, and the President requested funding for 82 additional interceptors to be built in 2019. In May 2018, GAO reported that THAAD interceptor production had been delayed, and it only delivered 41 of the planned 61 interceptors in FY2017.
  • MDA is exploring development of an upgraded version of THAAD known as THAAD extended range, which is designed to counter ultrafast gliding weapons.
  • The U.S. and South Korea decided in July 2016 to deploy a THAAD battery in South Korea to counter North Korean threats despite strong objections from China. The battery began operating in April 2017.
  • A THAAD battery was deployed to Guam in 2013 to counter potential North Korea IRBM threats to the island and U.S. military assets there. The first test of the THAAD system against an IRBM target occurred in July 2017.

 

PATRIOT ADVANCED CAPABILITY-3 (PAC-3)

Program & Key Elements

  • Key elements include: a one-piece, hit-to-kill missile interceptor fired from a mobile launching station, which carries 16 PAC-3 missiles.
  • The missile is guided by an independent radar that sends its tracking data to the missile through a mobile engagement control station.
  • A blast fragmentation warhead kills the target.

Designed to Counter

  • PAC-3 is designed to defend against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles in their terminal stage at lower altitudes than the THAAD system.

Status

  • PAC-3s destroyed two Iraqi short-range ballistic missiles during the 2003 conflict and shot down a U.S. fighter jet. Earlier Patriot models also deployed to the region shot down nine Iraqi missiles and a British combat aircraft.

Capability / Schedule

  • PAC-3 is now considered operational and has been deployed to several countries including Bahrain, Egypt, Germany, Greece, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, and the UAE.

 

SPACE-BASED INFRARED SYSTEM-HIGH (SBIRS-HIGH)

Program Elements

  • Key Elements: 1) geosynchronous (GEO) satellites orbiting the earth; 2) sensors on host satellites in highly elliptical earth orbit (HEO).

Dates Operational

  • Primary objective is to provide early warning of theater and strategic missile launches.
  • Provides data for technical intelligence and battle space awareness.

Cost

  • Currently there are three SBIRS sensors mounted on host satellites in highly elliptical orbit (HEO-1, HEO-2, and HEO-3).
  • There are four SBIRS satellites in geosynchronous orbit. GEO-1 was launched in May 2011, GEO-2 in March 2013, GEO-3 in January 2017, and GEO-4 in January 2018.
  • As of March 2018, the program is projected to cost $19.6 billion for six satellites—four times greater than its initial estimated $5 billion for five satellites.

Major Issues

  • The first sensor in highly elliptical orbit—HEO-1—was certified for operations by U.S. Strategic Command in December 2008.
  • The most recent sensor, GEO-4, was launched aboard an Atlas V rocket on January 19, 2018.
  • Lockheed Martin is under contract to produce GEO-5 and GEO-6, which will be launched in 2021 and 2022, respectively.
  • SBIRS originally called for two additional sensors, GEO-7 and GEO-8, but these were scrapped in favor of pursuing an entirely new SBIRS follow-on program. The successor program has yet to be identified or developed. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson suggested the new system will be "simpler" and more survivable to enemy attacks.

 

RECENTLY CANCELED PROGRAMS

A number of high-profile missile defense efforts that began during the George W. Bush administration were canceled by President Bush’s last Defense Secretary, Robert Gates. Below is a summary of some of these programs, the reason they were canceled, and the amount of money that was spent to develop them.

PRECISION TRACKING SPACE SYSTEM (PTSS)
(Previously known as Space-based Infrared System-low (SBIRS-low))

Program Elements

The program was a planned network of 9-12 satellites which were expected to support U.S. missile defense systems by providing tracking data from space on missiles during their entire flight.

Dates of Program

October 2009 – April 2013

Money Spent

Over $230 million

Major Issues

As reported by the LA Times, outside experts found that the satellites would not have been able to detect warheads flying over the arctic. In order to provide continuous tracking of the missiles, MDA would have actually needed at least 24 satellites. An independent cost assessment projected the total cost of the system to be $24 billion over 20 years instead of the $10 billion MDA projected.

 

AIRBORNE LASER (ABL)

Program Elements

The original program included a modified Boeing 747 plane equipped with a chemical oxygen-iodine laser (COIL) and two tracking lasers. The laser beam would be produced by a chemical reaction. The objective was to shoot down ballistic missiles during their boost phase right after launch but the system could also be used for other missions.

Dates of Program

November 1996 – February 2012

Money Spent

$5.3 billion

Major Issues

The laser would have had a limited range which meant the 747 would have been vulnerable to anti-aircraft missiles. To increase the range, the laser would have needed to be 20-30 times more powerful than planned.

 

KINETIC ENERGY INTERCEPTOR (KEI)

Program Elements

KEI was to be comprised of three powerful boosters and a separating kill vehicle. The booster was expected to travel at least six kilometers per second, which is comparable to an ICBM. The kill vehicle was not designed to carry an explosive warhead but to destroy its target through the force of a collision.

Dates of Program

March 2003 – June 2009 

Money Spent

$1.7 billion

Major Issues

In order to carry the KEI, Navy ships would have needed to be retrofitted. The range was not great enough to be land-based.

 

MULTIPLE KILL VEHICLE (MKV)

Program Elements

The program was designed to launch multiple kill vehicles from a single booster in order to increase the odds of destroying an incoming missile. It was designed to destroy both missiles and decoys.

Dates of Program

January 2004 – April 2009

Money Spent

~$700 million

Major Issues

The program was canceled by the Obama administration in order to focus on “proven, near-term missile defense programs that can provide more immediate defenses of the United States.”

 

NEXT GENERATION EFFORTS

The Missile Defense Agency is focusing its newest efforts to ensure the system stays ahead of developing foreign missile threats (see the below chart). Some of the advanced anti-missile technologies the Defense Department is pursuing, such as airborne lasers to zap missiles in the early stages of their flight, have been unsuccessfully pursued in the past.

 

Multi-Object Kill Vehicle

Three defense contractors (Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon) have been awarded contracts to develop concepts to deploy multiple kill vehicles from one booster in order to destroy decoys and multiple warheads ejected from ICBMs. MDA hopes to begin a full development program by FY 2022.

Boost Phase Laser Defenses

MDA is recommitting to research to determine how to develop laser beams that could destroy missiles in their boost phase. Inspired by the ABL program, the vision for the new system is to mate a powerful solid-state laser to drones. MDA aims to develop a laser demonstrator by 2020 or 2021 and a deployed capability by 2025.

Left of Launch

Left of launch is a proposed strategy that would be designed to counter missile threats before the missile is launched so as to reduce the need for expensive anti-missile interceptors to attempt to shoot down the missile. Tactically, the strategy would likely include the of cyber-attacks and electronic warfare to achieve this goal. Despite much speculation in the press about the U.S. ability to hack North Korean missile tests, the data shows that North Korea’s missile tests are succeeding at a high rate and that the failures are concentrated in new systems that had not been previously tested.

Space Tracking and Surveillance System

The Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) is an experimental component of the U.S. ballistic missile defense architecture designed to detect and track ballistic missiles in all three phases of flight. The nascent STSS constellation orbits at 1,350km and aims to provide “launch on remote” capability—the ability to fire an interceptor before the target comes into view of a radar unit. In 2011, STSS-D demonstrated the first space-based birth-to-death tracking of a missile target.

Space-Based Sensor Layer

In August 2018, MDA Director Samuel Greaves described what the agency envisages for a future more comprehensive space sensor layer. Such a layer could look like the Air Force’s Overhead Persistent Infrared Global Scanning system, and could have a regional detection and tracking capability staring down at Earth that could go after targets that are currently harder to detect or in low earth orbit, such as hypersonic missiles, and could catch missiles in the boost or burnout phases of flight. The sensor could also cover the midcourse portion of a missile’s flight by looking against the background of space and discriminate, track, and eventually send data directly to the ballistic missile defense weapon system for fire control. Finally, the sensor could also record towards the end of a missile’s trajectory whether an intercept against a target occurred or was missed.

 

CONGRESSIONAL PROPOSALS

In recent years Congress has sought to encourage the Obama administration to expand the U.S. ballistic missile defense effort in the face of advancing adversary ballistic missile capabilities. These initiatives, which are summarized below, have been met with strong resistance from the administration.

A Third National Missile Defense Site on the U.S. East Coat

In the fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress required the Defense Department to conduct a study to evaluate at least three possible new long-range interceptor sites that could augment the GMD system, including at least two on the East Coast. The Defense Department announced in May 2016 that it completed a draft study of three possible locations in the eastern United States for a new ballistic missile defense interceptor site, but said it had no plans to actually build such a site. The three sites are: Ft. Drum, New York; Camp Ravenna, Ohio; or Ft. Custer, Michigan. The draft environmental impact statement, which was posted on the website of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) May 31, 2016, said that the Defense Department “does not propose and has not made a decision to deploy or construct an additional interceptor site.” The Trump administration will make a decision on whether to proceed with a third site in the MDR.

Space-based Missile Defense

The FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act allows the Pentagon to begin design, research and development, and testing for a space-based missile defense system. The Obama administration argued that there is no requirement for a space-based intercept system and there are perennial concerns about the technical feasibility and strategic limitations of interceptors in space. However, in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Congress authorized the construction of a space-based interceptor layer, should the Missile Defense Agency deem such a system appropriate. In February 2018, Senator Ted Cruz called for funding a layer of space-based interceptors (SBI). In his testimony before the defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee in April 2018, MDA Director Samuel Greaves said that the agency has begun “prototype design for a potential space-based missile defense architecture.” In the FY2019 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress voted to require the Defense Department to develop a space-based ballistic missile defense interceptor layer, regardless of whether the Missile Defense Review recommends such interceptors.

Revising the 1999 National Missile Defense Act

The FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) revised the 1999 National Missile Defense Act to remove the world “limited,” and the 2018 NDAA authorized expansions in the national missile defense program. Proponents of the change argue that the 1999 legislation has prevented the Defense Department from adequately planning for the protection of the U.S. homeland from the full spectrum of ballistic missiles threats, including threats posed by Russia and China. The Obama administration strongly objected to the change, stating that the word “limited” is specifically intended to convey that the U.S. homeland missile defense system is designed and deployed to counter limited attacks (in number and sophistication) from Iran and North Korea, and not to counter the strategic deterrence forces of Russia and China.

Missile Defense

Subject Resources:

Advances Made in Aegis Intercept Test

 

In a December 11 test, the Aegis Ashore-launched Standard Missile-3 Block IIA interceptor successfully intercepted an intermediate-range ballistic missile target.  (Photo: Missile Defense Agency)For the first time, the Aegis Ashore-launched Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA interceptor successfully intercepted an intermediate-range ballistic missile target using the ability to “engage on remote,” which allows for an earlier attempted intercept of a ballistic missile using a forward-based sensor. The Dec. 11 test occurred on the heels of another test of the interceptor on Oct. 26, which successfully intercepted a medium-range missile target using its native radar to guide the interceptor. Overall, the December test was the third successful intercept by the SM-3 Block IIA out of five total tests. Further tests of the interceptor are needed to validate its capability more fully.

The SM-3 Block IIA was intended to be deployed by 2018 at Aegis Ashore sites in Poland and later Romania under the third stage of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, a U.S. initiative backed by NATO to build ballistic missile defense sites in Europe. But that stage, which has caused tensions between the United States and Russia, has been delayed until 2020. (See ACT, April 2018.) The Japanese government also plans to construct two Aegis Ashore sites by 2023 to supplement its Patriot batteries. The SM-3 Block IIA is designed to destroy short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the midcourse phase and is a larger and faster version of the SM-3 Block IA and IB. It is a joint U.S.-Japanese development via Raytheon and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.—SHERVIN TAHERAN

Advances Made in Aegis Intercept Test

Missile Defense Review Still Pending


Public release of a congressionally directed missile defense review, originally mandated to be done by the end of last January, has continued to be delayed, and a final timeline for release is unclear as some Defense Department officials say the report is completed and undergoing unspecified “final deliberation.” (See ACT, May 2017.) The tentative timing for release has been repeatedly pushed off for unknown reasons. In addition to a standard procedural final review process, there may be administration concerns about the potential to disrupt negotiations between the United States and North Korea by releasing a document outlining a strategy to counter North Korea’s capabilities. In April, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan explained that part of the postponement resulted from the delayed Senate confirmation of John Rood, who took office in January as undersecretary of defense for policy. The review has been rescheduled from a late 2017 release to February, then mid-May. On Sept. 4, Rood told an audience at the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance that it would be out in the “next few weeks.” In early November, Pentagon spokesman Col. Rob Manning said that the report was in the final stages of staffing and that the Pentagon wants to make sure that the review is “coordinated.”—SHERVIN TAHERAN

Missile Defense Review Still Pending

India Closes on Russian Missile System Deal


November 2018
By Shervin Taheran

India defied threats of U.S. sanctions by finalizing a $5.4 billion deal to purchase five batteries of the Russian S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft system, following an Oct. 5 summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the India-Russia Business Summit in New Delhi on October 5.  (Photo: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images)The United States previously said the deal could trigger penalties against India under section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), an action that would complicate the Trump administration’s efforts to expand U.S. trade and diplomatic relations with India. For that reason, some senior administration officials, such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have argued for granting India a sanctions waiver in this case.

The 2017 law provides for imposition of secondary U.S. sanctions against firms or countries that make a “significant” purchase from sanctioned entities in Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors. The S-400 contract is with Rosoboronexport, Russia’s main arms export agency, which is the subject of U.S. sanctions.

In September, the United States imposed sanctions on China for purchases of the S-400 system. Another buyer, NATO-ally Turkey, has not been penalized yet, although the United States and other NATO members have raised objections to the purchase because the system is incompatible with NATO’s defense architecture. (See ACT, January/February 2018.) China was sanctioned after receiving the weapons system from Russia, and Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on Oct. 25 that Turkey will aim to begin installing the Russian air defense systems by October 2019.

A clause in the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) allows the president to issue a waiver to CAATSA sanctions. Trump administration officials, before the formal Indian-Russian S-400 agreement, had been vague on the prospects that the president would grant India a waiver. When asked directly on Oct. 11, U.S. President Donald Trump failed to offer a direct answer, but said that India will find out “sooner than you think.”

India has repeatedly asserted its desire to retain independence and variety in its national defense resources. Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said at an Oct. 25 conference that Mattis “understood” India’s need to purchase the system, following their meeting during a defense ministers conference in Singapore.

The S-400 system is an advanced, mobile, surface-to-air defense system of radars and missiles of different ranges, capable of destroying a variety of targets such as attack aircraft, bombs, and tactical ballistic missiles. Each battery normally consists of eight launchers, 112 missiles, and command and support vehicles.

As a historically nonaligned country, many of India’s weapons systems are Russian, but it is also continuing to purchase U.S. weapons and equipment.

Senior U.S. administration officials have noted that they do not want the CAATSA sanctions to alienate strategic allies who may still rely on Russian equipment for historical reasons. In a July 20 letter to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mattis supported the amendment to the 2019 NDAA to provide waivers for allies who are “transitioning to closer ties” with the United States. Waivers can avert “significant unintended consequences” toward U.S. strategic interests, he wrote.

Randall Schriver, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, said on Aug. 29 that, “on CAATSA, Mattis did plea for an exemption for India, but I can’t guarantee a waiver will be used for future purposes.” The Pentagon would still be significantly concerned if India purchased major new military systems from Russia, he said.

Other countries considering purchasing the S-400 system are Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In June, the French newspaper Le Monde noted a leaked letter by Saudi King Salman to French President Emmanuel Macron threatening “military action” if Qatar is allowed to deploy the S-400 system, which is viewed as a threat to Saudi security.

 

Will the U.S. follow through on its sanction threat against New Delhi?

Japan Expands Ballistic Missile Defenses


September 2018
By Monica Montgomery

Japan has advanced its planned ballistic missile defense system in recent months by launching a new destroyer and securing a contract for the Aegis Ashore system, despite rising costs and reduced tensions with North Korea that could encourage opposition to the plans.

Visiting Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe listen to a briefing on the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) surface-to-air missile system while visiting the Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces' Camp Narashino on January 18. (Photo: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images)Japan operates a ballistic missile defense system, with Aegis-equipped warships providing the first line of defense against an incoming missile during its midcourse trajectory. Japan’s second line of defense is its Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) mobile systems that can be deployed to protect high-value targets, such as military bases and cities, using hit-to-kill interceptors during the terminal phase of an incoming missile’s flight path.

The planned expansion includes adding a land-based Aegis system and additional sea-based capabilities.

The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force launched the first of two modified Atago-class destroyers on July 30. The warship Maya is equipped with the Aegis Baseline J7 combat system and the Northrop Grumman AN/SPQ-9B radar system.

In addition, Japan operates four Kongo-class destroyers with Aegis missile defense systems and Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IA interceptors. The other modified Atago-class destroyer is to be launched in March 2021, and Japan is planning to have two more Aegis-equipped destroyers, bringing the total fleet of ballistic missile defense destroyers to eight by 2021.

Japan plans to arm all its missile defense warships with SM-3 Block IIA interceptors after testing by the United States and Japan is completed. The new interceptors have a greater range and are designed to intercept missiles traveling at faster speeds. But the Block IIA missile has failed two of three intercept tests, most recently on Jan. 31. (See ACT, March 2018.)

In another development, the Japanese Defense Ministry announced on July 30 that it has chosen the Lockheed Martin Solid State Radar (SSR) for its two Aegis Ashore batteries. These are a new, less powerful variant of Lockheed Martin’s Long Range Discrimination Radar, which is being designed for the United States. Japan selected the Lockheed Martin system over Raytheon’s Air and Missile Defense Radar, citing the SSR’s better overall system performance and lower life-cycle costs.

The decision is seen as risky by some because the Japanese government chose an unproven developmental radar over one with demonstrated operational capability. Additionally, the defense ministry now estimates the system acquisition cost will be $3.6 billion, up from the $2 billion original estimate. The higher cost is attributed to the choice of the SSR system and the SM-3 Block IIA interceptors.

 The Japanese cabinet approved funds for two Aegis Ashore systems in December 2017. Japan’s move to beef up its ballistic missile defenses is largely seen as a response to the North Korean threat. Although North Korea currently has a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range ballistic missile tests as a part of its diplomacy with the Trump administration and South Korea, Pyongyang in recent years conducted multiple tests over the Sea of Japan, with some missiles splashing down in the Japanese exclusive economic zone. But state-run Korean Central News Agency said on Aug. 9 that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ballistic missile defense push while citing a North Korean threat is “no more than [a] reckless military move to attain its sinister political aims.”

The Aegis Ashore expansion may also draw criticism from China, which has objected to the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. Seoul says the system is a response to the North Korean missile threat, but China considers the deployment a provocative move and claims the system could contribute to U.S. detection of Chinese missiles.

With regard to Japan, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in December 2017 that “due to what happened in history, Japan’s moves in the fields of military and security are always followed closely by its Asian neighbors” and that “the missile defense issue should be handled cautiously.”

Additionally, Russia conveyed its concern over Japan’s planned Aegis Ashore system, calling it an expansion of U.S. missile defenses in the Asia-Pacific region, during in a July 31 meeting between Japanese and Russian defense and foreign ministers.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cites the North Korean missile threat.

Time to Address China's Expanding Nuclear Weapons Program

A newly released Pentagon report reveals unsettling moves by China to expand its nuclear weapons program, including the development of new types of nuclear-capable missiles. These new weapons systems have largely slipped under the radar as North Korean and Russian nuclear weapons programs continue to grab headlines. However, these developments threaten to further destabilize a shaky global nuclear order, highlighting the critical need for engagement with China. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China’s nuclear arsenal—now an estimated 280 warheads—has...

A Path to Reducing Iran’s Missile Threat and Reconfiguring U.S. Missile Defenses


July/August 2018
By Jaganath Sankaran and Steve Fetter

President Donald Trump cast his decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal as part of his administration’s “efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” Along with having “unacceptable” sunset provisions, he said the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) “fails to address the regime’s development of ballistic missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads.”

Iranian Sejjil (left) and Ghadr-H medium-range ballistic missiles are displayed in Tehran September 25, 2017 next to a portrait of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during annual defense-week events. (Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)If these issues are addressed, Trump indicated that he is “ready, willing, and able” to negotiate a new deal. The U.S. administration, he said, “will be working with our allies to find a real, comprehensive, and lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear threat.”1

European leaders declared their intent to stay in the deal and placed the onus on the Trump administration to propose “concrete” steps toward an alternative agreement with Iran. Federica Mogherini, the European Union foreign policy chief, said that “as long as Iran continues to implement its nuclear-related commitments, as it is doing so far, the EU will remain committed to the continued, full, and effective implementation of the nuclear deal.”2 European nations are exploring means of avoiding extraterritorial enforcement of U.S. sanctions, but it will be very difficult to sustain the financial benefits promised to Iran absent U.S. participation and support.

Iran, as it girds for renewed U.S. sanctions, has been cool, even hostile, to the idea of a new arrangement that imposes restrictions beyond those of the JCPOA. Such posturing, however, may be for bargaining purposes rather than a definitive refusal to engage in negotiations. In September 2017, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif argued that if the United States “want[s] to have an addendum, there has to be an addendum on everything,” indicating the possibility of accepting restrictions beyond the JCPOA if proper economic incentives are provided.3 One prospective topic for negotiations is ballistic missiles. Iranian leaders have recently pledged to limit the range of their missiles to 2,000 kilometers, asserting that their primary national security threats lie within that range.4

A new agreement that formalizes this restraint, along with further restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities, would have many virtues. In addition to forestalling threats to most of Europe and all of the continental United States, an agreement on missile limitations could render unnecessary the planned U.S. deployment of missile defense interceptors in Poland and the existing deployment in Romania. The possibility of reducing or eliminating the European Phased Adaptive Approach for missile defense would reduce Russian motivations to deploy new nuclear weapon systems to penetrate or evade U.S. missile defenses, in turn motivating Russia to help persuade Iran to accept restraints on its missile program.

Missile Limits

As part of a new deal, Iran could agree not to flight-test missiles with ranges exceeding 2,000 kilometers.5 The limit on Iran’s missile capabilities would be in addition to constraints on its nuclear activities. To enforce such a limitation, some combination of restrictions on missile fuel, missile dead-weight, and warhead weight would need to be imposed to ensure that tested missiles could not under any circumstances exceed the 2,000-kilometer limit.

In addition to monitoring flight tests, it may be necessary to monitor experimental test facilities, such as rocket motor development and wind tunnel laboratories, to ensure compliance. For instance, Iran might be experimenting with long-range missile-related technologies at Shahrud.6 Iran may have to agree to cease such activity and provide access to verify compliance. Monitoring these facilities would help ensure Iran does not develop and test long-range missile motors and warhead re-entry vehicles.

U.S. Rear Admiral Jesse Wilson, Jr. (center), commander of Naval Surface Force Atlantic, tours the Aegis Ashore facility at Deveselu, Romania on April 14. The complex is part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach missile defense system to counter the Iranian ballistic missile threat. (Photo: Jeremy Starr/U.S. Navy/Released)Iran has tested a solid-fueled Sejjil missile that may be capable of delivering a 750-kilogram warhead approximately 2,200 kilometers. Iran also may have tested the Khorramshahr missile, having a range of 2,000 kilometers with a 1,800-kilogram warhead. Each exceeds the 2,000-kilometer limit. Iran must agree to verifiably retire these missiles and variants that might exceed the limit.

In addition to Iran’s missile program, an agreement would be needed to permit legitimate space launch capabilities while impeding the possibility of a rapid fielding of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Iran has successfully launched primitive satellites into orbit using its Safir space launch vehicle. It has also displayed a larger two-stage Simorgh launch vehicle.7 In order to permit space launch activities while preventing potential ICBM capabilities, Iran would have to accept restraints. For example, Iran may be asked to declare its rocket-fuel facilities and subject those to inspections or to stockpile only a limited amount or only certain types of rocket fuel. Additionally, Iran may be asked to assemble its space launch vehicles on a just-in-time basis to ensure that these vehicles are not available for use as missiles. Alternatively, European countries or Russia might offer guaranteed launch services at a reasonable price in exchange for a suspension of Iranian space launch activities.

U.S. Interests

A prominent concern that has animated U.S. policy toward Iran has been the possibility of it acquiring long-range missiles able to target U.S. allies in Europe and eventually the continental United States, particularly the possibility that such missiles might be armed with nuclear warheads.

A new agreement that limits Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities could ensure that Iran will not be able to mount a “nuclear blackmail” of U.S. or European cities. This in turn would allow the United States to postpone plans for completion of a European missile defense and save considerable financial resources that the United States currently spends to develop and maintain it.

It also would help address a primary Russian complaint. In his recent address to the Russian Federal Assembly, President Vladimir Putin argued that “the United States is creating a global missile defense system primarily for countering strategic arms.… [T]hese weapons form the backbone of our nuclear forces.”8 The prospect of deferring and eventually canceling the deployment of the phased adaptive approach missile defense interceptors in Poland would provide valuable leverage in future arms control talks with Russia, including in resolving disagreements over Russian violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Finally, it would free up resources to develop and install more robust regional missile defense systems, such as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in the Middle East region, thereby reassuring U.S allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, which lie within reach of Iran’s short- and medium-range conventional missiles.

For more than a decade, U.S. presidents have invested considerable capital in pursuing missile defenses against Iranian missiles with ranges exceeding 2,000 kilometers. Justifying the development of a European missile defense architecture in 2007, President George W. Bush argued that “the need for missile defense in Europe is real and I believe it’s urgent. Iran is pursuing the technology that could produce nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles of increasing range that could deliver them…. Our intelligence community assesses that, with continued foreign assistance, Iran could develop an [ICBM] capable of reaching the United States and all of Europe before 2015.”9

In 2009, President Barack Obama modified the missile defense plans developed by the Bush administration. The Obama administration argued that earlier plans had “been developed primarily to provide improved defenses for the U.S. homeland—not Europe—against long-range Iranian missiles launched one or two at a time.”10 Pointing out that ICBM threats from Iran had not matured as feared, the Obama administration initiated the phased adaptive approach. Although reduced in scope, the plan still aimed to defend European allies against Iranian missiles with ranges much greater than 2,000 kilometers.

The phased adaptive approach provides broad defensive coverages for the European theater against Iranian missiles having ranges between 2,000 and 5,000 kilometers (fig. 1), fired from near cities such as Tabriz, Mashhad and Zahedan, but little or no coverage for missiles having ranges less than 2,000 kilometers. Many U.S. military bases in the Middle East, Turkey, Iraq, and Afghanistan fall within a 2,000-kilometer range of those Iranian cities.11 Even under the best operational circumstances, the phased adaptive approach is unable to defend against Iranian missiles targeting the U.S. bases.12

A new agreement to limit the range of Iranian missiles to 2,000 kilometers would make the phased adaptive approach unnecessary. If Iranian missile threats of a range greater than 2,000 kilometers are eliminated, then the phased adaptive approach can be reconfigured to a much smaller hedge status with the goal of eventual removal. An initial hedge status, for instance, could permit the United States and Poland to “complete preparation of the missile defense sites in Poland, acquire the interceptors, but hold them in storage.”13

U.S. policymakers have consistently stated that European missile defense plans are directed only against Iran and if the threat vanishes so would the need for the defensive system. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates writes in his memoir that, during the George W. Bush administration, he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “told Putin that if the Iranian missile program went away, so would the need for U.S. missile defenses in Europe.”14 Similarly, speaking in Moscow in 2009, Obama said, “I’ve made it clear that this system is directed at preventing a potential attack from Iran…. [I]f the threat from Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile program is eliminated, the driving force for missile defense in Europe will be eliminated.”15

These statements justify reconfiguring the phased adaptive approach system. One substantial benefit from such a move would be the impact on U.S.-Russian relations and bilateral arms control efforts. The Trump administration has been willing to engage Russia in arms control dialogues. A commitment to defer the deployment of interceptors in Poland would be welcome in Russia. If astutely negotiated, the reconfiguration could also be used to resolve disagreements over INF Treaty violations, extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), and provide a basis to begin negotiations on a New START follow-on agreement.

Putin has singled out the phased adaptive approach as a major point of contention in INF Treaty discussions. He has argued that the plan violates the INF Treaty because “the launch tubes where these [interceptor] missiles are stored…are the same that are used on navy ships to carry Tomahawk missiles. You can replace interceptor missiles with Tomahawks in a matter of hours, and these tubes will no longer be used to intercept missiles…. In my opinion, this is a major threat.”16 By reconfiguring the phased adaptive approach and inviting Russia to inspect the launch tubes, the United States could demonstrate its commitment to the INF Treaty. It also would provide a means to convince Russia to address its own violations of the INF Treaty.

The reconfiguration of the phased adaptive approach would have no impact on the U.S. and allied efforts to mount credible defenses against Iranian missiles with ranges less than 2,000 kilometers. The THAAD AN/TPY-2 radars reportedly deployed at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, in Camp As Saliyah in Qatar, and in the Negev Desert in Israel have wide tracking coverages over the region (fig. 2).17 Missile defense of critical U.S. bases and cities can be performed by additional THAAD batteries that can plug into these radar coverages. Also, U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Israel have procured independent missile defense systems.

What Is in It for Iran?

The Trump administration’s unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA has diluted many of the incentives Iran might have in pursuing a new deal that imposed reasonable restrictions on its missile program and further limits on its nuclear activities. Yet, U.S. participation and sanctions relief is still required for Iran to obtain the broad and unhindered access to the global economy it wants.

If the P5+1 nations (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) initiated discussions for a new deal and the United States offered full and good faith political participation, including the potential approval of the U.S. Senate, it is conceivable Iran might be induced to engage. The French, German, and UK foreign ministers, in concert with Mogherini, appear to have broached a discussion with Iran on its ballistic missile program.18

Two factors could motivate Iran’s acquiescence to missile restrictions. First, Iran perceives major threats to its security emerging primarily from its neighborhood. Its offensive military programs are designed as a conventional deterrent to counter regional threats. Missiles having ranges longer than 2,000 kilometers might not be useful in a military contingency. Second, the reimposition of U.S. sanctions would prevent Iran from realizing the gains from the JCPOA that many Iranians anticipated as key to boosting the country’s troubled economy.

Iran develops and deploys missiles primarily to compensate for material military weakness in comparison to its regional foes. One report stated that “Iran lacks the resources, industrial base, and scale of effort to compete with Arab Gulf states that can generally buy the most advanced weapons available.”19

Iranians seem to believe that their missile arsenal serves as the only potent weapon available to offset its military inferiority. For instance, in 2012 the commander of the aerospace division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps pointed out that all major U.S. bases are “good targets” for Iranian missiles with a 2,000-kilometer range. He also suggested Iran has “set up bases and deployed missiles to destroy all these [U.S.] bases in the early minutes after an attack,”20 presumably with conventional warheads. Given that Iran is more interested in responding to military threats in its neighborhood, it may be willing to give up development of missiles with ranges more than 2,000 kilometers if sufficient incentives are provided.

Such incentives can be generated if the United States lifted nuclear and missile-related sanctions and other restrictions on trade with Iran. The economic leverage that the United States wields over Iran might be used to induce it to accept a reasonable set of restraints on its missile program. Although acknowledging that the United States had lifted sanctions as agreed in the JCPOA, Iranians believe that the United States was “finding other ways to keep the negative effects of sanctions” and “prevent countries from normalizing their trade and economic relations with Iran.”21 A new deal would have to convincingly assure Iran that such restrictions would not be used if Iran honored its commitments.

Conclusion

The possibility of a new arrangement with Iran will depend on a face-saving fix for Trump that addresses his concerns about the current deal, including the issue of Iran’s missile program.22 An agreement to restrict Iran’s missile program to those having ranges of less than 2,000 kilometers might be part of such a fix.

A U.S. commitment to hedge and reduce the scope of the phased adaptive approach in Europe, along with such a new agreement, would provide many additional advantages. It may induce Russia to use its influence to persuade Iran to accept new terms. It also would demonstrate the willingness of the United States to stand by its articulated policy that U.S. missile defense plans are a response to identified threats and that if the threat ceases to exist, the United States would remove the missile defense system. Such a commitment will buy valuable leverage in arms control negotiations with Russia.

ENDNOTES

1.  The White House, “Remarks by President Trump on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” May 8, 2018, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-joint-comprehensive-plan-action/.

2.  Jon Stone, “EU Tells Trump He Doesn’t Have the Power to Unilaterally Scrap the Iran Nuclear Deal,” Independent, May 9, 2018.

3.  David Sanger and Rick Gladstone, “Iranian Foreign Minister: If U.S. Wants New Nuclear Concessions, We Do, Too,” The New York Times, September 21, 2017.

4.  “Iran Says Supreme Leader Limits Ballistic Missile Range,” Associated Press, October 31, 2017. Similar statements have been made by the Iranian leadership on a number of occasions since 2011.

5.  The flight test ban idea has been previously explored. See Michael Elleman, “Banning Long-Range Missiles in the Middle East: A First Step for Regional Arms Control,” Arms Control Today, May 2012.

6.  Max Fisher, “Deep in the Desert, Iran Quietly Advances Missile Technology,” The New York Times, May 23, 2018.

7.  U.S. National Air and Space Intelligence Center, “Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat,” NASIC-1031-0985-06, March 2006, p. 2, https://www.ausairpower.net/PDF-A/NASIC-1031-0985-06.pdf.

8.  President of Russia, “Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly,” March 1, 2018, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/56957.

9.  “President Bush Visits National Defense University, Discusses Global War on Terror.” The White House, October 23, 2007, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2007/10/20071023-3.html. See U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Defense, “Proposed U.S. Missile Defense Assets in Europe,” 07-MDA-2650, June 15, 2007, p. 6, https://permanent.access.gpo.gov/lps84616/bmd-europe.pdf.

10.  Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Knopf, 2014), p. 400.

11.  The major U.S. bases within 2,000 kilometers of the three Iranian cities in figure 1 include Ali Al Salem base in Kuwait, Al Dhafra base in the United Arab Emirates, Al Udeid base in Qatar, Bagram air base in Afghanistan, Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, Camp As Saliyah in Qatar, Camp Buehring in Kuwait, Fujairah base in the UAE, Jebel Ali port in the UAE, Kandahar base in Afghanistan, Kuwait Naval Base, NSA Bahrain, Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, Izmir air base in Turkey, and Thumrait air base in Oman.

12.  Defensive coverage footprints were calculated assuming missile tracking will be available immediately after boost-phase burnout. That may not be the case for many trajectories. Similarly, a single-shot defensive doctrine is assumed. A shoot-look-shoot mode would further reduce the defended area footprints. Finally, engage-on-remote mode is assumed to explore the maximum possible coverages provided by the European Phased Adaptive Approach.

13.  Brad Roberts, “Anticipating the 2017 Review of U.S. Missile Defense Policy and Posture,” in Missile Defense and Defeat: Considerations for the New Policy Review, ed. Thomas Karako (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies [CSIS], 2017), p. 35.

14.  Gates, Duty, p. 404.

15.  Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by the President at the New Economic School Graduation,” July 7, 2009.

16.  President of Russia, “Meeting With Heads of International News Agencies,” June 17, 2016, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/52183; President of Russia, “Meeting on Defense Industry Development,” May 13, 2016, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/51911.

17.  These locations are speculative. There is no official acknowledgment by the United States that Terminal High Altitude Area Defense radars are deployed at these sites. For sources on the locations, see Adam Entous and Julian E. Barnes, “Pentagon Bulks Up Defenses in the Gulf,” The Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2012; “Construction of Negev Missile Defense Base Run by U.S. Troops Completed,” Haaretz, November 11, 2008; Karl Vick and Aaron J. Klein, “How a U.S. Radar Station in the Negev Affects a Potential Israel-Iran Clash,” Time, May 30, 2012; “Malatya Radar System to Be Commanded From Ramstein,” Hurriyet Daily News, February 4, 2012.

18.  Michael Peel, Guy Chazan, and Najmeh Bozorgmehr, “European Nations Step Up Iran Pressure in Face of Trump Threat,” Financial Times, January 16, 2018.

19.  Anthony H. Cordesman, “Military Spending and Arms Sales in the Gulf,” CSIS, April 28, 2015, p. 4, https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/150428_gulfarmssales.pdf. See Trita Parsi and Tyler Cullis, “The Myth of the Iranian Military Giant,” Foreign Policy, July 10, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/07/10/the-myth-of-the-iranian-military-giant/.

20.  Marcus George, “Iran Says Can Destroy U.S. Bases ‘Minutes After Attack,’” Reuters, July 4, 2012.

21.  Ebrahim Mohseni, Nancy Gallagher, and Clay Ramsey, “Iranian Attitude on Iranian-U.S. Relations in the Trump Era: A Public Opinion Study,” University of Maryland Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, January 25, 2017, pp. 1-2, http://cissm.umd.edu/sites/default/files/Iranian%20Attitudes%20in%20the%20Trump%20Era%20-%20012517%20-%20FINAL.pdf.

22.  “Iran Deal’s Future May Hinge on Face-Saving Fix for Trump,” Associated Press, October 3, 2017.


Jaganath Sankaran is an assistant research professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and a research associate at the school’s Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland. Steve Fetter is a professor at the school.

Why pursuing negotiations to limit Iran’s missiles could produce a win for all involved.

Reasons to Doubt Laser Missile Defense

For years the disheveled YAL-1 Airborne Laser baked in the Air Force Boneyard in Tucson, Arizona. Stripped of its chemical laser and turbofan engines, its airframe became a skeletal albatross—a monument to the futility of laser-based missile defense. But in 2014, it was unceremoniously destroyed, and the Defense Department wiped the failure from its memory. The system was meant to fly above hostile territory to track and destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles in flight. But after 16 years and $5 billion , the program was canceled simply because it did not work. Four years later, however...

Improving U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Policy


May 2018
By George Lewis and Frank von Hippel

Since President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002, the U.S. government has spent an average of $10 billion per year in today’s dollars on ballistic missile defense systems whose effectiveness is limited at best and whose deployment threatens the future of nuclear arms control with China and Russia.

Now, under pressure due to North Korean development of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), Congress and the Trump administration are on the verge of throwing additional tens of billions of dollars into the same black hole. Indeed, the congressional appropriation for ballistic missile defense in fiscal year 2018 is the largest ever.

A Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block 1B interceptor is launched from the USS Lake Erie during a test in the mid-Pacific on May 16, 2013. The SM-3 Block 1B intercepted the target missile launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Kauai, Hawaii. The ship, equipped with the second-generation Aegis BMD weapon system, detected and tracked the target using the onboard SPY-1 radar, visible to the left of the base of the plume. (Photo: Missile Defense Agency)U.S. policy needs an overhaul. The problems with current U.S. policy fall into two realms: the political reactions of China and Russia and the technical emphasis on missile interception above the atmosphere. This article explains the problems and proposes an alternative approach.

The current U.S. focus is on North Korea’s ballistic missiles. China and Russia, however, see U.S. ballistic missile defense systems as a potential threat to their nuclear deterrents. Their scientists understand that current U.S. systems can be countered with penetration aids, commonly known as countermeasures; but their policymakers worry that eventually these U.S. systems could become effective, especially if a U.S. first strike decimated their deterrent missiles. As a result, China is increasing the number of ballistic missile warheads that can reach the United States; Russia is unwilling to join the United States in further nuclear weapons reductions; and China and Russia are developing alternative warhead-delivery systems, such as hypersonic boost-glide weapons, that will further fuel a nuclear arms race.

The U.S. approach to ballistic missile defense emphasizes interception above the atmosphere, the longest portion of an ICBM warhead’s trajectory. Unfortunately, interception can be made particularly difficult here, posing high technical hurdles to success. Due to the absence of air resistance, lightweight countermeasures can be deployed that are indistinguishable from the warhead or can conceal its exact location from the defender’s detection systems.

Instead of continuing to apply the current flawed approach, an alternative policy consisting of more effective ballistic missile defenses against North Korea and diplomacy and arms control should be pursued. First, although countermeasures against above-the-atmosphere (exoatmospheric) defenses are within North Korea’s technical reach, the country is so small that interception of its ICBMs during the boost phase may be possible using fast interceptors based on or over international waters. Such an approach would not have the reach to threaten ICBMs currently based deep within China or Russia. Second, war with North Korea would be catastrophic for the people of North and South Korea, Japan, and quite possibly the United States. Although North Korea’s threats are appalling, there is little evidence that its leadership is suicidal. Diplomacy should be pursued to create a common understanding of the danger and avoid war in the near term, creating time for a long-term strategy for nuclear risk reduction in the region. Similarly, nuclear arms negotiations must begin with China and be revived with Russia. These negotiations almost certainly will have to include limitations on ballistic missile defenses.

Current U.S. Systems

For the purposes of discussing interception, it is convenient to divide the flight of an attacking ballistic missile into three phases. Boost phase involves the first minutes during which the payload is being accelerated by its rocket booster. Midcourse, after the booster burns out and its payload coasts through space on a ballistic trajectory, is in the vacuum of space and is the primary focus of current U.S. efforts against longer-range ballistic missiles. Terminal phase involves the last tens of seconds during which a missile or warhead plunges back through the atmosphere toward its target. Currently deployed U.S. ballistic missile defense systems target only the midcourse and terminal phases, although there has been interest in boost-phase interception since the 1950s.

Raytheon’s Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle is basically a flying infrared telescope pointed and steered by thrusters. (Photo: Raytheon)U.S. ballistic missile defense systems are comprised of sensors, interceptors, and command-and-control systems that link the two. The ballistic missile tracking system starts with data from early-warning satellites in high-altitude orbits that detect the infrared emissions from missile-booster plumes and provide data on their launch points and approximate trajectories. Thereafter, radars are used to track the warheads. The long-range interceptors that defend the United States are guided primarily by five large, long-range, early-warning radars located in California, Cape Cod, Greenland, the United Kingdom, and Alaska, plus the Cobra Dane radar in the Aleutian Islands, which was originally built in the 1970s to observe the flight tests of Soviet ballistic missiles.

All these radars have been upgraded to allow them to track ballistic missiles accurately enough to guide exoatmospheric interceptors. The wavelengths of their signals are too long, however, to measure the shapes of the objects that they are tracking in enough detail to discriminate between an actual attacking warhead and other similar-sized objects. In 2008 the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) deployed the sea-based X-band radar. Based in Honolulu, this radar system can sail to any desired location in the Pacific region. Although specifically built for target discrimination, it could be fooled by decoys or other midcourse countermeasures and has other serious deficiencies. Shorter-range interceptors are guided by their own shorter-range radars, although they can be cued by early-warning satellites and also potentially use data from other radars.

Currently, the United States has five deployed ballistic missile defense systems: the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD), Aegis BMD ships, Aegis Ashore, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), and Patriot systems.1 The current focus for U.S. homeland defense is the GMD system, whose deployment was initiated by the G.W. Bush administration to defend all U.S. states against ICBMs. By the end of 2017, a total of 44 interceptors were deployed, 40 at Fort Greely in Alaska and four at the Vandenberg Air Force Base missile flight-test site in California.

Each interceptor carries a homing exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV). Guided by the long-range radars, the booster propels the EKV into outer space toward its incoming target at a speed of about six kilometers (3.8 miles) per second. The EKV uses its infrared seeker and divert thrusters to maneuver itself into a direct, high-speed collision with its target.

Thus far, the GMD system has succeeded in killing its target warhead in only half of the 18 interception tests. Most of the failures have been due to quality control issues resulting from the rush to meet the politically motivated 2004 deadline for declaring the system operational. The problems with the EKV are so severe that the MDA has decided to replace the deployed EKVs with the Redesigned Kill Vehicle, starting in 2022.



The GMD system has cost about $40 billion to date, or $1 billion per deployed interceptor,2 but was assessed in June 2017 by the Department of Defense’s operational test and evaluation office to have only “demonstrated the capability to defend the U.S. Homeland from a small number of intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) or intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threats with simple countermeasures.”3 This ambiguous statement does not mean the GMD system would be effective in actual use.

The Navy currently has about 85 Aegis destroyers and cruisers each equipped with four-faced SPY-1 phased-array radar systems and about 100 vertical launch tubes. In addition to ballistic missile defense interceptors, the launch tubes can carry anti-aircraft missiles, land-attack cruise missiles, and anti-submarine weapons. Thus far, more than 35 Aegis ships have been upgraded to be able to perform ballistic missile defense missions. The number is increasing at a rate of about four per year—two via upgrades of existing ships, two by new construction. By the mid-2030s, it is likely that the entire fleet will be capable of ballistic missile defense activities.

The Aegis missiles are variants of the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3). These are exoatmospheric interceptors with infrared-homing kill vehicles similar to but much smaller than the GMD interceptors. SM-3 Block I interceptors have a burnout speed of about three kilometers per second with a maximum intercept range of a few hundred kilometers, which is too low to defend a large area such as the United States. By 2019, however, the Navy plans to begin deployment of a new higher-speed Block IIA interceptor being co-developed with Japan. With a burnout speed of about 4.5 kilometers per second, it could defend the entire United States from a small number of offshore and onshore locations, using the long-range GMD radars for determining approximate intercept points. Congress has recently mandated that the Block IIA missile be tested against an ICBM by the end of 2020 “if technologically feasible.”4

The Navy also has developed a land-based version known as Aegis Ashore. One such facility is operational in Romania, and a second is being built in Poland. Both projects were launched early in the Obama administration when there was concern that Iran, like North Korea, might acquire nuclear weapons and longer-range ballistic missiles. These Aegis Ashore bases have infuriated Russia, which claims that they could be used to forward-base cruise missiles in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Yet, the United States is not reconsidering their deployment, despite the constraints Iran has accepted on its nuclear program and its self-imposed 2,000-kilometer-range limit on its ballistic missiles.5

The United States operates an Aegis Ashore test facility in Hawaii that could be converted into an operational facility to defend against North Korean ICBMs. Japan, which operates six Aegis ships and plans two more, has recently announced its intention to build two Aegis Ashore facilities to guard against North Korean missiles. The United States has recently begun deploying Standard Missile-6 interceptors on Aegis ships, which can intercept shorter-range missiles in their terminal phase.

The THAAD and Patriot systems are terminal-phase ballistic missile defense systems designed to intercept attacking missiles in the atmosphere as they descend toward their targets. The THAAD system also can operate just above the atmosphere. Patriot missiles are intended for use against shorter-range missiles and aircraft. Although the areas that THAAD and Patriot batteries could protect would be much too small for them to be used to defend the entire United States, THAAD missiles could be used as a second layer of defense for metropolitan areas. It is deployed in South Korea and Guam.

Reliability Versus Operational Effectiveness

The GMD intercept test May 30, 2017, cost $244 million.6 It would be extremely costly to conduct enough intercept tests to cover the full range of possible battle conditions, including credible countermeasures. Therefore, intercept tests for midcourse systems essentially are highly scripted demonstrations to validate simulations. When they fail, it is usually because of a quality-control failure in the hardware. The GMD system has failed half of its 18 intercept tests. The Aegis system has done better, with an 82 percent success rate in SM-3 Block I intercept tests, but the Block IIA has failed in two of its three intercept tests.

Establishing that a given ballistic missile defense system can work reliably against targets under ideal conditions (e.g., during the day with the sun behind the kill vehicle illuminating a target unaccompanied by serious penetration aids) is only the first step toward establishing the operational effectiveness of the system. The fundamental question is how well these systems would work in actual combat conditions when unexpected circumstances and enemy countermeasures must be addressed.

The experience of the Patriot Advanced Capability-2 system highlights the difference between reliability on the test range and operational effectiveness in battle. Although it was reportedly successful in all 17 of its prewar intercept tests, it failed nearly completely during the 1991 Persian Gulf War in 44 engagements against Iraqi Scud missiles that had characteristics quite different from the targets against which it had been tested.7

Midcourse Countermeasures

The challenge of exoatmospheric countermeasures has been part of the public discussion of ballistic missile defense for 50 years. In the absence of air resistance, light and heavy objects travel on indistinguishable trajectories in outer space. Warheads can be concealed in clouds of radar-reflecting chaff or inside aluminized balloons, and decoys can be constructed of very lightweight materials. The temperatures and therefore the infrared signatures of objects also can be manipulated in outer space by varying their surface coatings or by adding small battery-powered or chemical heat sources inside.

All five of the original nuclear-weapon states have developed countermeasures for their long-range nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.8 Many countermeasures are simple enough such that a 1999 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate concluded that

[m]any countries, such as North Korea, Iran, and Iraq probably would rely initially on readily available technology—including separating [re-entry vehicles (RVs)], spin-stabilized RVs, RV reorientation, radar absorbing material (RAM), booster fragmentation, low-power jammers, and simple (balloon) decoys—to develop penetration aids and countermeasures…. These countries could develop countermeasures based on these technologies by the time they flight test their missiles.9

A 2012 study by the National Academy of Sciences found, however, that the MDA had abandoned significant efforts to deal with countermeasures.

Based on the information presented to it by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), the committee learned very little that would help resolve the discrimination issue in the presence of sophisticated countermeasures. In fact, the committee had to seek out people who had put together experiments…and who had understood and analyzed the data gathered. Their funding was terminated several years ago, ostensibly for budget reasons, and their expertise was lost. When the committee asked MDA to provide real signature data from all flight tests, MDA did not appear to know where to find them.10

Details about the testing of U.S. interceptors against countermeasures are highly classified, but there is no public indication of change in the fundamental fact that, because of their susceptibility to countermeasures, ballistic missile defense systems requiring exoatmospheric interception can promise little in the way of effective defense. Building and deploying them wastes billions of dollars that could be used more effectively on other activities, including potentially more effective types of ballistic missile defense.

One way to force the MDA to acknowledge the countermeasure problem would be to establish an independent testing team to equip target missiles with penetration aids considered within the reach of North Korea. Indeed, a congressionally mandated 2010 study of countermeasures by JASON, a high-level independent technical review panel, recommended such an approach. The MDA tried to suppress the report.11

Stimulating Offensive Buildups

In addition to high costs and doubtful effectiveness, exoatmospheric ballistic missile defense systems can have serious adverse effects on U.S. security. One is to undercut Russia’s willingness to reduce further the number of its nuclear warheads or consider taking its missiles off hair-trigger alert.

In the wake of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow agreed to deep cuts in their deployed strategic weapons. Even after the United States began deploying its GMD system in 2004, the two countries were able to reduce weapons levels further, to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). This last reduction was possible only because the U.S. GMD system initially had very limited objectives and was deployed slowly. The goal of 30 interceptors was achieved only in 2010, and the total number reached 44 only at the end of 2017.

Galvanized by the threat of North Korean nuclear-armed ICBMs, the United States is now embarking on a much larger and more rapid expansion of ballistic missile defense systems. Congress has recently approved funds to deploy an additional 20 GMD interceptors by 2023 and to plan for a further increase to at least 104 interceptors.12 Planned qualitative improvements to the GMD system include the deployment of multiple, small kill vehicles on GMD boosters and a new discrimination radar.13 More importantly, in terms of numbers of long-range interceptors, the number of SM-3 Block IIA interceptors with their theoretical capabilities to intercept strategic missiles could climb to between 300 and 400 or more by the 2030s, with deployments on 80 to 90 ships and at Aegis Ashore sites.

The congressional mandate that the SM-3 Block IIA interceptors be tested against an ICBM will almost certainly increase Russian and Chinese perceptions of threat to the deterrent value of their strategic ballistic missile forces. Congress has acknowledged this problem by requiring that the Pentagon assess whether testing the SM-3 Block IIA against ICBMs would undermine the nuclear deterrence capabilities of nuclear-armed adversaries other than North Korea.14

When it signed New START in April 2010, Russia stipulated that a buildup of U.S. missile defenses could be grounds for Moscow to withdraw. At that time, Russia had nearly 50 times more strategic nuclear ballistic missile warheads than the United States had strategic-capable interceptors. Even without taking into account losses from a hypothetical U.S. first strike, that ratio will soon fall into the single digits. At best, therefore, the expansion of the GMD system and the large-scale deployment of SM-3 Block IIA interceptors on Aegis ships would lock the United States and Russia into the current New START levels for the indefinite future.

Personnel at the Missile Defense Integration and Operations Center at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, work at the test-control facility during an interceptor flight June 22, 2014. A long-range ground-based interceptor was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and intercepted an intermediate-range ballistic missile target launched from the U.S. Army’s Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.  (Photo: Missile Defense Agency)The U.S. ballistic missile defense buildup may already be provoking China to augment its strategic offensive forces. China has been increasing the number of its ICBMs, begun deploying submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and is developing ICBMs with multiple warheads, actions widely viewed as being at least in part a response to the U.S. ballistic missile defense program. China also may be moving away from its historical practice of deploying its missiles separately from their nuclear warheads to protect against accidental or unauthorized launch, and Russia and China are developing alternative delivery systems, including hypersonic boost-glide vehicles that cannot be intercepted by current or planned U.S. ballistic missile defense systems. Furthermore, they could respond to U.S. actions by accelerating their own missile defense programs, increasing the danger of a destabilizing, three-sided offense-defense competition.

Despite the availability of countermeasures to the systems that the United States is deploying today, the ultimate driver of Russian and Chinese offensive counters to the U.S. ballistic missile defense program is that it is completely open-ended. There is no indication of when or if the process of expanding and layering of defenses will end.

Boost-Phase Missile Defense

Boost-phase missile defense offers a technical fix to the problem of North Korean ICBMs and provides a potential avenue to address some Russian and Chinese concerns. Although ballistic missile defense advocates are reluctant to admit how easily midcourse defenses could be defeated, some tacitly acknowledge the problem by promoting boost-phase defenses. Countermeasures are much less of a problem for boost-phase interception than for midcourse interception because, for instance, a decoy would have to have a full-size operational rocket booster.

The technical challenge is that the boost phase is only a few minutes long. Therefore, the defense must be deployed close to the attacking missile’s launch site, although obviously it cannot be stationed within the target country’s airspace. For surface- or air-based interceptors or drone-borne lasers, these constraints limit the feasibility of defenses against ICBMs to launches from small countries, such as North Korea. One benefit is that such boost-phase defenses would be much less threatening to land-based ICBMs deep in the interiors of large countries such as Russia or China and therefore would be less likely to trigger an offense-defense competition.

Currently, the MDA’s only boost-phase program is an effort to deploy electrically driven lasers on high-altitude drones.15 Such a system faces many technical challenges and, even if they are overcome, would not be operational until the mid-2020s.

Given the urgency of the North Korean threat, an approach that uses small, high-acceleration, high-speed interceptors on drones or ships could provide a boost-phase capability earlier. One notional system would deploy such interceptors on Predator drones based in South Korea. The drones would patrol roughly 100 kilometers off North Korea’s east and west coasts. A preliminary analysis indicates that two such interceptors could be carried on a Predator B drone.16

If developed as an expedited Defense Department program using existing technologies, such a boost-phase defense could potentially be operational within three years. Its advantages would include reducing political pressures to expand the GMD system, with its counterproductive effects on the future of nuclear arms control with China and Russia. Although North Korea might eventually be able to build faster-burning, solid-fueled boosters that would be more difficult for this boost-phase system to counter, it takes many years to master the technology of large solid-fueled boosters, buying time for diplomacy.

It is not as clear that such an alternative system would reduce the demand for SM-3 Block IIA interceptors. Although they could be used to defend U.S. territory, they are justified primarily as defenses against shorter-range missiles aimed at U.S. allies and carrier battle groups. Boost-phase defenses would be less effective against shorter-range missiles because they have shorter boost times.

Preventing deployments of the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor from halting or even reversing progress in reducing nuclear weapons will thus likely require quantitative limits on its deployment. The current political environment would seem to rule out a formal treaty imposing such limits, but a recognition by the United States of the long-term consequences of unlimited SM-3 Block IIA deployments might lead it to some restraint in deployment. Although the SM-3 Block IIA has some significant advantages over the SM-3 Block IB, a mixed force comprised mostly of SM-3 Block IBs would also have advantages, in particular a significantly lower cost that could allow the acquisition of greater numbers of interceptors.

If reduced numbers of SM-3 Block IIA interceptors were combined with other measures, such as limits on testing against long-range missiles, it might significantly reduce Russian and Chinese concerns and their responses to deployment. Interceptor speed and testing limits were discussed with Russia during the Clinton administration as a way to deal with Russia’s concerns about U.S. theater missile defenses, and it was agreed that interceptors having a burnout speed of less than three kilometers per second, that is, the speed of the SM-3 Block I interceptors, would be of little concern if they were not tested against targets with the speeds of strategic missiles.17

The confluence of Iran’s announcement on constraining its missile ranges and the congressional mandate to examine the implications of SM-3 Block IIA interceptor deployments on other countries’ deterrent capabilities may present an opportunity to reconsider its deployment. An imporant first step would be to reverse the congressional requirement to test the interceptor against an ICBM.

Outlook

The best alternative to continuing on the current trajectory of the U.S. ballistic missile defense program would be a combination of diplomacy and arms control. In the 16 years since President George W. Bush withdrew the country from the ABM Treaty, the United States has spent about $150 billion in today’s dollars on ballistic missile defenses.18 That expenditure has produced systems susceptible to countermeasures that are within the technological reach of North Korea. It has also revived the arms race with Russia and provoked a Chinese offensive buildup.

Perhaps it is time to try something else. The alternative approach that made it possible to end the Cold War nuclear buildup was arms control, starting with the ABM Treaty. Perhaps that would be a good place to start again. In fact, the United States has not moved far from the limits of the ABM Treaty and the 1997 theater missile defense demarcation agreement with Russia. The United States has fewer than 100 long-range interceptors and has not yet begun to deploy theater missile interceptors with burnout speeds greater than three kilometers per second. Perhaps it is not too late.

 

ENDNOTES

1. “FY16 Ballistic Missile Defense Systems,” n.d., p. 408, http://www.dote.osd.mil/pub/reports/FY2016/pdf/bmds/2016bmds.pdf.

2. David Willman, “Pentagon Successfully
Tests Missile Defense System Amid Rising Concerns About North Korea,” Los Angeles Times, May 30, 2017.

3. “FY17 Ballistic Missile Defense Systems,” n.d., p. 279, http://www.dote.osd.mil/pub/reports/FY2017/pdf/bmds/2017bmds.pdf.

4. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, H.R. Rep. No. 115-404, sec. 1680 (2017) (Conf. Rep.) (hereinafter 2018 defense authorization conference report).

5. Nasser Karimi and Jon Gambrell, “Iran’s Supreme Leader Limits Range for Ballistic Missiles Produced Locally,” Associated Press, October 31, 2017.

6. Justin Doubleday, “Pentagon Delays First Salvo Test of GMD System,” Inside Defense SITREP, June 1, 2017.

7. George N. Lewis and Theodore A. Postol, “Patriot Performance in the Gulf War,” Science and Global Security, Vol. 8 (2000), pp. 315–356; Jeremiah D. Sullivan et al., “Technical Debate Over Patriot Performance in the Gulf War,” Science and Global Security, Vol. 8 (1999), pp. 41–98.

8. Andrew M. Sessler et al., “Countermeasures: A Technical Evaluation of the Operational Effectiveness of the Planned U.S. National Missile Defense System,” Union of Concerned Scientists, April 2000, pp. 35–37, 145–148, http://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/documents/nwgs/cm_all.pdf.

9. U.S. National Intelligence Council, “Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States Through 2015,” September 1999, https://fas.org/irp/threat/missile/nie99msl.htm.

10. National Research Council, “Making Sense of Ballistic Missile Defense: An Assessment of Concepts and Systems for U.S. Boost-Phase Missile Defense in Comparison to Other Alternatives,” National Academies Press, September 2012, pp. 10, 21, 131.

11. JASON, “MDA Discrimination,” JSR-10-620, August 3, 2010, https://fas.org/irp/agency/dod/jason/mda-dis.pdf (unclassified summary). The report gives no indication that any solution to the discrimination problem has been found.

12. 2018 defense authorization conference report, sec. 1686.

13. John Keller, “Raytheon and Lockheed Martin Refine MOKV Missile Defense to Kill Several Warheads With One Launch,” Military Aerospace Electronics, April 5, 2017, http://www.militaryaerospace.com/articles/2017/04/missile-defense-to-kill-several-warheads-at-once.html.

14. 2018 defense authorization conference report, pp. 1032–1033.

15. Mostlymissiledefense, “Chronology of MDA’s Plans for Laser Boost-Phase Defense,” August 26, 2016, https://mostlymissiledefense.com/2016/08/26/chronology-of-mdas-plans-for-laser-boost-phase-defense-august-26-2016/.

16. Richard L. Garwin and Theodore A. Postol, “Airborne Patrol to Destroy DPRK ICBMs in Powered Flight,” n.d., https://fas.org/rlg/airborne.pdf

17. Amy F. Woolf, “Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty Demarcation and Succession Agreements: Background and Issues,” CRS Report for Congress, 98-496 F, April 27, 2000.

18. U.S. Missile Defense Agency, “Historical Funding for MDA FY85-17,” n.d., https://www.mda.mil/global/documents/pdf/FY17_histfunds.pdf.

 


George Lewis, a physicist, is a visiting scholar at the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Cornell University. Frank von Hippel is a senior research physicist and professor emeritus of public and international affairs at Princeton University, where he co-founded the Program on Science and Global Security.

Why a new approach is needed now.

U.S. Missile Defense Plan Delayed

The planned opening of a key U.S.-built missile interceptor site in Poland by the end of this year is being delayed, a Pentagon official told Congress on March 22. In written testimony for a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on missile defense policy, Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said that “delays due to an unsatisfactory rate of construction progress at the Aegis Ashore site in Poland will push” the opening of the site from the end of this year to 2020.

The site is part of the third phase of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), the U.S. contribution to NATO’s missile defense system, and is designed to protect Europe against short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles launched from Iran. Construction on the site in Redzikowo, Poland, began in June 2016. Once completed, it will include a SPY-1 radar and use the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IB missile and the more advanced SM-3 Block IIA missile. The site is expected to provide protection for all of Europe against short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Russia has long opposed the planned construction of the Polish site and claims that NATO missile defense plans are aimed at undermining Moscow’s nuclear deterrent.

The first phase of the phased adaptive approach became operational in 2012, comprised of radar units in Turkey, Aegis missile defense destroyers home-ported in Spain, and a command-and-control center in Germany. The second phase, the Aegis Ashore site in Romania, came online in 2016. (See ACT, June 2016.)

Meanwhile, John Rood, U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, said at the same hearing that the Pentagon’s broad missile defense review will be completed in “the next couple of months,” but would not commit to a firm date. The review formally began a year ago. (See ACT, May 2017.) Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan told reporters in December that the review would be released alongside the Nuclear Posture Review report in February.—RYAN FEDASIUK AND KINGSTON REIF

U.S. Missile Defense Plan Delayed

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