- Chapter 1 | The Missile Defeat Review in Context Thomas Karako
- Chapter 2 | A New Missile Defense Review Keith B. Payne
- Chapter 3 | Anticipating the 2017 Review of U.S. Missile Defense Policy and Posture Brad Roberts
- Chapter 4 | Missile Defense Review 2.0 Henry A. Obering III
- Chapter 5 | A Vector Check for America’s Missile Defense: Assessing the Course for the Trump Administration Kenneth Todorov
- Chapter 6 | Five Paths to Maturing Missile Defense: Toward the 2017 Review Thomas Karako
Note: This appears as Chapter 2 in Missile Defense and Defeat: Consideration for the New Policy Review
Keith B. Payne
This analysis seeks to place consideration of ballistic missile defense (BMD) in its broad strategic context by examining the U.S. policy frameworks that have defined the metrics used to judge BMD’s role and value over time. Over the course of decades, various U.S. BMD policies and programs have come and gone, and their consideration has taken place within the policy framework prevailing at the time.
The Johnson administration’s late 1960s Sentinel BMD program, for example, focused on particular roles judged valuable for a time, including protection of U.S. society against a then expected Chinese missile threat. By 1969, that policy framework had shifted and the Nixon administration replaced the Sentinel program with the Safeguard BMD program. The focus of Safeguard was to serve different purposes, supporting deterrence by protecting U.S. nuclear retaliatory capabilities against Soviet ballistic missile attack.
Yet, within a matter of three years, the policy framework for considering BMD once again shifted. The Nixon administration effectively canceled the Safeguard program in 1972 with the signing of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which prohibited any serious strategic BMD deployment, and severely limited BMD development and testing options. In approximately five years, the U.S. policy framework for considering BMD shifted significantly three times, from Sentinel to Safeguard to the ABM Treaty.
Eleven years later, in 1983, President Reagan famously announced the new U.S. goal of a comprehensive defense of U.S. society against even large-scale Soviet attack. He initiated the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) for this declared purpose. This was a dramatic turnabout from the then-extant policy framework favoring the absence of BMD. Yet, within five years, the U.S. SDI goal shifted, at least for the near-term “Phase 1,” from the direct and comprehensive protection of society to creating uncertainties for Soviet counterforce target planning, that is, to support deterrence.
In early 1991, President George H.W. Bush, redirected the SDI goal and program once more to Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS).1 This program, which included plans for ground- and space-based interceptors, was intended to provide direct area protection on a global basis against limited missile strikes, including protection against missiles of less than intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) range.
The point here is that the policy framework for considering BMD is not static. It is shaped by shifting beliefs and judgments regarding the security context—for example, U.S. security goals and their priorities, the threat context confronting the United States and allies, and the preferred U.S. strategies for achieving its priority goals in light of threats. As the security context changes and U.S. goals shift accordingly, so too does the policy framework for considering BMD. As is well-illustrated by the multiple transitions from the Sentinel program to GPALS, the U.S. BMD roles and goals deemed worthy given perceptions of the security environment drive the consideration of programs that in turn lose or gain favor as the measures of merit for judging BMD shift with those transitions.
As beliefs and judgments shift regarding U.S. security goals and their priorities, the threat context, and preferred U.S. strategies, so too do views about what BMD might usefully do for the United States, how important that role might be, and correspondingly the metrics for judging BMD. Beliefs and judgments about these fundamental factors can shift quite rapidly and unevenly, and the history of U.S. BMD since the 1960s has seen only occasional periods of general consensus regarding the BMD policy framework and the related metrics for judging the potential roles and value of BMD—whether favorably or unfavorably.
The occasional periods of consensus on BMD typically have been interspersed between periods of sharply competing judgments about the security environment and potential BMD roles and value. That there have been periods of both consensus and strong debate about BMD over the past six decades should come as no surprise. They are the natural, understandable reflection of both domestic political change and a dramatically shifting security environment.
This may seem a simple, self-evident point, but it helps to explain the rollercoaster ride of consensus found and lost regarding BMD, the corresponding fits and starts in U.S. BMD policies and programs, and the periodic and often contentious national debates about BMD. When significant change occurs in the domestic political constellation and the external security environment, previously established views about BMD, whether favorable or unfavorable, are very likely to be deemed an anachronism and in need of revision.
Indeed, the primary expressed goals for U.S. BMD—the focal point for its policy framework— have generally shifted to and fro from providing direct territorial defense, “area defense,” that is, the direct protection of society against missile strikes, to providing “point defense” to strengthen deterrence by helping to ensure the survivability of U.S. strategic retaliatory capabilities, or some combination of these two goals. For example, as noted above, the Sentinel and SDI programs were presented primarily as providing direct territorial protection, while Safeguard and the later Low Altitude Defense System (LoADS) were presented primarily in terms of supporting deterrence by protecting U.S. strategic retaliatory capabilities.2
Unfortunately, the threat environment can shift rapidly and unexpectedly, while established policy thinking can be highly resistant to change and BMD programs can take many years to move from concept, to development and testing, to deployment. Consequently, policy adjustments can lag changed circumstances, and U.S. defense acquisition programs can lag changes in the threat environment further still.
How does this discussion provide potential insight with regard to the consideration of BMD? It suggests that the potential roles and values of BMD must not be considered only in the context of current threats and circumstances because they will change, perhaps quickly and dramatically. The consideration of BMD should encourage looking well beyond existing circumstances, and a corresponding priority measure of merit for U.S. BMD policies and programs should be that they are as adaptable as the security environment is changeable.
The need for adaptability is demonstrated by recent history. Since the end of the Cold War, there has been little apparent concern about steps that might need to be taken to protect the survivability of U.S. ICBMs, including active defense via BMD. This lack of concern followed naturally from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the associated U.S. perception that the counterforce threat to U.S. ICBMs had come to an end—a threat that occupied considerable U.S. attention during the 1980s “window of vulnerability” for U.S. ICBMs. The end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a new era perceived to be free of such concerns.
Yet, given the robust nature of contemporary Russian and Chinese strategic nuclear modernization, now including the MIRVing of new ICBMs and the possibility of highly accurate hypersonic strategic systems, it is not far-fetched to suggest that over the course of coming years, U.S. ICBM survivability will once again become a concern. Russian advances in its own BMD and deep reductions in each leg of the U.S. triad of strategic forces over the past two decades have compelled renewed concern about the survivability for the remaining U.S. forces.3
If U.S. ICBM survivability once again is of concern, what might be the future value of active missile defense for U.S. ICBM survivability and how might BMD for this purpose now compare to other possible measures, such as mobility and deception? While the question of BMD and ICBM survivability has not been an element in virtually any public discussion for decades, such considerations should now be a part of any review of BMD.
The point here is that consideration of BMD roles, measures of merit, and programs must not be limited to a policy framework derived from only the contemporary security environment because that environment will change, perhaps rapidly, and the consideration of BMD roles and measures of merit will very likely shift correspondingly. Pegging consideration of BMD only to the immediate context, or worse, to the past context, nearly guarantees not having the desired BMD programs or capabilities when needed. When the security environment shifts dramatically, as it has since the Obama administration’s 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR), a new look and a new debate is to be welcomed as the natural recognition that key factors in the consideration of U.S. strategic capabilities have changed, and so should our thinking about BMD.
This again may seem a simple point, but the history of U.S. BMD policies and programs illustrates as nothing else can how BMD consideration often has been based on the presumption of a static security environment and policy framework, with little apparent readiness to adjust past thinking on the subject when the security environment shifts. Dominant views of BMD roles and values can be, and have been “stuck” when the strategic environment underlying those views has long since changed.
The failure to appreciate that changes in the security environment affect consideration of BMD is illustrated nowhere better than by the ABM Treaty. Signed in 1972, the ABM Treaty severely limited strategic BMD deployment, and limited BMD component development and testing outside the laboratory to narrow confines, that is, fixed and ground-based only. The Nixon administration rationalized the abandonment of its Safeguard BMD program on the grounds that forthcoming U.S.-Soviet offensive arms control limits, facilitated by the ABM Treaty, would instead address the question of U.S. ICBM survivability, thus Safeguard would be unnecessary.
The treaty also had the de facto effect of limiting potential theater missile defense capabilities as the United States adopted a restrictive “demarcation line” separating permitted theater defenses from restricted strategic defenses. And, because the treaty codified U.S. societal vulnerability to Soviet ICBMs, the United States subsequently eliminated most air defense systems against bombers on the argument that defending against bomber attack made little sense if there was to be no defense against missile attack.
Barring an extremely problematic and contentious U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, this treaty essentially “locked” the United States (and, presumably, the Soviet Union) into the continuing absence of strategic BMD (and other active defenses) on the basis of a policy framework derived almost exclusively from the particular conditions of the U.S.-Soviet midCold War relationship and a policy framework favoring the codification of a stable “balance of terror” as a basis for U.S. security.
The fact that a bipartisan consensus supported an ABM Treaty of unlimited duration, with severe limitations on BMD development and testing, reflected the expected continuity of the then-current policy framework and security environment. Not only did the United States consciously codify without end date the rejection of any serious strategic BMD deployment, it also codified the rejection of BMD development and testing that might threaten to alter the balance of terror policy framework. The treaty reflected a particular threat environment and related policy framework, and actively worked against the possible adaptation of BMD roles and values to changes in the environment.
Yet, within a decade, the bipolar security environment evolved in unexpected ways. By the early 1980s, it was obvious that the follow-on strategic arms control agreement U.S. leaders had hoped would cap Soviet counterforce ICBM capabilities, and thus address the threat to U.S. ICBM survivability, had failed to do so. As a bipartisan group of senior U.S. officials noted in 1986:
Our major effort over 17 years of arms control negotiations on strategic offensive systems has been dedicated to preserving the survivability of our own silo-based ICBMs. To the end we have used, and wasted, much negotiating leverage in trying to get the Soviets to agree to restrictions on their large MIRVed ICBMs. They have noted our concern about survivability and have cheerfully made it worse with their massive investments in the programs we most want to restrict.4
Consequently, preserving U.S. ICBM survivability became one of the most significant U.S. strategic concerns of the late 1970s and early 1980s. By that time, however, the well-established U.S. commitment to the ABM Treaty virtually precluded BMD a priori as a means of addressing this problem deemed critical by the early 1980s.5
In addition, a mutual U.S.-Soviet balance of terror, codified by the ABM Treaty’s rejection of defensive capabilities, had become firmly established in U.S. policy as the preferred mode of deterrence security.6 stability, we avoid the capability of eliminating the other side’s deterrent, insofar as we might be able to do so. In short, we must be quite willing—as we have been from some time—to accept the principle of mutual deterrence, and design our defense posture in light of that principle.” Harold Brown, Department of Defense Annual Report, Fiscal Year 1980 (Washington, DC; U.S. GPO, January 25, 1979), 61.] Yet, by the end of the Cold War, the security environment was again shifting in ways that led many to question a policy framework, derived from the U.S.-Soviet deterrence relationship of the 1960s and 1970s, that so favored the virtual absence of U.S. strategic defenses.
For example, by the early-1990s, the proliferation of missile and nuclear weapon technology suggested that a BMD policy framework that generally favored the continued absence of U.S. active defenses was becoming increasingly divorced from reality.7 Along with proliferation, the collapse of the Soviet Union highlighted associated concerns about the potential for unauthorized missile launches and added to the shifting policy framework in favor of some BMD. In 1999, in recognition of such emerging limited missile threats, Congress passed and President Clinton signed-off on the Missile Defense Act, stating that “It is the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized, or deliberate).”
This policy was inconsistent with the unlimited duration and restrictions of the ABM Treaty that were designed to serve a very different policy framework—the U.S.-Soviet mutual balance of terror. They could not accommodate the defensive goals increasingly deemed valuable given new, post–Cold War security concerns. Consequently, the George W. Bush administration, almost immediately upon coming to power, took on the still-challenging task of withdrawing from the ABM Treaty; and in December 2002, the United States initiated a development, testing, and deployment program in line with the policy framework set out in the Missile Defense Act of 1999.
From 1999 until recently, there has been an enduring general consensus on limited strategic BMD, largely in recognition of North Korean and Iranian missile programs, and an increasing emphasis on defenses against theater-range ballistic missiles given their continuing proliferation. Correspondingly, the U.S. BMD policy framework, as reflected in the 2010 BMDR, has effectively been bifurcated: it distinguishes between the accepted role of defending against limited strategic missile threats from small states such as North Korea, as opposed to the broader goal of defending against larger strategic missile threats posed by Russia or China—a goal publicly rejected by senior administration and military officials.8 This bifurcated policy framework essentially favors defending against the limited strategic missile threats from select small states while continuing to rely on deterrence for protection against the larger missile threats.
However, there has been recent movement in the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to eliminate the word “limited” from the earlier language of the 1999 Missile Defense Act, in favor of the creation of a “robust layered missile defense system capable of defending the territory of the United Sates, allies, deployed forces, and capabilities against the developing and increasingly complex ballistic missile threats.”9 Toward this end, the NDAA also calls for the exploration of BMD boost phase intercept and space-based platforms. These are not trivial directions. They suggest a shift to new and more expansive U.S. strategic BMD goals than has been the case for almost two decades.10 If so, the appropriate measures of merit for U.S. BMD systems and requirements will again shift accordingly.
Developments inspiring these recent BMD initiatives appear to include the continued proliferation and buildup of missile capabilities, the deepening hostility in U.S.-Russian relations and in Chinese relations with key U.S. allies, ongoing Russian arms control violations and the renewal of its strategic nuclear capabilities. Despite these developments, the Obama White House has indicated strong opposition to reconsidering U.S. BMD in this revised fashion—reflecting anew a lack of political consensus regarding the proper roles for and value of U.S. BMD in a shifting threat environment.11 A new administration may, however, be more favorable.
This brief discussion illustrates how the perceptions of the threat environment directly affect the U.S. policy framework for considering BMD, and how often and significantly that environment shifts—thereby changing the BMD roles and values that are deemed worthy of consideration, and correspondingly the appropriate measures of merit for BMD. The effect of this dynamic, combined with domestic political developments, has been shifting goals and periodic points of consensus about U.S. BMD and its measures of merit amid periods of sharp debate on the subject—with no likely end in sight to this uneven and unpredictable process given the turbulence and uncertainties in the contemporary threat environment.
The implications of this reality are profound for the consideration of U.S. BMD. What are the BMD roles and values that should be deemed worthy of consideration, now and for the future? And, what are the corresponding BMD measures of merit that should be applied? Because the threat environment is a moving and uncertain target, as are the prospective BMD roles and values deemed worthy of consideration, BMD capabilities (or the absence of capabilities) deemed suitable for U.S. goals in one context may be overtaken rapidly by changes in the external threat environment and the domestic political context. This was the previous U.S. experience with the dramatic policy turnabouts from Sentinel, to Safeguard, to the ABM Treaty, to the SDI over the course of only 15 years.
The challenge therefore is to identify fundamental U.S. BMD goals and associated policy frameworks for evaluation that, to the extent possible, are expected to be enduring, and also to identify plausible excursions that would affect the roles for BMD deemed worthy and the corresponding BMD measures of merit. This is an uncertain and imprecise business; former U.S. Navy Secretary Richard Danzig has rightly likened it in general to “Driving in the Dark.”12 As such, considerable speculation cannot be avoided.
There are several BMD goals that are most likely to endure given some basic continuing characteristics of the threat environment, and several other goals that may well emerge over time. Virtually all of these possible goals have past precedent and have been part of one or more previous U.S. BMD policy frameworks.
For example, the United States is likely to maintain the existing goal of providing societal protection against select limited threats. This goal easily fits the existing bifurcated BMD policy framework. But the emerging threat environment is characterized by continuing ballistic and cruise missile proliferation, including the ballistic missile programs of North Korea, Iran, and China, and increasingly sophisticated ballistic and cruise missile threats, with greater missile numbers, complexity, and sophistication.13 Missile threats also increasingly appear to be directed against the U.S. homeland itself.14 The growing North Korean missile and nuclear capabilities in particular (and prospective Iranian capabilities), including the apparent North Korean development of a submarine-launched ballistic missile,15 are likely to reinforce U.S. concerns regarding this expansion of limited missile threats, and an enduring U.S. commitment to some level of active defense against such threats.16 In short, the United States is highly unlikely to move back to a policy framework that prioritizes the virtual absence of defenses for U.S. territory in favor of “stable” mutual deterrence concepts vis-àvis countries such as North Korea.
The existing BMD goal and policy framework is likely to mandate an expansion of U.S. and allied missile defense capabilities to keep pace with these expanding limited threats. This direction may also be reinforced by the potentially increased threat of unauthorized/accidental missile launches associated with proliferation. (U.S. missile defense is a much more reasonable response to this concern than the frequently proposed notion of pressing for international agreement to take missiles off alert.) The reportedly increasing possibility of specialized missile EMP threats may also reinforce interest in an expansion of U.S. BMD to keep pace with select limited threats.17
The existing bifurcated U.S. BMD policy framework is consistent with these goals, at least to the point where U.S. defenses against selected limited missile capabilities expand to the threshold of posing a threat to Russia’s retaliatory capabilities (Russia’s currently expressed concern amid U.S. denials). Also consistent are existing U.S. strategic BMD initiatives, including consideration of a third U.S. BMD site, an increase in the number of defensive interceptors, a Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV), the Multi-Object Kill Vehicle (MOKV), and the Long Range Discrimination Radar in Alaska. The existing policy framework could encompass further plausible defensive measures that add to the reliability and effectiveness of U.S. missile defense capabilities for this limited but expanding defensive goal, including boost phase defenses and defenses against cruise missiles.
Although NATO territorial defense was affirmed in the recent Warsaw Communique, the existing BMD policy framework would likely need to be revised to place any emphasis on defensive capabilities against a potential Russian missile attack against NATO territory. The protection of NATO territory and military assets against Russian theater ballistic and cruise missiles, particularly those critical to the rapid reinforcement of allied forward defenses and NATO nuclear deterrent capabilities will become increasingly important if Russia continues to deploy new missile strike capabilities along with its expansionist goals and strident threats against Western neighbors. If so, there are likely to be significant implications for the number and types of allied missile defenses in and around Europe.
Additional BMD goals and associated capabilities outside the existing BMD framework may also be deemed of considerable value in coming years. For example, as discussed briefly above, with U.S. ICBM survivability likely to be of growing interest given Russian and potentially Chinese actions, and inherent impediments for alternative U.S. ICBM survivability measures, including mobility,18 defensive protection for ICBMs and other U.S. strategic deterrence assets may be deemed increasingly critical. Such BMD capabilities could contribute to deterrence by strengthening ICBM survivability and by helping to preclude any future need for launch-on-warning or launch-under-attack (LOW/LUA) tactics for this purpose. Given the many decades that the new U.S. ICBM (Ground Based Strategic Deterrent—GBSD) is intended to be viable, discounting the potential for the emergence of a serious new counterforce missile threat to its survivability would be heroically optimistic.
Current U.S. BMD programs appear not to be intended for this deterrence-oriented purpose, but they have been in the past and may need to be so again. An obvious change in U.S. planning that would render this BMD goal irrelevant vis-à-vis U.S. ICBMs would be a decision to eliminate this leg of the triad. At this point, however, such a decision would be a serious mistake and appears not to be in the cards; consequently, renewed concern about ICBM survivability and consideration of BMD for this deterrence role appears wholly reasonable. There are likely implications of this possibility for the GBSD program and certainly for the measures of merit for U.S. missile defense programs and planning.
Perhaps the most significant departure from the current BMD policy framework would be a renewed goal of thick U.S. territorial protection, that is, “area defense,” for direct societal protection against large-scale Russian and/or Chinese missile attack. While such an expansive goal may seem implausible at this point, there is past precedent for it, notably Sentinel and the original SDI, and the security environment may evolve in a direction that again places great importance on this goal.
Moving in this direction almost certainly would require BMD programs beyond current kinetic defense systems and terrestrial basing, probably including breakthroughs in the development and application of directed energy.19 Space- and sea-basing appear to provide the greatest potential defensive flexibility for responding to a broad array of missile threats potentially originating from widely disparate global locations.20 This goal would suggest the need for a renewed emphasis on U.S. missile defense research and development—an emphasis that reportedly has declined dramatically over the past two decades.21
A less dramatic departure from the current envisaged role for BMD would be “thin” missile defense to protect against limited missile threats or attacks from any origin, including Russia and China. The intention would be to support two priority goals simultaneously: 1) direct territorial protection against limited missile attacks from any origin; and 2) protection against counterforce attack or coercive strategies involving limited threats from any origin. Defenses would protect territory, that is, society, against any limited attacks, including any intentional, or accidental/unauthorized strikes, and could be scoped to provide highly effective protection against the limited missile arsenals of most countries, including North Korea, Iran, and possibly China. They simultaneously could contribute to deterrence by strengthening the survivability of U.S. retaliatory forces against any attack (again, helping to preclude any U.S. need to rely on LOW/LUA tactics for this purpose), and by reducing U.S. vulnerability to coercive missile threats.
These BMD roles could fit within a still bifurcated policy framework because a thick territorial defense against Russia would not be included. These more limited goals intended to provide U.S. territorial defense against limited attack from any origin and to support U.S. deterrence strategies would be akin to elements of multiple earlier programs, including, Sentinel, Safeguard, Phase 1 SDI, LoADs, and GPALS. These defensive goals also would likely suggest the need for a renewed emphasis on U.S. missile defense research and development.
In addition, as discussed above, past U.S. BMD goals have largely been presented in terms of the value of BMD for deterrence and/or direct territorial defense. Another increasingly important basis for assessing the value of BMD goals and programs is the degree to which BMD can help to assure allies. This is not a new U.S. strategic goal; Secretary McNamara discussed it in relation to the Sentinel program. However, given Russian and Chinese aggressive expansionism in Europe and Asia respectively, it is increasingly clear that BMD contributes to this goal for some European and Asian allies. Identifying how U.S. missile defense plans and programs can contribute to assurance should be a significant element of their measures of merit.
Finally, given a highly dynamic threat environment, U.S. BMD plans and programs should be designed from the outset to be as adaptable and resilient as possible to address a variety of possible BMD roles and goals, including some that may not be considered critical now, but could easily be so over the course of a decade. U.S. BMD goals, plans, and programs must be able to adapt to a shifting threat environment and corresponding shifting needs. Indeed, adaptability and resilience should now be regarded as a continuing, priority measure of merit for U.S. BMD goals and programs. As Richard Danzig observes with regard to defense efforts in general, in a highly dynamic threat environment in which “unpredictability and frequent surprise” is the norm, “there are heavy penalties for ponderous decisionmaking and slow execution.”22 The same surely is true for BMD. Consequently, the United States must, to the extent possible, seek to reduce long lag times in the acknowledgment of negative changes in the security environment, the corresponding recognition of new defensive needs, and the fielding of programs responsive to those needs.
Current U.S. decisionmaking, development, and production processes in general appear not to value highly either adaptability or speed. Some special provisions historically have been made available for U.S. BMD in this regard, but perhaps it is helpful to recall that the United States moved the Polaris SSBN/SLBM program from concept to first submerged missile test launch in four years, with the first Polaris patrol coming shortly thereafter. Streamlining the typically sluggish processes that have been established over decades would likely be an enormous undertaking. But, in a world in which changes in the threat environment often are not sluggish, ponderous, or predictable, the U.S. BMD policy framework must now include these broad considerations as key elements in its measures of merit.