Five Paths to Maturing Missile Defense: Toward the 2017 Review

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Note: This appears as Chapter 6 in Missile Defense and Defeat: Consideration for the New Policy Review.

Five Paths to Maturing Missile Defense: Toward the 2017 Review

Thomas Karako

In 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump pledged to “develop a state of the art missile defense system,” and to “rebuild the key tools of missile defense.”1 The ambition to do so comes none too soon, as missile threats around the world continue to grow more complex and multifaceted, qualities also reflected in the broadened scope of Congress’s new Missile Defeat Review (MDR) mandate.2 The need to address the “missile defeat” problem has been articulated before, most notably in General Martin Dempsey’s 2013 Vision 2020 document, which laid out the need for a robust, integrated air and missile defense (IAMD).3

Much remains to be done, however, to make the vision of IAMD an operational reality.

Although no longer in their infancy, many of today’s missile defense efforts might be best characterized as in their adolescence. Significant strides have been made with the deployment of homeland defenses and a range of operational fleet, area, and point defenses for U.S. forces, allies, and partners. At the same time, much remains to be done to help missile defenses to achieve greater maturity, and a more comprehensive strategy and approach will be necessary to address and outpace today’s dynamic threat environment.

As the new administration looks to formulate a broad strategy to counter and defeat missile threats, it should especially consider evaluating five complementary avenues of effort:

  • Capability evolution
  • Capacity increase
  • More international cooperation
  • New concepts of operation
  • Revolutionary technologies

Of these five paths, those devoted to capability, capacity, and internationalization more or less represent natural extensions of systems and concepts currently fielded. Concepts of operation and more revolutionary technology represent a sharper break from those fielded today, but hold greater transformative potential. Consistent with the desire for a more holistic approach to defeating the missile threat problem, officials conducting the MDR might in particular consider new concepts of operation such as multi-mission flexibility, mixed loads, and alternative basing modes.

Creating a robust IAMD force will also require institutional change and revisiting the division of labor within and between the services and other entities. Adequately pursuing any of these paths and beginning to approximate the “vision” of IAMD will, however, require reversing the downward budgetary trend for air and missile defense over the past decade, during which time the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) budget declined by nearly a quarter, and that of the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense Office (JIAMDO) by 44 percent.4

Capability Evolution

The first path toward more robust missile defense lies with the evolution of elements within the current program of record which, for the Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS), includes various command and control (C2) systems, sensors, and four families of interceptors. In the past, programmatic vacillation has stymied progress, and constancy will be important to improve the four major systems fielded today.

Evolution of the program of record probably represents the simplest, most reliable, and most cost-effective way to incrementally improve the missile defense force. Instead of large new programs, incremental or evolutionary improvements can be leveraged in the broadening of missions, and by integrating missile defenses into the larger offense-defense mix. The path of continued evolution also represents continuity. The chartered mandate for MDA was a capabilities-based approach and the idea that there would be no “final, fixed missile defense architecture.”5

Indeed, each of the past five administrations has likewise expressed their visions for missile defense not in fixed or static terms, but rather in terms of phased, spiral, or block development.


Thus far, the development of U.S. homeland defense can perhaps be characterized as ad hoc, owing to the speed and urgency with which the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) was initially deployed in 2004. Near-term steps for capability improvements include the development, testing, and fielding of the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV), the deployment of 44 Ground-based Interceptors (GBIs) by the end of 2017, the construction of the Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR) in Alaska, and gradual preparation for a potential GBI site in the continental United States. While programs like LRDR and RKV promise improvements in system-wide reliability, cost, and capability, they will not come to fruition until 2020 or later.

The FY2017 budget notably restarted funding for the Multi-Object Kill Vehicle (MOKV). Predicated on significant kill vehicle miniaturization relative to today’s Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV), this potentially game-changing concept would allow a single interceptor to engage multiple targets in a threat cloud, rather than having to fire multiple interceptors to deal with a single threat picture. Other configurations might still have multiple interceptors, but with additional dedicated sensors to improve discrimination.

As the system has evolved with a new emphasis on reliability and capability improvements, it may be time to begin a more structured incremental or block development, similar to how the Standard Missile (SM) family evolved over the past decade.6

Aegis/Standard Missile

The Aegis weapons system and the Standard Missile (SM) represent both an example of successful recent evolution as well as an object for continued growth. The SM has evolved to the SM-2 and the SM-3, and SM-3 has itself gone through evolutionary stages with seekers, motors, communications, and divert capability. The SM-3 IA is being phased out, and the future will include the IB and the IIA. The SM-3 IIB, canceled in 2013, held promise as a bridge between regional and homeland defenses. Since that cancelation, there is no settled plan to evolve beyond the IIA. Indeed, MDA previously stated that it “is not currently studying any capabilities for a follow-on SM-3 variant.”7

Continued incremental or block development of the SM family could, however, make a lot of sense. This might include a faster or (slightly) wider booster in a modified Mk 41 Vertical Launching System (VLS) or even in the slightly roomier Mk 57. Augments to propellant and speed may not, however, be the primary or even next steps for capability improvement. Seeker and divert advances, a throttle-able solid fuel motor, and changes to the kill vehicle to engage not merely exo-atmospheric, but also threats in the high endo-atmosphere could be of relatively greater value. Such evolution, along with improved external sensor capabilities to permit launch and engage on remote cues, would dramatically increase the defended area, improve divert flexibility, and expand the range of threats that the SM family can defeat.

In the absence of such evolution to close the high endo-atmospheric gap, adversaries could circumvent U.S. defenses by flying boost glide vehicles between the respective engagement altitudes of today’s systems—below GBIs and SM-3, and above SM-6 and the PAC Missile Segment Enhancement (MSE).

A model for incremental improvements across the BMDS is found with SM-6 development. In short order, the missile evolved by combining components from other existing systems. With the front end of an Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) and the airframe of an SM-2, the SM-6 provides dual capability against both cruise missiles and terminal ballistic missiles. More recently, it has demonstrated antiship capability.8

The rapid acquisition path for SM-6 led by the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) points to potential for how other “hybrid” or multi-mission capabilities might be acquired. Such possibilities should be systematically considered across the BMDS.


Another prime object for capability evolution is the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor, of which six batteries are currently operational for the U.S. Army, and two in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). With a kick stage and a pulse motor, an extendedrange THAAD could have 9 to 12 times the defended area of today’s system. Increased velocity and divert capability could help it engage glide bodies at the upper edge of the atmosphere. The Army’s 2012 Air and Missile Defense Strategy declared that by 2020 the United States should “be prepared to field a 2-stage interceptor capability to the Asia Pacific,” a reference to an extended-range THAAD, but to date little has been done.9

The FY2017 budget contained only $17 million to explore follow-on development. UAE had previously offered to subsidize some of the THAAD-ER development cost, but their assistance has not been accepted.10


The Patriot family has been around for decades, and for the foreseeable future will likely continue to serve as the mainstay of U.S. Army and partner point air and missile defense. The PAC-3 has now moved to the MSE variant, providing longer ranges, higher velocities, enhanced capabilities, and multiple basing options. If Poland acquires the system for its own national defense, it would become the 14th country to do so.11

Even with the emergence of other alternative lower-tier systems like the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), Patriot and its associated family of missiles will be around for many decades. Although the MSE interceptor has significantly improved capability, the increased cost per round will help continue to drive demand toward a mixed fleet of interceptors.

Despite being so widespread, the system has long been in dire need of modernization. Some components are decades old, stalled by underfunding and lack of prioritization by the Army since the program was transferred to the service in 2003 from the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO). An exceptionally high operational tempo for the Patriot force has further slowed updates. In its most recent defense authorization act, Congress authorized funds for modernization, conditioned on a review of the Army’s Patriot modernization plan.12

The cancelation of the U.S. Army’s involvement with the MEADS program means that there is no active near-term plan for comparable 360-degree force protection, especially important for air and cruise missile threats.


No missile defense interceptor is better than the sensors that tell it where to go and what to kill. As missile threats become more mobile, stealthy, and maneuverable, there will be an increased need for more intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) to detect, track, surveil, and discriminate missile threats. The expansion and improvements to sensors will considerably improve what today’s interceptors can do. Next steps include the timely completion of the LRDR in Alaska, continuing the production of high-frequency TPY-2 radars for both terminal and forward-based operations, upgrading Aegis with the AMDR (SPY-6) radar, deploying a radar for the defense of Hawaii, developing new concepts for drone- and aerostat-based sensors, and adding persistent tracking and discrimination with the field of view that only an orbiting satellite can provide.

While progress is being made to shore up sensor gaps along likely flight paths from North Korea, coverage looking toward the Middle East is less developed. Once LRDR is operational, the Sea-based X-Band (SBX) radar may be in demand as both a test asset and a hedge for an East Coast discriminating radar. Should a greater threat emerge from the Middle East, a dedicated ground-based radar on or near the East Coast may become necessary, potentially in addition to a forward-based radar in Europe or the United Kingdom.

While ground systems have the benefit of higher power outputs, the near exclusive dependence upon terrestrial radars has inherent limitations from both the curvature of the Earth and overreliance upon radio frequency as a single phenomenology. A space-layer of sensors that uses infrared, electro-optical, or other sensors would add dramatic capability advances to the entire BMDS.

Cruise Missile Defense and Antiair Warfare

The field of cruise missile defense is one where threat-driven demand bears little relation to supply, in terms of both development and fielding. Vice Admiral James Winnefeld, then-vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, remarked in 2015 that “homeland cruise missile defense is shifting above regional ballistic missile defense, in my mind, as far as importance goes.”13 Cruise missile defense for the U.S. homeland is one of the three focus areas for the MDR. But relatively little attention has thus far been given to the mission.

The Integrated Fire Protection Capability (IFPC) and the Multi-Mission Launcher represent one related effort, which can be paired with the Sentinel radar, and used against some cruise missile, unmanned aerial systems (UAS), and RAM (rockets, artillery, and mortars) threats. Creating cruise missile defense capability is but one part of a larger antiair warfare (AAW) challenge that in some ways defines the larger IAMD problem set, so other air-breathing threats must be included, ranging from UAS to aircraft and helicopters.

In recent years, Congress canceled the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) program, which would have established a high-altitude aerostat with a high-frequency radar to detect and track cruise missiles and other airbreathing threats. Although the program had challenges, the cancelation of the elevated sensor without some alternative is unfortunate.14 If cruise missile defense for both the homeland and regional forces is to become more than a vision, an alternative platform will be needed to provide wide and persistent surveillance and tracking, with either electronic warfare aircraft or some other platform.15 In terms of effectors to defeat cruise missile threats, low-cost interceptors include the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) (both land- and sea-based), SM-6, the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS), the Patriot family, and still shorter-range interceptors like Stinger. Distributed land basing and wide-field sensors may be necessary for any but the most localized point defense.

Capacity Increase

The MDR mandate is premised on the principle that active defenses must be integrated and combined with other means to counter the missile threat. This does not mean, however, that the United States can stop building active missile defenses in lieu of something else, at least not soon. Across the board, current interceptor capacity levels are too low, even relative to requirements made when the strategic environment was more benign. Research and development and more imaginative concepts of operation are badly needed, but in the short term further capacity growth may be required.

During 2016, then-presidential candidate Trump highlighted the shortfall in missile-defense-capable Aegis ships and his intent to modernize the cruisers and preserve their ballistic missile defense capability.16 Similar capacity shortfalls afflict Patriot, THAAD, and GMD. Interceptor procurement has in recent years been a billpayer of choice to compensate for MDA’s lower topline and increased obligations for missile defense foreign assistance.

Increases in capacity for short-range fleet defense could significantly improve naval survivability.17

On the regional defense side, the United States has a variety of systems deployed around the world, but lacks the capacity to meet the growing demand of combatant commands (COCOMs). The stated COCOM demand for 77 BMD-capable ships, for instance, is nowhere near being met.[106. Ronald O’Rourke, Navy Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Program: Background and Issues for Congress
(Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, October 25, 2016), 14,] The Army does not have a plan to get to its stated requirement of nine THAAD batteries, a number set in 2012 amid a comparatively rosy geopolitical environment.18 Capacity shortfalls have also led to a strained and unsustainable operational tempo for Patriot.19

An additional battalion or different rotations—or perhaps new and more distributed concepts of deployment—could help relieve this strain, but imagination can only substitute so much for quantitative shortfalls.

GBI capacity will also face underappreciated pressure in the near future. MDA remains on track to field 44 interceptors by the end of 2017, but this number will soon fall 10 percent, down to 40 or fewer in 2021, due to a total lack of operational or testing spares.20 Under current plans, set in 2013, the production of all-up-rounds will cease this year, and restarting it could be difficult, costly, and slow. If North Korean ICBM progress continues, a capacity shortfall could quickly arise for homeland defense. At the margin, the most cost-effective way to increase capacity is with additional interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska, designed to hold up to 100. If the current rate of GBI production of about one per month were instead continued beyond 2017, the United States would be able to deploy around 68 interceptors by 2019 and 80 interceptors by 2020.

More International Cooperation: Asking More of Allies and Partners

A third way to mature missile defense is continued internationalization of the mission, both by doing more with allies and partners and by expecting more from them. International cooperation encompasses a range of cooperative programs, military exercises, information sharing, hosting agreements, and foreign military sales. Building partner missile defense capacity—as well as missile defeat capabilities of various kinds—would greatly alleviate current and potential strain on U.S. forces and defray costs.

To be sure, the global missile defense enterprise has already advanced considerably, and can no longer be defined as a niche capability or American idiosyncrasy. At the same time, there is also no doubt that decades of U.S. leadership and investment in the missile defense realm have been responsible for most of the advances to date.

Integration & Interoperability

The MDR requires statements of 5- and 10-year programmatic goals for missile defeat capabilities, as well as desired end states and milestones for integration and interoperability with allies, and a statement on the role of international cooperation. Much work in this area can and should be done for both technical and political cooperation.

Before integration with allies can be realistically advanced, however, U.S. missile defense assets must themselves be made capable of greater integration with each other.
Unfortunately, this is not the case today, particularly in the lower-tier air and missile defense systems such as Patriot. Toward this goal, basic integrating elements such as the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS) program need to be accelerated and fielded. IBCS would allow, for instance, one Patriot battery to fire interceptors using the sensor data of another unit, or from another system entirely—the “launch on remote” capability that has thus far been largely associated with Aegis. Even Aegis integration is less than optimal for tactical data links used to share sensor information across platforms. Such a capability was, however, demonstrated at the multinational At-Sea Demonstration 2015, when a Dutch frigate provided a radar track for an SM-3 intercept test off the coast of Scotland.21 Similar work has been underway between the United States and Japan.

Missile defense cooperation in each region will and must have its own unique characteristics. As the BMDR observed, the U.S. vision for regional missile defense “does not require a globally integrated missile defense architecture that integrates allies into a uniform, global structure.”22

Some allies, for instance, may be concerned about being perceived as “joining” the U.S. missile defense system as if it were a franchise, but significant opportunities remain for coordination between national capabilities. Especially outside of NATO, allied and partner defenses will almost certainly be autonomous in both capability and C2, even if the interceptors appear the same.

For the foreseeable future, both cautious allies and competitors such as China may take comfort knowing that missile defense in the Asia-Pacific is likely to be different from the more integrated NATO system. While some progress has been made in reviving a 2012 intelligence-sharing agreement between South Korea and Japan to pass information on North Korean missiles directly, the significant opposition to even these incremental steps suggests deeper integration is some time away.23 Both nations are likely to continue their significant investments in purchasing missile defenses, but trilateral coordination would leverage these investments further.24

Codevelopment and Coproduction

The MDR also requires an articulation of the role of international codevelopment of missile defeat capabilities. The U.S.-Japan cooperation on the SM-3 IIA and Japan’s licensing to produce the PAC-3 illustrate another way to engage allies. America’s long support for Israeli missile defense programs continues to reach new highs, not only with the Arrow program but also with U.S. coproduction of the medium-tier Stunner interceptor for David’s Sling and the lower-tier Tamir interceptor for Iron Dome. Access to the capabilities of such programs for potential U.S. fielding or tech-harvesting may be a way to further leverage years of investment in Israeli missile defense capabilities.

Other means of cooperation and even coproduction might make sense to pursue. There may be opportunities to work with South Korea, for example, on high-tech means such as directed energy, railguns, and counter-battery capabilities to detect and defeat North Korea’s artillery capabilities and mobile, solid-fueled threats like the KN-02 and now the KN-11.

Coordinated Acquisition

Another major element of internationalizing missile defense is to increase partner capacity through foreign military sales (FMS). Over the next few years, new systems like SM-3 IIA, SM6, MSE, and a THAAD follow-on are likely to be in high demand. One could well see the sale of, say, 10 THAAD batteries to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and some of its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbors, several Aegis Ashore sites in Japan, and widespread global demand for multi-mission assets like SM-6.

A related avenue to reducing costs and increasing both U.S. and partner capacity would be coordinated, transnational, and even transregional bulk buys to reduce unit costs. Should pent-up interest begin to result in actual contracts, the coordination of production and sales could lower the unit cost to all parties involved. Production of Aegis Ashore for Japan, for instance, could help reduce the cost for additional U.S. facilities, and a rush of THAAD sales could help costs for the U.S. Army. Recognizing that these sales could be in the offing will require a strategic initiative on the part of the United States to be prepared to exploit it.

Foreign Assistance

Another important area of cooperation is found with foreign assistance to allies such as Israel, European members of NATO, and GCC partners. The United States reaps benefits from these relationships, and in the cases of Israel and GCC members gains insight about realistic use in battle and concepts of operation. The European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) has likewise involved considerable investment of American funds for the ballistic missile defense of European territory. Both executive and legislative branches will need to continue to ensure that plus-ups for missile defense-related foreign assistance to allies do not inadvertently shortchange funding for U.S. missile defenses.25

New Concepts of Operation

Although growth in existing capacity and capabilities of U.S. and partner missile defenses cannot be neglected, in a larger sense the missile defense problem will not be solved by merely doing more of the same. More dramatic and innovative steps will be required to reduce costs and provide a more effective and comprehensive strategy. One area in which missile defense and defeat remains in relative infancy is with new concepts of operation. The MDR reporting requirements present a ripe opportunity, especially considering the need for JIAMDO-like expertise. Retired Admiral Jonathan Greenert, former chief of naval operations, recently predicted that this is an “opportunity that will not be missed.”26

The network integration of missile defense assets is currently a high priority for the U.S. Army and Navy, and the phrase “any sensor, any shooter” is frequently used in missile defense circles. Other follow-on concepts are also possible and deserve more attention, especially those that exploit modular and open architectures.

Several newer operational concepts for missile defeat are worthy of further consideration, such as mixed-load launchers (“any shooter, any launcher”), alternative basing modes (“any launcher, anywhere”), and multi-mission flexibility (“any seeker, any target”). These several concepts are designed to increase flexibility and capability, lower costs, and impose new burdens upon adversaries.

Network Centric: Any Sensor, Any Shooter

Many of today’s missile defense systems operate in a sort of operational stovepipe, structures where most elements—launchers, interceptors, radars, and fire control—are collocated, and operate more or less independently from other missile defense assets. Although they may receive information from the larger BMDS and C2BMC, today’s THAAD, Patriot, and other low-tier defenses are mostly characterized by localized control. At the other end of the spectrum, longer-range GBIs must, out of necessity, launch and engage on the basis of disparate and remote sensors, and an interceptor in Alaska can be launched by C2 centers in several locations in the United States. SMs both on Aegis ships and Aegis Ashore are evolving to launch and engage on cuing from remote sensors, but more remains to be done. Today’s interoperability among Patriot, Aegis, and THAAD systems falls well short of the “network-centric” goal identified in the 2010 BMDR—both for the United States and for allies that operate multiple systems, such as Japan and UAE. Realizing such a distributed but networked architecture will depend on an initiative to increase the number and distribution of sensors and improve their integration across systems, including with IBCS and other efforts.

Mixed Loads: Any Shooter, Any Launcher

Most missile defense launchers are designed to carry a single type of interceptor.27 GBIs, THAADs, and Patriots, for instance, are all located in dedicated launchers. The exception is the Aegis weapons system, which carries a wide variety of effectors in its versatile Mk 41 VLS, including for strike, air defense, and ballistic missile defense missions. Aboard a given ship, a tube with an SM-3 might be located next to others holding ESSMs, an SM-2, or an SM-6.

Shifting from compartmentalization to a mix-and-match philosophy would permit a wider defended area, increased defense depth, and greater survivability and resilience. New basing modes offer opportunities to improve current missile defense organization and structure with a more distributed architecture. Cost savings, moreover, could potentially be had with more widespread mixed loads by making a variety of launchers more interceptor agnostic, combining multiple capabilities with a reduced manning requirement and consolidated fire control.

Such combinations would contribute to dramatic capability improvements, effectively providing a layered defense within a single battery—a layered defense in a box. The Aegis Ashore site in Poland will contain both SM-3 IBs and SM-3 IIAs, providing shorter-range (and less expensive) interceptors to defend some areas, while longer-range (and more expensive) interceptors can be reserved for more westward areas, or perhaps be used in serial in a shoot-look-shoot concept. The VLS could, in that sense, become a model for missile defense basing more broadly, permitting the mixing and matching of interceptors (or other effectors) in launchers, which could then be widely distributed. Although already in place across many types of ships for numerous allied countries, more active proliferation of flexible launch systems like the VLS could become a policy goal to help create flexibility to hedge against future geopolitical uncertainty.

Instead of having to deploy a Patriot battery alongside a THAAD battery to protect the latter, for instance, a single launcher could include a mix of interceptors. Additional mixing and matching might also be explored. Existing Patriot launchers could carry Stunner interceptors, which are somewhat less capable than PAC-3 or MSE interceptors, but significantly less expensive. Patriot launchers could also be plugged into Aegis Ashore facilities, or Patriot and other interceptors could be emplaced in the VLS itself, to provide air defense.28 Although no plans exist for such deployments, the inherent flexibility of the Aegis Ashore facilities in Romania and Poland could permit them to bear not only different SM-3s but also other effectors such as ESSM, SM-6, and MSE. Should Russia’s Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty violations fail to be resolved and the treaty cease to exist, the inclusion of strike assets could also be considered—for both Aegis Ashore sites and numerous non-U.S. Aegis ships.29 At the lower tier, the U.S. Army is currently proving out the 15-cell Multi-Mission Launcher, which might have similar flexibility.30

Distributed Defense: Any Launcher, Anywhere

Closely connected to both interceptor agnosticism and network-centric assets is a potential for the greater distribution of launchers. The Navy’s concept of “distributed lethality” may also offer an opportunity to explore the possibilities of multi-mission launcher roles.31

While it has been characterized largely in terms of offensive posture, with more strike missiles loaded on more platforms, the concept of distributed lethality permitted by launcher flexibility also points toward the possibility of a more “distributed defense.”

One approach to fielding a more distributed and complex defense could involve adapting inexpensive and seemingly nondescript cargo containers to contain launchers, potentially VLS cells, linked through a larger network of sensors and C2. Located either on land or at sea, these “cargo containers for peace” could be moved between bases to provide surge capacity wherever air defenses, missile defenses, or other effectors are required.

To all outward appearances, these containers could look like any other shipping container, but inside could have self-contained power, communications, and cooling. Trucks, railcars, or trailers could transport and deposit them wherever desired, thereby improving the mobility, or at least relocatability, of missile defenses. It would need to be made clear, however, that such assets would only be placed on military platforms, so as not to put civilian areas at unnecessary risk.

Such a deployment concept would also support deception by means of a shell game. Other containers of similar appearance could be empty, but an adversary would have a difficult time telling which is which. To impose costs upon hostile ISR, the decoy containers could be outfitted with fake antennas and made to emit comparable heat and other electronic signatures. Deception would be integrated into troop or maintenance movements between decoys and real containers alike. Greater distribution of launchers and deception about their true locations could significantly hinder an adversary’s planning efforts.

Should the cargo container launchers be as effector-agnostic as a VLS, they could also potentially contain strike assets to support missile defeat. While such an approach may seem unconventional, a similar network-centric or “net-fires” concept was the Non-Line of Site Launch System (NLOS-LS) program as part of the Army’s Future Combat Systems program. These “missiles in a box” consisted of a small, platform-independent (and potentially unmanned) vertical launch system that could be fired remotely.32

The concept is not dissimilar to one that Russia has openly advertised for its Klub-K cruise missile system available for export.33

Multi-Mission Flexibility: Any Seeker, Any Target

One other way for missile defense to evolve begins with how we tend to think about it, from something that is less purely “defensive” to something that is more integrated with the full array of military capabilities and broadly oriented to countering particular threats. In contrast with the BMDR, such integration is a key part of the legislative mandate for the MDR. Crafting concepts of operation for how to use an offense-defense mix is a key task of the Joint Staff.

Too frequently, discussion focuses on the number of available missile defense interceptors relative to the threat, drawing overly simplistic conclusions about saturation attacks and numbers without taking offensive forces into account. In the event of an active missile threat, missile defenses would be used to buy time, but offensive strike capabilities would play a prominent role in defeating the threat.

One way to build upon today’s current systems and to spur integration between offense and defense is by exploring the inherent multi-mission roles of missile defense interceptors and their constituent components—allowing the same missile to do both. Such inherent multimission flexibility would of course further blur the line between “distributed lethality” and “distributed defense.”

Although the seekers and terminal guidance are unique to every missile’s mission, the continued growth in the missiles’ reach and velocity, along with the continued miniaturization of components, could permit and encourage such flexibility. The addition of seeker types or attack modes may allow the expansion of mission sets, as seen by recent modifications to the Tomahawk Block IV and the SM-6 for the antiship mission.34

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter likewise announced in October 2016 that the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) will be outfitted with a different seeker, enabling it to hit moving targets and serve an antiship role.35 ESSM Block 2s will also reportedly acquire an active seeker similar to that of SM-6.36

The SM-6 development path again provides a model of how such capability might emerge in relatively short order. The SM-6 was originally designed as an SM-2 follow-on to defeat aircraft and cruise missiles. Additional capability was then added for terminal-phase intercept of ballistic missiles, and with a new seeker it can also function as an antiship missile, thereby assuming a strike capability. Additional changes to the seeker and warhead could potentially add a land-attack mission to the SM-6, essentially filling the role of the missile once known as the SM-4.37 A single missile in a single launch tube could thereby provide the warfighter with a range of effects. Here again, there is nothing new: past surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) like Nike Hercules, for instance, had a secondary surface-to-surface capability.

Lessons from the SM-6 development might be transferred to other airframes as well. The motor stack of the SM-3 IIA, for instance, has substantially longer legs than that currently employed by the SM-2 and SM-6. Should that airframe be paired with a payload similar to that intended for today’s SM-6 instead of the missile defense kill vehicle, it could provide the basis for a medium-range ballistic missile of sorts for basing at sea or elsewhere for antiship and land-attack missions. To be sure, such applications would not make sense for expensive and scarce assets like GBIs, THAAD, and SM-3s, but could be promising as a secondary mission for lower-cost interceptors.

Technological Revolution

The fifth and final path considered here is revolution. As missiles continue to proliferate and the cost of active defenses continues to rise, the demand has grown for new technologies to significantly bend the cost curve.38 This demand is for means to defeat missiles more cheaply and reduce the cost ratio between missiles and their counters. Among the more promising of these technology efforts are nonkinetic technologies that have larger magazines and the ability to engage missiles before they can deploy complex decoys and countermeasures, through either boost phase intercept or striking them prior to launch.

MDA director James Syring has described directed-energy technology as having the potential to “revolutionize missile defense by dramatically reducing, if not eliminating, the role of very expensive interceptors.”39 Primary among these efforts is the work being done in MDA to mount directed-energy lasers onto high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles. Efforts to reduce the size, weight, and power required for lasers could yield an operationally effective system that can intercept missiles in their boost phase, effectively thinning the herd for other missile defense systems in a structured salvo attack. Previous efforts to accomplish something similar were hindered by the platform required to house the laser.

The development of UAVs along with smaller lasers would build and improve upon the former concept of the Airborne Laser. This would have significant operational utility, as a boost phase laser would be able to intercept both shorter-range regional missiles as well as longer-range missiles that threaten the homeland. While a number of technical hurdles remain before any system can be deployed, the promise of this revolution could be immense. Other nonlaser directed-energy weapons also hold promise such as high-power microwaves, as demonstrated by the Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP). Missile defense sensors could contribute to multi-mission flexibility by serving as ISR for strike missions, providing space situational awareness, and being used to fry air and missile threats as a form of nonkinetic missile defeat.40

Directed-energy efforts are not limited, however, to only countering missile technologies. The Army High Energy Laser-Mobile Demonstrator seeks to demonstrate the capability to use directed energy to intercept even cheaper rockets and artillery. By housing the directedenergy weapon in a truck, the Army has more room for the laser generation and cooling equipment. Such a system could provide point defenses to mobile units should its capabilities come to fruition. One can envision similar technology for ships similar to the Laser Weapons System already deployed on the USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15). These applications would provide close-in defense of valuable military assets, improving their survivability and thus enhancing their deterrent value.

But revolution does not come easy. While these programs have promise, more funding is required for advanced technology development. Indeed, funding shortfalls, rather than technological maturity, appear to be the primary impediment to growth.41

Over the past five years in particular, MDA has moved away from being devoted primarily to research and development and instead put an increasing amount of its overall shrinking budget into procurement, operations and maintenance (O&M), and foreign assistance to Israel.42

This has meant relatively fewer resources for R&D, which seems at odds with the Third Offset strategy of the Department of Defense. Often the first programs to receive cuts in favor of these ongoing operational requirements are those for advanced and revolutionary technologies.

Part of the explanation for the lack of advanced research funding is that MDA’s budget has fallen as a whole, producing a situation in which it has to fit more missions into an ever-smaller top line. While according to the original charter of MDA the services were supposed to take on both the procurement and O&M for deployed systems, so far this budgetary transfer has not occurred. Even if such a division of labor were reached, it is not clear that the services would not sacrifice the missile defense mission in favor of other priorities. One way to resolve this possibility would be to designate integrated air and missile defense as a Major Force Program (MFP) to effectively fence the money designated to the services for the task. Such an arrangement might help ensure that designated services could not cannibalize missile defense programs in favor of other projects.

Organizing for Missile Defeat

The five paths described above attempt to lay out some considerations and questions for the future of missile defense and missile defeat. The institutions and organizations charged with implementing and executing the challenge of integrated air and missile defense also deserve attention during the process. The MDR legislative mandate anticipates this need by requiring statements of the process for determining requirements, force structure, and inventory objectives, as well as institutional roles and responsibilities. Numerous institutional and service changes may be required, as well as updates to joint doctrine, concepts of operation, and operational plans. Organizational responsibilities and identities are also likely to change, potentially including COCOMs and the Joint Staff.43

To pursue these new missions, the identity and mission of MDA and other entities may also need to be redefined. The MDA charter was last revised in 2009, and a number of new developments suggest that its mission may need to be updated, including whether it should retain a near exclusive focus on ballistic missile defense. MDA currently has little attention on cruise missile defense, for instance, but the MDR specifically draws attention to cruise missile threats to the homeland. Congress has furthermore designated MDA as the responsible agency for emerging hypersonic boost glide vehicles and for technical aspects of IAMD, both also highlighted in MDR. Still other organizational questions include the Joint Staff and the military command structure, such as the future of a JIAMDO-like organization and whether there could be a global missile defense-focused functional combatant command.

Should the missile defense and defeat missions be prioritized by the MDR in a manner broadly consistent with Vision 2020, the role and corresponding budgets for missile defense and missile defeat will require significant growth and prioritization.


    1. Donald J. Trump, “Military Readiness Speech” (speech at the Union League of Philadelphia, September 7, 2016).
    2. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, Conference Report to Accompany S.2943, Sec.1684, 114th Congress (2016): 629–32.
    3. Martin E. Dempsey, Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense: Vision 2020 (Joint Chiefs of Staff, December 5, 2013).
    4. MDA’s topline budget declined from $11 billion in 2007 to $8.4 billion in 2016, in adjusted 2017 dollars. Thomas Karako, Wes Rumbaugh, and Ian Williams, The Missile Defense Agency and the Color of Money (Washington, DC: CSIS, July 2016), 8.
    5. George Bush, National Policy on Ballistic Missile Defense (Office of The White House, NSPD-23, December 16, 2002).
    6. Thomas Karako, Ian Williams and Wes Rumbaugh, Missile Defense 2020: Next Steps to Defend the Homeland (Washington, DC: CSIS, forthcoming April 2017), 52–53.
    7. Justin Doubleday, “Missile Defense Agency not pursuing follow-on to SM-3 Block IIA interceptor,” Inside Defense, October 25, 2016,
    8. Sam LaGrone, “Navy Sinks Former Frigate USS Reuben James in Test of New Supersonic Anti-Surface Missile,” USNI News, March 8, 2016,
    9. The FY2017 budget request explicitly makes reference to a THAAD follow-on program with extended range and the ability to interface with other Army assets. Department of Defense, Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 President’s Budget Submission: Missile Defense Agency Defense-Wide Justification Book Volume 2a of 2 Research, Development, Test & Evaluation, Defense-Wide (Washington DC: DOD, 2016), 71–72. See also Department of the Army, “Air and Missile Defense Strategy,” 2012, 14.
    10. Brian P. McKeon, “Ballistic Missile Defense Policies and Programs” (remarks during hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, 114th Cong., 2nd sess., April 14, 2016).
    11. Jaroslaw Adamowski, “Poland to Select Patriot Systems Following PGZ-Raytheon Cooperation,” Defense News, July 5, 2016,
    12. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, Conference Report to Accompany S.1691, 114th Congress (2016), 640–41.
    13. James A. Winnefeld Jr., “Missile Defense and U.S. National Security” (speech, CSIS, Washington, DC, May 19, 2015).
    14. The U.S. Army has other aerostat-based sensor programs underway, some of which might have the potential to be expanded to include some cruise missile detection capability. See, for example, U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center, “Persistent Surveillance Systems—Tethered (PSS-T),” accessed February 17, 2017,
    15. Thomas Karako and Ian Williams, “JLENS Future Bleak, But Need for Capability Remains,” CSIS Missile Threat, April 5, 2016,
    16. Trump, “Military Readiness Speech.”
    17. Mark Gunzinger and Bryan Clark, Winning the Salvo Competition: Rebalancing America’s Air and Missile Defenses (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2016), 5.
    18. Daniel B. Allyn, “Army Priorities for the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) Program to Inform the MDA’s Program Budget Review Fiscal Year 2016 (PBR 16),” memo for the director of the Missile Defense Agency, October 8, 2014.
    19. Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Army Missile Defense Stretched Thin: Readiness, Crisis Response at Risk,” Breaking Defense, February 12, 2015,
    20. Missile Defense Agency, “Roadmap for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System” (report to Congress, February 15, 2016), 4–5.
    21. Robert Bell, “Presentation on Ballistic Missile Defense” (speech, May 10, 2016),; see also Pamela Rawe, “Maritime Theater Missile Defense Forum Completes at Sea Demonstration,” Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet Public Affairs, October 27, 2015,
    22. Department of Defense, Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, February 2010).
    23. Ju-min Park, “South Korea, Japan agree intelligence-sharing on North Korea threat,” Reuters, November 23, 2016,
    24. In fiscal year 2016, for example, Japan spent roughly $2.1 billion while South Korea increased the budget for its Korean Air and Missile Defense system to $1.43 billion for 2017. Japan Ministry of Defense, Defense Programs and Budget of Japan: Overview of FY2016 Budget (Tokyo: Ministry of Defense, 2016), 11,; “S. Korea to increase budget in 2017 to develop homegrown anti-missile system,” Xinhua, September 10, 2016,
    25. Thomas Karako, “The Dirty Secret of US-Israel Missile Defense Cooperation,” Defense One, July 28, 2016,
    26. Justin Doubleday, “Former CNO advocates for new missile defense review,” Inside Missile Defense 23, no. 4 (February 15, 2017): 1.
    27. Patriot launchers can, for instance, collocate different Patriot missiles—PAC-2, GEM-T, PAC-3, MSE, or others— which are, despite the Patriot name, largely distinct weapons.
    28. Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, “FY 2013 Annual Report,” January 2014, 122.
    29. Thomas Karako, “Looking East: European Air and Missile Defense after Warsaw,” CSIS Missile Threat, July 14, 2016,
    30. Jen Judson, “US Army’s Multi-Mission Launcher Defeats Cruise Missile, UAS Threat,” Defense News, April 7, 2016,
    31. Thomas Rowden, Peter Gumataotao, and Peter Fanta, “Distributed Lethality,” Proceedings Magazine 141, no. 1 (January 2015): 343.
    32. Andrew Feickert, The Army’s Future Combat System (FCS): Background and Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, August 3, 2009),
    33. “Club-K Container Missile System 2013,” YouTube, April 3, 2013,
    34. Sam LaGrone, “WEST: U.S. Navy Anti-Ship Tomahawk Set for Surface Ships, Subs Starting in 2021,” USNI News, February 18, 2016,
    35. Ashton Carter, “The Path to an Innovative Future for Defense” (speech, CSIS, Washington, DC, October 28, 2015).
    36. Kris Osborn, “Navy Readies ESSM Block 2 Ship Defense Missile for 2020 to Stop High-Tech Attacks,” Scout Warrior, September 30, 2016,
    37. “Standard SM-4 LASM,”, accessed February 17, 2017,
    38. Kenneth E. Todorov, “Missile Defense: Getting to the Elusive Right Side of the Cost Curve,” CSIS, April 2016,
    39. James Syring, “The Missile Defeat Posture and Strategy of the United States—The FY17 President’s Budget Request” (statement before the House Armed Services Committee, Strategic Forces Subcommittee, April 14, 2016).
    40. Association of the United States Army, U.S. Army Integrated Air and Missile Defense Capabilities: Enabling Joint Force 2020 and Beyond (Arlington, VA: Institute of Land Warfare, May 2014), 22,; Gunzinger and Clark, Winning the Salvo Competition, 43–48.
    41. Missile Defense Agency, Boost Phase Missile Defense Options (Report to Congress, January 3, 2014), 3, 7.
    42. Karako, Rumbaugh, and Williams, The Missile Defense Agency and the Color of Money, 5.
    43. “Our organizational structures, which were originally based on these traditional definitions of ‘Ballistic Missile Defense’ or ‘Air and Cruise Missile Defense,’ will continue to evolve into specific roles within the ‘Integrated Air and Missile Defense’ mission area.” Edward Cashman, “The Missile Defeat Posture and Strategy of the United States—the FY 17 President’s Budget Request” (statement before House Armed Services Committee, Strategic Forces Subcommittee, April 14, 2016).
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Missile Defense Project, "Five Paths to Maturing Missile Defense: Toward the 2017 Review," Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 1, 2017, last modified April 28, 2021,