- 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 3 in Missile Defense and Defeat: Consideration for the New Policy Review
As the new national security team comes together in early 2017, it will launch into a number of major policy reviews, some of its own volition and some mandated by Congress. Among the congressionally mandated reviews will be a review of missile defense policy and posture.1 This will be the second such congressionally mandated missile defense review, following the one mandated in 2008, conducted by the Obama administration in 2009, and summarized in the unclassified Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report of 2010.2
This paper sets out a framework for examining the main issues likely to be taken up in the new administration’s review. It builds on the experience of creating and conducting the 2009 BMDR and implementing its results. This paper begins with a discussion of the likely scope of the review. Five main components are then analyzed, with a primary focus on the major policy questions that will require leadership decision.3
As directed by the Congress, the 2017 missile defense review will take a very broad look at U.S. missile defense policy and posture. The Congress has asked for a restatement of high-level strategy objectives and for a comprehensive assessment of present capabilities and future requirements. But the scope of the 2017 review will be, by legislative direction, somewhat different from that of the 2009 review. Rather than focus on defense against ballistic missiles as in 2009, the 2017 review will examine the broader threat posed by both ballistic and cruise missiles, and also by hypersonic glide vehicles. Rather than focus just on kinetic kill of missiles, the new review will examine the broader toolkit for defending against missile threats, including nonkinetic means, denial and deception, and “left-of-launch” capabilities that effectively negate the missile threat before it launches. The Congress seeks a “missile defeat” strategy, not just a “missile defense” strategy.
It is important to understand the intended role of such policy and posture reviews. The Congress mandates such reviews in order to stimulate policy coherence in areas of particular interest. The administration is obliged to conduct the review and to address the questions posed by the Congress, but has the latitude to shape the study as it sees fit. In 2009, the legislative requirement was followed by a Presidential Study Directive to the Department of Defense that spelled out the objectives and scope of the BMDR. The reports themselves are intended to serve as a means of informed dialogue between the executive and legislative branches about national policy and about how to align military requirements, operational capabilities, and budget requests with policy. The 2010 report was an unclassified summary of a classified review that lasted a year. The Obama administration provided that unclassified report in order to help inform national and international discussion about its policies and plans. The BMDR was one of a number of such unclassified reports, including the reports of the Quadrennial Defense Review and Nuclear Posture Review, which were aimed at promoting informed discussion. This helped to lay the political foundation for cooperation with the Congress and with allies to advance those plans. The next administration would be well served by a similar approach.
The 2017 review will likely be built around five main components:
- An intelligence-informed review of the threat environment.
- A review of the 2017 Program of Record for capability acquisition.
- An assessment of the budget context.
- An assessment of the political context.
- A review of policy objectives and strategies.
The first building block—an intelligence-informed review of the threat environment—will look both backwards and forwards. In looking backwards, it will assess what has changed relative to 2009. According to the 2016 assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, the ballistic missile threat to the United States and its allies has become more complex and diverse, with an increase in the number of adversary ballistic missiles, an increased sophistication of those missiles, and improving BMD countermeasures.4 Cruise missiles have a rapidly rising salience across the globe. China, Russia, and others concerned with deterring and defeating U.S. power projection are comprehensively modernizing their missile strike capabilities, both ballistic and cruise. Their success in bringing together anti-access, area denial capabilities (A2AD) could call into question the credibility of the U.S. security commitments to allies in Northeast Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.
After taking stock of changes over the last decade, the review will look ahead a decade or so in order to characterize emerging threats. It will likely note continued uncertainty about how and when ICBMs might be fielded by North Korea and Iran, whether nuclear-tipped or not. It will likely predict North Korean progression from research, development, and testing of long-range ballistic missiles into serial production. It will likely highlight Iranian missile and nuclear capabilities and the uncertainties associated with implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It will also assess the impact of new technologies in the hands of U.S. adversaries and their potentially disruptive applications.
The review of the threat environment will likely also address the continued efforts by Russia and China to adapt their strategic forces in order to ensure their effectiveness in penetrating U.S. missile defenses. It will likely also explore developments in their regional missile postures since 2009. These include the emergence of short-range and potentially also intermediate-range ballistic missile threats from Russia to Europe. The progress of both Russia and China in developing missile defense penetration capabilities is also noteworthy.5 The review will likely examine the hypersonic glide capabilities in development by both Russia and China.6 And it will likely also assess the possible implications of further potential Russian violations of the treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF). A Russian decision to proceed to deploy such weapons would raise a major question about strategic stability in Europe (arising from increased confidence in its ability to safely initiate war and manage the risks of escalation) as well as new questions about the role of NATO’s missile defenses (see more below).
The second main building block of the 2017 review will be a review of the program of record (PoR). This is a term used to describe a Department of Defense acquisition program that is approved in the Future Year Defense Program (FYDP), and thus is a line item in the defense budget. On regional BMD, the program of record reflects a commitment to continue to ramp up deployed forces, albeit more slowly than expected in 2009. On homeland BMD, the program of record reflects completion in 2017 of the purchase and deployment of 44 Ground-based Interceptors (GBIs) as well as a commitment to continue to update and modernize this system to ensure continued performance improvements. The program of record also reflects the Obama administration’s approach to hedging in the homeland defense posture—against possible rapid emergence of new missile threats from North Korea and Iran. The current hedge comes in the form of the infrastructure for future GBI deployments in Alaska (up to a possible 100) and a process for evaluating candidate sites for a new missile field on the East coast or in the center of the country.7
The third main building block of the 2017 review will be a review of the budget context. Our national ambitions for BMD have been hostage to federal budget paralysis. BMD spending for the Missile Defense Agency is down—by about 23 percent since 2009.8 Spending reductions have come at the expense of advanced capabilities, as spending for research and development has continued to shrink. The November 2016 election may bring a pathway out of the Budget Control Act. But it may not. We should expect a significant debate about overall level of effort on BMD (from a spending perspective) and about the relative emphasis on procurement versus the development of advanced capabilities (about which more below).
The fourth main building block will be a review of the political context. This is unlikely to be reflected in written guidance to the study team, of course. But politics will undoubtedly shape the next set of decisions. The next administration will inherit a measure of bipartisan agreement on the basic strategic assumptions of U.S. missile defense policy unknown in recent decades. This has something to do with a shared appreciation of the strategic values of missile defense to U.S. defense strategy and to U.S. interests more broadly. Elsewhere I have catalogued those values in terms of their impact on U.S. deterrence, assurance, and strategic stability strategies.9 Given bipartisan support in the Congress for the benefits of missile defenses, it is hardly surprising that the United States has pursued them, within certain policy boundaries, for nearly two decades. The 1999 National Missile Defense Act reads as follows: “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).”10 Similarly, there has been bipartisan support for ramping up regional missile defenses as the technologies become available.
But the political agreement in support of missile defense is neither broad nor deep and thus is vulnerable to perturbations. The advocates of missile defense are relatively few and they tend to have different visions of how capabilities should come together over the medium term. The national election result may be interpreted by the next leadership group as giving it new leeway for new projects outside the recent scope of bipartisan strategic agreement (as discussed in further detail below). Embracing the strategic values of missile defense, some new policymakers might seek a much more ambitious missile defense policy and posture. Others might be more skeptical of those values and seek to constrain the further development of missile defenses. As we have seen, the election may also put U.S. relations with Russia and China on an entirely different footing while also reinforcing the view that allies need to do more to protect themselves.11
The fifth main building block will be a review of policy. As a first step, the leaders of the next review are likely to reassess the policy results of the 2009 review. As set out in the 2010 BMDR Report, the Obama administration set out six policy priorities:
- To defend the American homeland against the threat of limited ballistic missile attack from states like North Korea and Iran
- To defend against regional threats to U.S. forces (whatever their source), while protecting allies and partners and enabling them to defend themselves
- To test new capabilities under realistic operational conditions before deploying them
- To ensure new capabilities are fiscally sustainable over the long term
- To ensure that BMD capabilities are adaptable to future threats and are flexible to adjust as the threats change
- To lead expanded international efforts for missile defense12
Of course some changes can be expected. Every administration creates its own strategic vocabulary and needs to put its own imprint on inherited agendas. Every administration also brings a new set of political perspectives that at least reshuffle past priorities. This implies some changes to these priorities. On the other hand, there has been a lot of continuity in U.S. missile defense policy over the last 20 years, and it is plausible to expect more of the same.
But where will the balance fall? Will there be more continuity or more change? A case can be made for both. On the one hand, a lot of continuity can be expected because of the absence of sharply partisan differences over the strategic value of missile defense and over the policy priorities pursued since 2009. On the other hand, the bipartisanship in evidence is (as argued above) neither broad nor deep and the policy review is likely to surface some fundamental issues in an international context quite different from 2009. The potential for significant change is real, but its likelihood is difficult to gauge. To better anticipate the possible alternative outcomes in 2017, the following analysis focuses on the top two policy priorities as set out above. These will not be the only focus of policy debate, but they are likely to be the primary ones.
The Obama administration’s priority has been to defend the American homeland from limited attack by countries like North Korea and Iran. The next administration will have to make decisions on at least two big questions in 2017:
- Should the United States retain the commitment to a high level of protection against only limited attacks, or should it seek protection against all attacks, whatever their scale and source?
- Assuming the United States retains that commitment, should it retain the 2009 commitment to maintain the currently “advantageous position” vis-à-vis North Korea and Iran.13
Homeland Defense and the “Limited” Criterion
Should the United States retain the commitment to protection against only limited strikes? The term “limited” was first introduced in the 1999 National Missile Defense Act, as cited above. The 2017 NDAA strips out the term.
At its most basic, this is a question about whether the United States should also seek protection of the American homeland from strikes by Russia and China. Debates on this question have surfaced periodically since missile defense first came into discussion in the 1950s. The 2010 BMDR Report states clearly that the United States does not seek the capability to defeat the large-scale strikes of which Russia and China are capable and is not intended to undermine strategic stability with them. This echoed the approach of the George W. Bush administration and thus reflected a measure of bipartisan agreement. But the 2010 BMDR Report also states that missile defenses would be engaged to try to defeat any missile strike on the American homeland, even if it would be ineffective against large-scale strikes. By removing the word “limited” from the statement of objectives, the United States would be adopting a policy of protection of the homeland from all strikes, whatever their scale and source. This would align well with the preferences of those who see a need and value in protecting the homeland by strikes from Russia and China. David Trachtenberg, for example, has argued that “continued American vulnerability to Russian nuclear missiles is unacceptable.”14
As argued above, the threat analysis will show that Russia and China are both modernizing and improving their ability to strike the United States and to penetrate U.S. missile defenses. They are doing so in part on the argument that their strategic forces would not survive in large numbers an American first strike, thus negating the credibility their threats to retaliate with limited forces against a U.S. BMD systems aimed at limited protection. And as the political analysis will show, leaders in both Moscow and Beijing rejected the Obama administration claims of limited missile defense ambitions against either Russia or China. They were not reassured by the transparency and confidence-building measures offered by the Obama administration and were not interested in proposals for cooperation against third-party missile threats proposed by the administration and NATO.15 Russian and Chinese officials and experts have become ever clearer that their objections to U.S. missile defense are both technical and political—that they are not concerned about the current capability of the system but about potential future developments, and they see missile defense as part of a hidden U.S. political agenda to encircle, contain, and coerce them, and to foist color revolutions upon them.16
Their shared concerns have resulted in the development of new technologies, deployment of new capabilities, and implementation of new operational approaches. Most of these are separate national activities but some are cooperative.17 Although U.S. missile defense is not designed against them, Russia and China are developing and fielding countermeasures aimed at disrupting and destroying elements of the system. Some of these countermeasures are aimed at ensuring that their own nuclear forces can overcome U.S. missile defenses. Others are directed at undermining the effectiveness of the U.S. system as a whole, potentially undermining its effectiveness against regional actors (some of whom are their military allies.) For example, Russia has “deployed radar-imagery jammers and [is] developing laser weapons designed to blind U.S. intelligence and ballistic missile defense satellites.”18
How should the next administration approach the decision about whether or not to set aside the “limited” criterion? The case for abandoning “limited” and seeking to protect the American homeland from missile strikes by Russia and China is most fundamentally that new threats require a new approach. After all, between 2009 and 2016 bilateral U.S. relations with both countries have taken a turn for the worse, and with Russia dramatically so. If leaders in Moscow and Beijing intend to target the United States with even limited strikes, we should be able to protect ourselves. There is also an argument that increasing the role of missile defense in the deterrence relationships with Russia and China can reduce the role of nuclear weapons in those relationships.
But the case against this policy change is powerful. From a technical perspective, it is far from clear that the United States can compose a missile defense of the homeland robust against all kinetic and nonkinetic threats from major powers. Even if it were technically feasible, the cost of doing so would be far beyond what the nation has been willing and able to spend on missile defense thus far. In the current budget context, a decision to spend significant new resources in pursuit of this goal would likely come at the cost of modernization of other elements of the strategic toolkit. This would be especially troublesome to the effort to maintain the nuclear deterrent as current forces age out over the next decade. And if the United States were successful in finding the technologies and money to fulfill this ambition, there would be responses by Russia and China to ensure that their deterrents remain credible in their eyes (and ours). An intensification of the action-reaction cycle could turn into an arms race, with significant consequences for the political relationships and major consequences for U.S. allies, most of whom would strongly caution against such strategic competition (and who would likely resist being drawn into it).
In my view, policy continuity on this topic is preferable to major policy change. The United States should not seek homeland missile defense against Russia and China because doing so would generate major new threats to U.S. allies and probably a race for strategic advantage with both Russia and China. There is no technical solution and, even if there were, the money is not available for this purpose. If either were to attack the United States with very few weapons, or if there were to be an accidental or unauthorized launch from either country, the United States should do what it can to protect itself with the capabilities in being. But it should not design its homeland defense for the purpose of negating the strategic deterrents of Russia or China.
If the next administration opts to retain the commitment to limited protection, it would then face three subsidiary decisions.
- Should it give up on reassuring Moscow and/or Beijing that U.S. missile defenses are not intended to undermine strategic stability and that the capabilities it is composing are consistent with its commitment to limited protection?
- Should the United States respond to Russian and Chinese countermeasures to U.S. missile defense?
- Should the protection against limited ballistic missile strikes be extended to protection against limited cruise missile strikes on the homeland (reportedly, a threat posed by Russia, not China)?19
First, in my assessment, the United States should not give up on reassuring Moscow and Beijing. But its expectations should be far lower than in 2009. As a first principle, it should continue to seek stable strategic relations with Russia and China because increasingly unstable relations would increase the risk of confrontation, increase the threat to U.S. allies, and reduce cooperation on other priorities. There is already a good deal of instability for multiple reasons and the United States should find ways to work with both countries to address the sources of instability. Toward that end, the United States should continue to provide the reassurances to Moscow and Beijing it considers necessary and appropriate, even if they are not fully effective. Over time, these may have a positive effect in one or both capitals. Another reason for doing so is that such efforts are essential for building political support in the United States and among its allies for enhanced military responses to emerging regional missile threats from Russia and China (as argued further below). The next administration must appreciate the political value to U.S. allies of such efforts to assure Moscow and Beijing, given their concerns about becoming entangled in an intensification of competition between the United States and their neighboring major power. But the next administration must proceed with reduced expectations of cooperation and increased attention to developments in their military postures, both strategic and regional, that bear on strategic stability. The old dialogue with Moscow and Beijing, based on their complaints and our assurances, needs to give way to a more substantive dialogue about how developments in our separate national postures are increasingly connected and moving in uncertain but potentially destabilizing directions.
Second, should the United States respond to Russian and Chinese countermeasures? Steps taken by Russia and China to ensure the ability of their strategic forces to penetrate U.S. missile defenses need not generate U.S. concern so long as those steps are consistent with a shared view of strategic stability and are in service of the status quo ante (that is, of ensuring that their deterrents remain viable in the face of reasonably predicted future developments in U.S. defensive and offensive capabilities). It is not entirely clear that these conditions exist today (and the new administration will have to make its own assessment). But steps taken by Russia and China to defeat U.S. strikes on their strategic forces should generate U.S. concern and technical responses as they call into question our understanding of the requirements of strategic stability.
Finally, should the protection against limited ballistic missile strikes be extended to protection against limited cruise missile strikes on the homeland (a threat posed by Russia, not China)? Yes, it makes sense to extend this principle in this way. A major Russian cruise missile strike can be deterred with the threat of a major U.S. military response, but it is less clear that a very limited Russian strike aimed at signaling its resolve in a mounting crisis can be similarly deterred. Thus some protection would be strategically beneficial, especially of critical military targets and political targets associated with continuity of government.
Homeland Defense and the “Advantageous Position”
The second major policy question likely to be debated in 2017 related to homeland defense is whether to retain the commitment to maintain the currently “advantageous position” vis-àvis North Korea and Iran. In 2009, those two countries deployed no nuclear-tipped ICBMs while the United States was moving past 30 GBIs—a very advantageous position for the United States. In 2009, the administration assessed that rapid growth in Iranian and North Korean forces was possible but unlikely, which created the opportunity to pause in the deployment of GBIs, fix some inherited technical problems, and shift the strategy to hedging against future rapid growth in the threat. As noted earlier, in 2013, the decision was taken to implement the hedge (by deploying the hedge GBIs for a total of 44) and also to reset the hedge by beginning to explore an additional missile field for improved protection against a possible future Iranian missile threat.20 In 2016, significant growth in North Korea’s forces appears plausible and even likely over the next decade. Rapid growth in Iran’s intercontinental-ranged missile force appears less likely but still plausible.
How might the new administration approach this decision in 2017? On the one hand, it might back off the commitment to maintain the significantly advantageous quantitative position of 2009, while retaining the commitment to protect against limited strikes and putting the emphasis on “left-of-launch,” although this will be much easier said than done. Even in this context, some further growth of the Ground-based Missile Defense (GMD) system seems warranted. On the other hand, a new administration might significantly ramp up GBI acquisition and deployment and overall modernization of the homeland defense system. Given the very high cost of GBIs, this would require significant new resources. It also implies a robust hedge that is “spring loaded” to provide new capability in a timely manner if there are rapid increases in the threats from these countries.
Revisiting the Homeland Defense Project
The twin challenges of sustaining the homeland defense strategy of 2009 into the decade ahead may well bring to the fore a discussion in 2017 about the wisdom of further development. In 2009, we could confidently say that the responses by Russia and China were not so far significant or damaging to U.S. and allied interests; in 2017, this cannot be said. In 2009, we could confidently say that strategic stability with Russia and China could be sustained while we strengthened the defensive posture vis-à-vis regional challengers like North Korea and Iran; in 2017, this cannot be said (given the reactions in Moscow and Beijing). In 2017, it is necessary and appropriate to revisit the basic assumptions of policy and to ask whether to continue on the pathway of strengthening homeland defense (with an eye to protection against regional challengers like North Korea and Iran) without worrying about the reactions of Russia and China.
The case for a major change in policy follows from the robust and continuing adaptations in the strategic postures of Russia and China. Those adaptations are doing more than maintaining the status quo ante (the balance of strategic power “before” U.S. missile defenses were introduced). They are generating new instabilities of their own, including new threats to U.S. allies. Some will argue that this is too high a price to pay for limited protection of the United States and its allies and, further, that foreswearing the missile defense project will cause Russia and China to cease these adaptations, allowing the system to return to a point of stability. It is difficult to see that Russia and China are prepared to cease those adaptations, though perhaps they would attenuate them, or that America and its allies would be better off facing regional nuclear-armed challengers without a mixed offense/defense posture.
An alternative case can be made that the United States should care little about the complaints from Russia and China and should care a lot about the nuclear blackmail potential of North Korea and others. After all (goes the argument), those complaints ring hollow given the many actions Russia and China have taken and are taking to maintain confidence in their deterrents. Accordingly, some will conclude that the protection against regional challengers should not be scaled back but should be accelerated.
Whether these more fundamental questions will be taken up in 2017 is an open question.
Let us turn now to the policy debates likely to emerge around the second Obama administration policy priority: to defend against regional threats, while protecting allies and partners and enabling them to defend themselves.21 The next administration will have to make decisions on at least two major policy issues:
- What goals should the United States set with its allies in Northeast Asia regarding the future regional architecture in light of a changing security environment and newly available capabilities?
- What goals should the United States set with its allies in Europe regarding the future regional architecture in light of a changing security environment and conclusion of the three phases of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA)?
The administration will also have to make decisions about whether and how to proceed with regional cooperation in the Middle East. U.S.-Israel missile defense cooperation can be expected to proceed with the strong backing of the U.S. Congress.22 The members of the Gulf Cooperation Council are likely to pursue continued developments of their separate national capabilities, as well as some integration of sensors where shared threats are perceived.23 These two cooperation pathways in the region will raise various questions for U.S. policymakers, but none of the salience of the two key questions noted above.
Note here the repeated reference to the role of U.S. allies in setting these goals. Their effective participation will not happen without a significant investment of time and effort by the new administration. Moreover, the natural inclination of a new administration is to think it has most of the answers already in place (after all, its platform has just been endorsed by the electorate). In addition, finding the time and bandwidth to conduct needed consultations can be especially challenging in an administration’s first year, when the leadership ranks are not yet fully staffed (as nominees await confirmation) and when many reviews are underway simultaneously. If the new administration values the cooperation and participation of U.S. allies in its missile defense projects, then it must overcome these challenges and effectively consult with allies during the review process. This is a time-consuming process, but one that can pay long-term dividends if it generates shared views and joint commitments. Of course, the next administration may be ill disposed to shape its policies in a manner aligned with the interests of U.S. allies, and thus may have no appetite for their views. And it may discover that its allies have strongly held policy preferences that differ from its own, potentially frustrating its ambitions.
Turning first to Northeast Asia, what goals should the United States and its allies set? At present, the United States and its two allies (Japan and South Korea) essentially have three separate national postures aimed primarily at one problem—North Korea. As additional capabilities become available for lower-tier and high-altitude defense, we can anticipate that this architecture will become more robust and integrated over time in response to developments in North Korea’s posture. But the U.S. regional posture is also about China, and the threat to forward-deployed U.S. forces posed by China’s robust and growing force of regional missiles. Additionally, Japan and the United States are jointly developing the next-generation interceptor, the SM-3 IIA, which will have improved capability relative to its predecessors. Looking ahead to 2017 and the availability later in the decade of the advanced interceptor, there will be a rising debate about whether the regional architecture should evolve and adapt to become more effective against China’s threat to U.S. allies. As already noted, China is highly motivated by the possibility that U.S. missile defenses will become increasingly effective against its regional capabilities and strategic forces and by the possibility that the United States might seek increased cooperation with and among its regional allies as part of a strategy to encircle and contain China.
How might the next administration approach this question in 2017? Improved cooperation between and among the United States and its two allies on regional BMD should remain a U.S. policy priority, as this promises to strengthen the deterrence posture vis-à-vis North Korea. But improved trilateral cooperation should remain focused primarily on North Korea; South Korea need not be drawn into the project to protect Japan from missile strikes by China.
The more challenging question relates to the future objectives of Japan’s defensive posture vis-à-vis China and associated questions of the U.S. role in supporting that posture. Japan has not so far set out politically the objective of defending itself from attacks by China; its focus has been on North Korea. The next administration will have to work with Japan to frame the strategic and operational objectives that will guide deployments of the advanced interceptor beginning in 2018 or so. In my view, the logic governing protection of the U.S. homeland from limited ballistic missile attack fits Japan as well as it fits the United States. This is already acknowledged in terms of the North Korean threat to Japan and can and should be acknowledged in terms of the Chinese threat to Japan. Given that threat, Japan should have some capability to defend itself against small-scale strikes by China, which would help reduce its vulnerability to coercion, blackmail, and brinksmanship. Japan need not have the capability to defend itself fully against the large-scale strikes of which China is capable because the U.S. extended deterrence commitment should be effective in preventing such attacks. Beijing would likely react strongly to a Japanese choice to deploy any defenses against China. But it will not be prepared to cap or roll back the missile postures that are now threatening to Japan and the forces defending it. The U.S.-Japan alliance will have to explain clearly the limits of its missile defense and defeat ambitions but also its resolve to safeguard its interests.
A key related question will be whether the advanced interceptor is deployed only to the Japanese mainland or also at sea. The latter deployments could raise significant new questions about strategic stability, as these might conceivably be deployed in ways that could impact China’s confidence in its ability to strike the United States with its strategic forces, albeit only in a limited way.
In 2017 there will also be a significant debate about next steps on missile defense in Europe. Phases 1 through 3 of EPAA will have come to fruition (or nearly so). Recall that Phase 4 was traded off in 2013 to pay for the hedge implementation decision (that is, to conclude the GBI buy to 44).24 Where next? How should the missile defense architecture in Europe reflect changes to the strategic environment since the 2010 BMDR and NATO’s Deterrence and Defence Posture Review (DDPR) of 2012? Two changes stand out: the change in perceptions of the Iranian threat (occasioned by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) and the change in the perceived Russian threat to NATO.
NATO embraced territorial missile defense at the Lisbon summit in 2010 with an explicit commitment to strengthen its deterrence and defense posture against the threat posed by the proliferation of ballistic missiles and clearly established that missile defense was about threats from outside the Euro-Atlantic area.25 It perceived no threat inside the Euro-Atlantic security area (in NATO’s conception, Russia is clearly inside the Euro-Atlantic security area).
The JCPOA and the associated negotiating process and economic opening up that has occurred subsequently have altered perceptions in Europe of the Iranian threat. But how, and with what implications for NATO’s missile defense posture? Is there a continued role for NATO missile defense in protecting against missile threats (whether nuclear or conventional) from outside the Euro-Atlantic security area? What options should the new administration consider?
Some in the United States and many in Russia have argued that the nuclear deal obviates the need for missile defense in Europe.26 After all, goes the argument, the nuclear problem has been “solved” and the threat to Europe of conventionally armed ballistic missiles can be discounted given improving political relations with Tehran. This would imply that Phase 3 should be abandoned and Phase 2 reversed (with the removal of U.S. missile defense assets from Romania).
But the new administration would be ill advised to follow this path. The nuclear problem has not yet been solved. We will not know for 15 or more years what choice leaders in Tehran will make about Iran’s future nuclear identity. Tehran retains a significant latent nuclear weapons potential, albeit with an extended timeline to the bomb. For now, the problem has been postponed, with a hope of long-term resolution. Moreover, the conventionally armed ballistic missile threat to Europe from Iran cannot so readily be discounted. Especially if and as sanctions on its missile program are removed, as envisioned in the JCPOA in its seventh year, then its missile program will become much more robust.27
Moreover, the question of Iran’s long-term political orientation remains largely settled in Tehran. Hostility to the United States (and its allies when they join with it) is deeply engrained. There appears to be a high expectation in Tehran of U.S.-led military action against the regime at some future point.28 In other words, the alliance still has good reason to seek territorial missile defense protection from threats outside the Euro-Atlantic security environment. Now it has two additional interests: incentivizing Iranian compliance with the JCPOA and hedging against Iranian noncompliance. Both are better supported by a continued commitment to missile defense in Europe than by roll back of the project.
Furthermore, it is a convenient fiction that EPAA is and was only about the missile threat to Europe from Iran. In recent years, Iran has been the primary concern, given its nuclear program. But it has not been the only concern, as missiles and missile production capabilities are proliferating throughout the Middle East and to other countries potentially threatening to Europe. Looking back over the last two decades, multiple countries have generated missile proliferation concern in Europe, including not least Iraq, Libya, Syria, and even Egypt. A good solution to the Iran threat goes only part of the way to solving the potential missile threat to Europe from outside the Euro-Atlantic security area.
An additional reason not to reverse Phase 2 would be the reactions from third parties. U.S. allies in Europe (and Asia and the Middle East) would have new reason to question the reliability of U.S. commitments. Russia might well interpret such a move as a new form of deference to its interests, which might potentially be seen as appeasing. Charges of appeasement would certainly be made widely in the West. And such a move would likely be strongly opposed in the Congress.
For the same reasons, Phase 3 should not be abandoned. But it might be modified. There are at least two options for doing so. One is to adjust the plan for Phase 3 from a standing force to a hedge force. That is, the United States and Poland could complete preparation of the missile defense site in Poland, acquire the interceptors, but hold them in storage. The decision to move to an operational capability could be made in response to evidence of Iranian noncompliance with the JCPOA. The other option for modifying Phase 3 would be to complete the current plan but offer to convert it to hedge status at a future time if confidence grows in Iran’s nonnuclear status. There could be an implicit or explicit linkage to the obligation in the JCPOA of the U.N. Security Council to review existing sanctions on Iran’s missile program, with an eye to sanctions relief, in year seven of the JCPOA (2022). If the Security Council deems Iran’s missile programs not to be a threat to peace, then NATO could convert its standing operational capability to a hedge force.
These choices to modify EPAA to reflect the positive aspects of the JCPOA, and to hedge against its uncertainties, should be made after careful consultations with NATO allies. Some adjustment to EPAA seems warranted in light of the JCPOA, given its generally positive (albeit so far modest) impact on European security, and would be broadly welcomed in Russia and to a lesser extent Europe. But a new administration may conclude that it is too early in the JCPOA implementation process to jettison the modest capabilities associated with the Phase 3 plan and, moreover, that establishing a clear operational capability to defend the alliance is the best way to dis-incentivize Iranian noncompliance.
It is important to recognize that choices about how to deal with the potential Iranian missile threat to Europe will have implications outside Europe. A NATO decision to treat the Iranian threat as eliminated by the JCPOA and to downgrade its defensive effort accordingly could have a spillover effect in the Persian Gulf, where U.S. allies and partners are highly motivated by the Iranian missile threat, and not just a potential future threat. As already noted, the JCPOA does nothing to curb Iran’s missile program, whether long- or short-range, and the Iranian missile threat in the Gulf is clear and present. In some ways, with the JCPOA now in place, Tehran presents a greater threat to its neighbors: Iran’s economy has improved as a result of sanctions relief; Tehran has increased its bid for regional hegemony in the Middle East; and the conflict in Syria has provided the Iranian military with experience in operational coordination with a major nuclear power. So there is a case to be made for more cooperation on missile defense with Gulf Cooperation Council states and with Israel and for additional deployments in countries with U.S. bases and within range of Iranian missiles, whatever choice is made in Europe.
If changes in perceptions of the Iranian threat occasioned by the JCPOA will generate debate in 2017 about the needed missile defense posture in Europe, so too will changes in perceptions of the Russian threat. The sea change has been dramatic. The implications for the alliance’s missile defense strategy are, however, highly uncertain.
The Obama administration, like the Bush administration that preceded it, envisioned no role for missile defense in Europe against Russian missiles. After all, from the collapse of the Soviet Union until the forced annexation of Crimea, NATO has envisioned and worked toward a Europe “whole and free” that includes Russia, if not as ally then at least as a strong partner.29 The alliance perceived no threat from Russia and saw no pathway to armed conflict with Russia. The alliance strategic concept endorsed by heads of state and government in Lisbon in 2010 stated these principles clearly and characterized the alliance as having no enemies.30 From a technical and operational perspective, Russia had retained some ability to target Europe with its strategic forces, and to employ tactical nuclear weapons, but these generated no perception of threat requiring a NATO response. Similar views were reflected in the 2010 BMDR, which also set out a positive vision for regional BMD with Russia.31 The alliance sought to enlist Moscow as a partner against regional actors (like Iran) seeking illicit capabilities, recognizing that cooperation could “greatly increase the effectiveness of […] combined missile defence capabilities.”32 NATO and Russia had been actively seeking operational coordination on theater missile defense since the early 2000s and on territorial missile defense since 2010, with the last joint exercises taking place in 2012. But these cooperative efforts were suspended in 2014 with the Russian annexation of Crimea.
In 2017, Russia presents nuclear and conventional threats to Europe that did not exist in 2009. It overtly threatens NATO members, particularly those hosting U.S. missile defense assets, with ballistic and cruise missiles.33 It regularly rattles its nuclear saber.34 It is deploying new military capabilities to support an escalate-to-deescalate strategy in case of war against NATO. These capabilities include many new strike systems of various ranges, many of which are capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear payloads. These strike systems include both ballistic and cruise missiles, with the latter delivered from sea, air, and land.35 Russia is also in violation of its INF Treaty obligations.36 In 2017 the new administration will have to assess whether that violation is reversible and whether or not Russia has or will proceed to deploy these banned capabilities (a move that would have significant consequences for NATO security). Additionally, Russian leaders maintain that U.S. and NATO missile defense do currently, and/or will in the future, undermine its nuclear deterrent.37 Accordingly, as already noted, it is pursuing various countermeasures to negate the current and future effectiveness of the system.38
There have been other important changes to Russia’s military posture. Russia has been integrating its offensive air and defensive aerospace forces in service of an A2AD (anti-access, area denial) operational strategy. This strategy aims to limit U.S. and NATO freedom of maneuver along Russia’s periphery by, among other means, undermining Western air superiority. It seeks to increase the operational risks to forward-deployed U.S. and NATO forces supporting Eastern European allies.39
Russian military and political leaders apparently believe that the cumulative changes to Russia’s military toolkit will give it the means to successfully manage a military crisis with NATO and, if war comes, to manage escalation in a way that induces choices for restraint by Western leaders, such that NATO is divided and unwilling to defend a core interest being challenged by Russia.40 Russian leaders could falsely assess that these strategies would enable aggression against a NATO member. The Russian military has developed a concept of integrated strategic deterrence that utilizes many means—both hard power and soft, both kinetic and nonkinetic, both nuclear and nonnuclear—to impose costs and risks on Western leaders so that they are compelled to ask whether NATO’s stake is sufficient to escalate against a Russian leadership that perceives its vital interests at risk.41 In short, Russian missiles play a central role in Russia’s theory of victory in a conflict with NATO.42
What implication should these changes have for NATO and its missile defense policy and posture? And for the U.S. missile defense review? From a political perspective, these are highly sensitive questions. The 2016 Warsaw Summit communiqué recognized that:
Russia’s aggressive actions, including provocative military activities in the periphery of NATO territory and its demonstrated willingness to attain political goals by the threat and use of force, are a source of regional instability, fundamentally challenge the Alliance, have damaged Euro-Atlantic security, and threaten our long-standing goal of a Europe whole, free, and at peace.
But allies have been reluctant to discuss what role, if any, missile defense can play in deterring and defending against Russian aggression. So in Warsaw they re-endorsed past missile defense policies, stating that NATO’s missile defense is “intended to defend against potential threats emanating from outside the Euro-Atlantic” and is “not capable against Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent.” They also restated that “there is no intention to redesign this system to have such a capability in the future.”43
Changes in Russian policy and posture are not the only reason to reevaluate NATO’s current policy. The organizational command structure of NATO’s missile defense program, along with specific technical characteristics of its emerging defensive system, are also important factors. For NATO, territorial ballistic missile defense evolved from theater ballistic missile defense for the protection of expeditionary forces. These two missions are now linked through a common command and control (C2) system paid for jointly by NATO allies. This C2 system will also integrate capabilities for defending against air-breathing threats (including cruise missiles and aircraft), given the dual air and missile defense roles of many elements of the system (both sensors and shooters). Unlike its missile defense posture, NATO’s air defense system has been geared to take on all potential threats, by implication including any threat from Russia, on a continuous basis since 1961. NATO’s Integrated Air and Missile Defence is meant to protect “alliance territory, populations and forces against any air and missile threat and attack.” Given the integrated nature of conflict and the multipurpose roles of military technology, it becomes increasingly difficult to insist that NATO’s BMD system has no role against Russia.
What strategic and operational value might regional missile defense have against Russia? The 2010 BMDR identifies three potential values of missile defense against regional challengers that might now be applied to the Russian regional threat to Europe:
- During peacetime, missile defense undermines “an adversary’s efforts to coerce states near and far” to advance their political objectives by threatening attacks on the United States and its allies;
- During a crisis, it reduces an adversary’s incentives for starting a conflict by stripping his confidence that they can “engage the United States in a confrontation if they can raise the stakes high enough by demonstrating the potential to do further harm with their missiles”;
- During a conflict, it offsets an adversary’s perceived advantage that they can “escalate his way out of a failed conventional aggression.”44
This framework implies a number of potentially relevant roles for European missile defense in political-military confrontations between NATO and Russia:
- During peacetime, European BMD could help to negate Russian coercion strategies backed by threats to attack allies hosting U.S. BMD assets;
- During a crisis, European BMD could help to deter a Russian decision to attempt a military fait accompli (for example in the Baltics) by eroding its confidence in its A2AD strategies (and the risk they pose to U.S. power projection);
- During a conflict, European BMD could help to deter Russian both “pre-nuclear” and nuclear escalation. It might also play a role in deterring Russian involvement in U.S. conflicts with third parties.
If the next administration seeks these potential benefits of European BMD vis-à-vis newly perceived Russian threats, what basic policy choices might it then consider? One option would be to expand NATO’s territorial missile defense mission to encompass not only threats from outside the Euro-Atlantic security area, as now stated, but also threats from inside that area: ruling Russia in rather than out. The rationale for this approach would be that negating Russian coercive leverage and nuclear and pre-nuclear escalation strategies requires the protection of European allies against the threat of limited strikes. But territorial missile defense against Russia would require a substantially larger and more capable missile defense system in Europe than so far envisioned. Territorial missile defense requires the ability to protect key assets, both military and political, in all NATO countries. The demands on that defense posed by a technically advanced country with a large arsenal of strike systems would be dramatically different from the demands of the unsophisticated threats from outside the Euro-Atlantic security area.
Many allies would likely reject such an agenda as strategically unhelpful, by renewing a European arms race and inciting additional Russian belligerence. And of course Russia would react harshly to such an agenda. Moscow’s claims that the EPAA will eventually turn into an anti-Russia project would be vindicated. Russia has already made clear how it would respond to a NATO missile defense system against it. In fact, as noted above, it is already moving forward with many of the threatened countermeasures. But it is likely that Russian leadership would react by adopting additional political and military measures or speeding up already planned activities.
Accordingly, the new administration and NATO should reject the choice to refocus the territorial missile defense mission to address the Russia threat. Within the alliance, the political foundations do not exist for such a dramatic shift in policy. Moreover, it is likely that a U.S.-led effort to reorient the territorial defense mission in this way would poison the current commitment of the alliance to territorial missile defense more generally. And as argued above, territorial missile defense against proliferation threats to Europe remains strategically valuable.
A second option is to leave the territorial defense mission as agreed in 2010 but to add a limited theater defense mission against Russia. This would entail a commitment by NATO to ensure that it has the defensive means in place to enable successful pursuit of its defensive military strategy, as opposed to also providing protection of critical political and economic targets. It would also entail a commitment to fielding defenses capable against only limited strikes, with the objective of taking Russia’s “cheap shots” at the alliance off the table (that is,
Russia’s use of a very small number of strikes, with the threat of more to come, to persuade NATO not to act militarily to secure an interest) as opposed to the large-scale strikes of which Russia is also capable (which should be deterrable by other means). In short, the regional defense mission would be a force-protection mission aimed at enabling NATO to make good on its conventional defense strategy through American power projection into Europe.
In support of this option, the United States could increase its preparedness to provide protection against missile attack, both ballistic and cruise, of its power-projection forces. Allies in Europe could provide point protection of critical air and seaports of debarkation (APODs and SPODs) for those forces, as well as logistics centers and command-and-control nodes. The upper-tier component provided by the United States would be a surge capability, present in Europe only when there is a clear and present danger of Russian attack. In practice, this may entail fielding BMD systems along NATO’s periphery for longer periods of time. Moreover, depending on the numbers and locations of the defended assets and the location and footprint of defensive systems, the theater missile defense architecture may in fact look like a territorial missile defense of Eastern Europe.
A key advantage of this option over the first is that it could generate broad alliance support. European allies already own (and in some cases develop) national lower-tier systems. For example, the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain have deployed Patriot systems in Turkey since 2013 to provide protection against threats from Syria. Some NATO members like Poland have already opted to procure and permanently station Patriot systems.
A key drawback is in the uncertainty about its long-term impact. Russia may proceed with a further buildup of its forces to overwhelm the system. And it may move even further away from a possible future rapprochement with the West.
As argued, each of these options would be politically and operationally challenging for the alliance and both would antagonize Russia’s leadership. So what are the alternatives? At a high level of generality, there are two. One is to maintain the Warsaw strategy: strengthen the conventional balance so that Russian leaders are not tempted to go for a fait accompli against a Baltic state while modernizing NATO’s nuclear-sharing arrangements so that Russia sees no benefit in nuclear escalation or other escalation threatening a vital interest of an ally. This would have the advantage of being politically viable within the alliance. But it seems unpromising of stripping away Russian confidence in its escalate-to-deescalate strategy (especially its “pre-nuclear” dimension).
The other high-level option is to put all of the emphasis on an offense-dominant strategy for the deterrence of Russia and to rule out even a limited role for defenses. This would entail deploying new strike systems in or near Europe, whether conventional, nuclear, or both. It would probably entail an in-kind response to Russian deployment of INF systems (if it chooses that pathway). This approach would not have the advantage of being politically viable within the alliance; there is nothing to suggest that the political will for such a strategy exists or can be created in current circumstances. Moreover, it would pitch Europe back into the middle of a nuclear arms race, at a time when the alliance as a whole is committed to working to reduce nuclear dangers and its own reliance on nuclear weapons. Russia’s likely response would be increased deployments or strike systems targeting European targets. In such a circumstance, it might also provide assistance to its allies and partners in the Middle East in defeating American and European missile defenses.
In short, neither the Warsaw strategy nor the offense-dominant strategy seems well suited to the alliance’s interests. This requires coming to terms with the difficult tradeoffs of the other options that mix defense and offense in new ways in the alliance’s deterrence and defense posture.
In sum, the new administration faces, together with allies in Asia and Europe, a number of major choices about regional missile defense policies and postures with long-term strategic consequences. The central question is the same in each region: whether and how to account for the emergence of threats from neighboring major powers in regional missile defense architectures conceived originally to deal with the threat of limited nuclear threats from regional challengers like North Korea and Iran. The choices will be consequential for regional deterrence, the assurance of allies, and strategic stability with those powers. Allies will be enthusiastic for improved protection, but also reluctant to provoke major power neighbors in ways that cannot effectively be addressed by defensive means.
It seems likely that the practical challenges of adapting regional missile defense to a changing security environment will seem significant, given political constraints among allies, constrained budgets, and predictable harsh reactions by China and Russia. This will likely fuel a debate about whether to continue the regional missile defense project at all. More precisely, it seems likely to fuel a debate about whether to taper off the pursuit of phased, adaptive responses in three regions (Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Middle East) in favor of continued national developments of air and missile defenses without seeking integration or major technical improvements.
A possible reluctance to go much further with regional missile defenses will be fueled by the perception that they are unpromising of long-term strategic benefit. After all, some see regional missile defense as a fool’s errand, with the following argument: in the offense/defense competition, the advantage necessarily falls to the offense (as it is cheaper and easier).45 Accordingly (goes the argument), the continued pursuit of regional defense plays into the hands of adversaries who are applying a cost-imposing strategy on us—the more we compete, the more we fall behind, while starving out funding for other responses.46 This objection to regional missile defense is reinforced by the perception of some that regional defenses are driving Russia and China to actions that are destabilizing and avoidable. Accordingly, the argument will be made that the United States should (further) scale back its regional missile defense investments and leave it to our allies to determine whether and how much defense they need (or as some would have it, to build nuclear deterrents of their own).
In my view, regional missile defense is not a fool’s errand. But it is important to be clear about the goal—which is not defense dominance. This is an important strategic asset for the United States and its allies and can be purchased at reasonable cost. But obviously to be effective in the emerging threat environment, this limited regional defense must be effective against not just ballistic missiles but also cruise missiles.
So will there be more continuity than change in the 2017 missile defense review? Or vice versa?
The case for continuity is strong. There is broad political agreement in the United States about the main elements of missile defense policy. There is a sound logic for the commitment to protection of the American homeland from “limited” strikes and to the continued pursuit of strategic stability with Russia and China. Regional missile defenses can be further improved without jeopardizing that strategic stability. And neither the money nor the technology exists to support more ambitious objectives.
But there is also a strong case to expect more change than continuity. That broad political agreement is not particularly deep and is subject to significant perturbations in the context of changing U.S. domestic politics. In particular, there is a strong body of opinion to move away from the commitment to the “limited” criterion for homeland defense. Moreover, there is a clear need to adapt the regional missile defense strategies, policies, and architectures to the new challenges posed by Russia and China. There may even be a more fundamental discussion of whether to continue with the homeland defense project, the regional defense project, or perhaps even both.
But making big changes to U.S. missile defense strategy, policy, and capabilities is easier said than done. The executive branch is only one of many actors on this topic. The Congress has strong views on these questions. Money is tight. Technology is even more constraining. Relations with allies can be critical enablers of U.S. strategy and policy—but also critical constraints.
In sum, the outcome of the 2017 missile defense review is very difficult to predict. We can anticipate the likely scope and structure of the discussion, including the major policy questions. We can imagine a vigorous debate about how changes to the security, political, and budget environments since 2009 should affect the baseline approach. But we can also imagine a vigorous debate about whether it is necessary to take bold steps to remake the fundamentals of our policy. These will be judgment calls by the new president and the people he appoints. As a veteran of the 2009 review, I can only wish them good success.