The Future of Homeland Missile Defense

The annual Space and Missile Defense conference held August 11-14 in Huntsville, Alabama covered a wide range of topics, but the future of Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program was among the most prominent.Speakers at the four-day event included Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Elaine Bunn, LTG Charles Jacoby of NORTHCOM, Admiral Cecil Haney of STRATCOM, Senator Jeff Sessions, and Rep. Mike Rogers, all of whom conveyed the importance of missile defense progress. The most significant remarks for GMD, however, were those given by Missile Defense Agency Director, Vice Admiral James Syring. Buoyed by a successful June 22 intercept, the program’s future now seems less uncertain, with some significant improvements on track for the end of this decade—including new sensors, a new booster, and a redesigned kill vehicle.

It is indeed unfortunate that missiles as delivery systems were not built into the nuclear framework, an omission that affects Iran’s neighbors more acutely than negotiators in Europe or the United States. Iranian conventional missile capabilities already concern its neighbors even without an Iranian bomb, as witnessed by billions already invested in missile defenses by partners in the region. The time required to purchase or develop, deploy, and train to both offensive missiles and missile defense interceptors far exceeds the relatively short nuclear breakout period Iran is expected to have under the framework. Further missile defense cooperation would help realize the potential of these past investments and help hedge against eventual breakout.

Some conference observers were surprised that Syring chose to so candidly detail past GMD failures of the previous two decades. This was probably a shrewd choice, however, for the approach conveyed how many past failures have had exasperatingly-simple causes and unrelated to the most complicated component of GMD, the kill vehicle. Most of those related to the kill vehicle not due to high-technology challenges with hit-to-kill, but instead to simple manufacturing or reliability defects. Syring also described recent and planned GMD improvements and how the June intercept has helped put to rest some criticisms and nagging concerns.

MDA’s plan for the future of GMD includes several major improvements by the 2020 timeframe: a new Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR) in the Pacific, a faster-burning two-stage interceptor, fourteen additional interceptors at Ft. Greely, and a redesigned kill vehicle. It remains uncertain whether or not an additional site is added on the Northeast United States, as recommended in 2012 by the National Academy of Sciences, but studies for four possible locations have been proceeding apace.

The evolution of GMD’s kill vehicles, the part of the interceptor which collides with the target, deserves the attention given it by VADM Syring. Of the 26 interceptors deployed in Alaska and the four deployed in California, about a third are the newer type, designated CE-2; the rest are the older CE-1s. These existing kill vehicles were deployed in response to a presidential directive, with essentially prototypes developed under the ABM Treaty quickly being put into silos. Notably, five of the eight past GMD failures involved the obsolete CE-0 kill vehicle dating back to the 1990s, which is not deployed at all, and being tested with fewer and less sophisticated sensors than those now available for discrimination. Even counting that older version, the system is now 9 for 17.

The next steps for GMD’s kill vehicles are threefold. First, MDA will make modest improvements to the CE-2 kill vehicle, which will be wrapped up in what will be called CE-2 Block I. Of the 14 interceptors to be added to Ft. Greely by 2018, 10 are likely to be of this updated version. Second, there will be a newly redesigned kill vehicle (RKV), which represents an important opportunity to expand well beyond the capabilities of those currently deployed, as well as capitalize on significant technical and testing advances of the last decade—such as improved “talk-back” sensor communication already available on other regional defenses. Released in February, the President’s budget request for MDA over the next five years includes some $700 million for the RKV, with $99 million slated for FY15. A third and longer-term step, post-2020, will be toward an entirely new kill vehicle capable of intercepting multiple targets, designed to keep pace with the sophistication of foreign missile threats.

The 2020 timeframe is not so far off, but what this RKV will look like and who will build it remains unclear. MDA and DoD have respectively been conducting Analyses of Alternatives, but these recommendations remain unknown. One possibility is to derive the RKV from the THAAD program, which has gone 11 for 11 since its reincarnation with hit-to-kill technology. Another option is to base it on existing technology from the SM-3 and Aegis, which has also had a highly successful record (28 of 34) for several variants. It might also be based on earlier version of the EKV, or on Arrow 3. Whether or not MDA competes the RKV design or picks a noncompetitive path based on some existing program, it would be good if that path begins soon. By 2020, some currently deployed kill vehicles will be approaching the end of their service lives.

During the Hunstsville conference, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Elaine Bunn remarked that one should not expect “any major changes” in missile defense policy for the coming few years, emphasizing instead that this will be a time of pragmatic implementation and evolution of the plans and systems already on the books. The path forward for GMD appears to include some fairly substantial improvements between now and 2020. With the June intercept validating the system and MDA’s plans now publicized, it’s time for these implementation steps to get underway.

Originally published by the CSIS Project on Nuclear Issues.