Missile Defense and Defeat: Considerations for the New Policy Review

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The national defense authorization act signed into law in 2016 contained a provision mandating a review of missile defeat policy, strategy, and capability, to be completed and submitted to Congress by January 2018. This Missile Defeat Review (MDR) appears likely to serve as a successor to both the Department of Defense’s 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review and other publications by the Joint Staff. The first of its kind, the MDR represents a unique opportunity for the Donald Trump administration to articulate a vision for the future of air and missile defense and determine how that vision is to be implemented by the Missile Defense Agency, the Joint Staff, the services, and other entities. This review will take place in the context of both an evolving strategic environment and several recent strategic analyses on related issues.

Featuring contributions from Thomas Karako, Keith B. Payne, Brad Roberts, Henry A. Obering III, and Kenneth Todorov, this collection of essays explores how the strategic environment has evolved since 2010, and offers recommendations to help guide and inform the MDR’s development.

The Missile Defeat Review in Context

Thomas Karako

The defense authorization act signed into law on December 23, 2016, contained a provision mandating a review of missile defeat policy, strategy, and capability, to be completed and submitted to Congress in January 2018.1 This Missile Defeat Review (MDR) appears likely to serve as a successor to both the Department of Defense’s 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR) and other publications by the Joint Staff.2

The first of its kind, the MDR represents a unique opportunity for the Donald Trump administration to articulate a vision for the future of air and missile defense, and determine how that vision is to be implemented by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), the Joint Staff, the services, and other entities. This review will take place in the context of both an evolving strategic environment and several recent strategic analyses on related issues. Exploring these elements will help guide and inform the MDR’s development.

A Missile Renaissance: The Need for IAMD

The MDR comes amid a growing realization that missile-based weapons are acquiring evergreater prominence. One emerging trend in the global strategic environment is a kind of missile renaissance, characterized by a high supply and demand for precise, high-velocity, unmanned standoff delivery systems. This spectrum includes guided rockets, artillery, and mortars (RAM); antiship missiles; supersonic and long-range subsonic cruise missiles; guided and maneuvering reentry vehicles; depressed trajectory ballistic missiles; hypersonic boost glide weapons; and antisatellite weapons—as well as the means to counter them, including with air and missile defenses. In short, this missile renaissance encompasses “a complex and nearly continuous threat spectrum across the characteristics of altitude, speed, propulsion type, and range.”3

Missiles defenses, once considered exotic or theoretical, are now an established component of both U.S. and global security. Much remains to be done, however, to integrate defenses into the larger security architecture. Just as air superiority has long formed a major tenet of U.S. operational planning, missile defenses may continue to grow into a larger component of the defensive counterair (DCA) mission, an enabler of what one might call aerospace superiority.4

Maturing missile defense capabilities, their expansion, and their integration into operational planning could lead missile defense beyond a mere responsive measure to a more comprehensive “ballistic missile protection plan.”5

The MDR has the potential to revitalize and reshape the missile defense conversation, and indeed its very vocabulary. For good historical and operational reasons, the missile defense debate has largely been confined to ballistic missile defense (BMD), with cruise missile defense as either an afterthought or at least disconnected from the ballistic missile defense enterprise.

In the emerging security environment, a broader spectrum of counters will likely achieve greater prominence. BMD will remain critical, but BMD alone fails to capture and represent the full scope of the problem. The “B” in BMD excludes non-ballistic threats such as cruise missiles. The “M” is complicated by the increasing and interconnected challenge from various air-breathing and hybrid threats, such as boost glide vehicles, as well as lower-tier unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and RAM. And the “D” for defense is likewise incomplete, since countering missile threats must involve much more than simply intercepting them in flight.

To be sure, the technical challenges of ballistic missile defense are unique and in many ways more challenging than air defense. Acknowledging this, the MDR tasking preserves pride of place for ballistic missile threats.6

Nevertheless, the increasing salience of the larger air and missile spectrum suggests that one may see the acronyms MD or IAMD (Integrated Air and Missile Defense) with greater frequency. Organizational identities and missions may likewise need to evolve.7

By focusing on the defeat of the full spectrum of missile threats using a wide range of means, the legislative mandate for the MDR invites a more complete perspective, thereby helping move IAMD from unrealized aspiration to concrete reality. In 2013, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey described IAMD as “an evolving approach” and a “vision” to be realized by the end of the decade. In late 2014, the heads of the U.S. Army and Navy again spoke of this effort in the future tense:

Now is the opportunity to develop a long-term approach that addresses homeland missile defense and regional missile defense priorities—a holistic approach that is more sustainable and cost effective, incorporating “left-of-launch” and other non-kinetic means of defense.8

Realizing that vision will be easier said than done.9 Capabilities and operational concepts for IAMD, for instance, still need to be developed.10

Even when they are developed, they are unlikely to replace active means to defeat missiles right-of-launch. There will be no magic wand to counter missile threats prior to launch, nor is there any guarantee that the necessary sum of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR), strike, and other assets will be less expensive at the margin than additional kinetic air and missile defense interceptors. One Joint Staff publication states that “The best missile defense strategy is to destroy missiles prior to launch.” This may be an oversimplification. While defeating missiles prior to launch may be the better solution at the margin, an IAMD strategy cannot and should not depend upon a left-of-launch solution.

Expectation control about left-of-launch is therefore emphasized in many of the documents and public statements that have encouraged it. While endorsing a robust IAMD vision, for instance, General Dempsey simultaneously warned that “While these offensive actions can attrite portions of the air and missile threat, they cannot assure complete negation.”11

For the foreseeable future, active air and missile defenses right-of-launch will remain necessary to compensate for limitations on countering air and missile threats left-of-launch.

Drivers of the Review

While the strategic environment and responses change, the task of developing an effective missile defense strategy remains relatively constant. First, the purposes of missile defense and its contribution to the overall approach to national security must be defined relative to an updated assessment of current and emerging missile threats. Next, the available means to accomplish those ends need to be evaluated, including technological developments, budgetary levels, the state of the programs of record, and other policy considerations. Finally, the ways to translate available means into desired ends must be established to ensure that resources are marshaled appropriately and efficiently.

Threat Assessment

The MDR will begin with a review of the ballistic and cruise missile threats to the United States. The unprecedented rate of North Korean missile testing over the past several years represents both an improvement in capability and a desire to acquire intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), an intent recently made explicit by Kim Jong-un.12 Should Pyongyang develop and begin serial production of an ICBM capable of threatening the U.S. homeland, it could strain the level of homeland defenses currently fielded. Iran also continues to develop and test long-range missiles, working to improve their accuracy, range, and survivability. Iran also appears to be putting more emphasis on solid-fueled rockets, permitting greater promptness and mobility. Russia continues to develop and conspicuously display more sophisticated conventional cruise missiles that threaten NATO.13

China, too, has fielded the DF-21 “carrier killer,” the DF-26 “Guam killer,” and many other shorter-range ballistic and cruise missiles as part of its anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) strategy. Of course, both Russia and China also possess formidable arsenals of ICBMs capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the U.S. homeland.

Policy Goals

The next task will be to review the value of missile defense in relation to U.S. national security strategy. The MDR shapes this process by requiring an articulation of “policy, strategy, and objectives” for defeating ballistic, hypersonic, and cruise missile threats. To that end, the report requires a description of U.S. “posture, capability, and force structure,” along with 5- and 10-year goals.

By way of comparison, the 2010 review identified six major goals for missile defense policy:

  • Defense of the homeland against the threat of limited ballistic missile attack
  • Defense against regional missile threats to U.S. forces while protecting allies and partners and enabling them to defend themselves
  • Operationally realistic testing as a prerequisite to fielding new capabilities
  • Ensuring that the pursuit of new capabilities is fiscally sustainable over the long term
  • Flexibility to adapt as threats change
  • U.S. leadership of expanded international missile defense efforts

Each of these goals from the BMDR remains worthy, but their meanings and priority are likely to be reevaluated. The prioritization of U.S. homeland defense, for instance, will likely remain atop the missile defense policy agenda, and could receive additional emphasis given North Korea’s recent activity.

For good reason, the past three administrations have shared a discomfort about remaining wholly defenseless against ballistic missile attack. The refusal to rely on purely offensive deterrence or accept strategic vulnerability with North Korea will likely be retained, but additional action may be required to outpace the threat.

A separate question concerns Russia and China. The 2010 BMDR observed that long-range homeland missile defenses would be used against missile attack from “any source,” but also noted that interceptor capacity is insufficient to defeat large-scale attacks and furthermore is not “intended to affect the strategic balance” with Russia and China. As the administration conducts a review of missile defense and defeat strategies and policy, missile defense should be examined as a means to enhance deterrence. Defenses for military forces and strategic capabilities, for instance, could improve their survivability, and thus enhance strategic stability.

A renewed emphasis on homeland missile defense, however, should not come at the expense of regional missile defense efforts for U.S. forces in the Asia Pacific, the Middle East, and Europe. The U.S. contribution to NATO missile defense notably includes the Aegis Ashore sites, one now operational in Romania and another under construction in Poland. Because they are nearly identical to the defensive systems onboard Aegis ships that support air defense and strike missions, they also represent the potential basis for a flexible and adaptable IAMD strategy for Europe.


Finally, the budgetary context will also shape the means available to address the threat. In adjusted 2017 dollars, the MDA topline has fallen by 23.4 percent between 2007 and 2016. Reversing that trend would be a prerequisite to any more ambitious missile defense efforts; indeed, an upward inflection point in FY2018 is necessary to implement the current strategy in the face of growing threats.

The Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense Office’s (JIAMDO) already modest budget has also continued to decline in recent years, from $109.3 million to $32.8 million between 2010 and 2017 alone, and considerably below past highs of $155.3 million in 1999 and $109.8 million in 2004. Given JIAMDO’s significance to both offense-defense integration and the challenge of missile defeat, this downward trend will also be important to correct.

Differences between MDR and BMDR

The MDR has some notable differences from its predecessor, in the first instance by having broader scope. Indeed, its detailed statutory mandate is twice as long as that for its 2010 predecessor. Whereas the object of the BMDR was ballistic missile defense policy and strategy, the MDR addresses the missile defeat capability, policy, and strategy of the United States, with respect to three distinct components:

  • Left- and right-of-launch ballistic missile defense;
  • The integration of offensive and defensive forces for the defeat of ballistic missiles of various kinds; and
  • Cruise missile defense of the homeland.

Despite this broader scope, ballistic missile defense clearly retains pride of place, being the explicit focus of two of these three components. The MDR’s scope encompasses ballistic missile defense (or rather defeat) across the full range of active, passive, kinetic, and nonkinetic measures from a variety of platforms and domains, with the express inclusion of hypersonic boost glide vehicles. The third part of the review focuses on cruise missile defense for the U.S. homeland, differentiating it from the ballistic missile defense and defeat components, which encompass regional defense as well.

About half of the 18 elements of the MDR have language almost identical to provisions from the BMDR. Indeed, the MDR includes almost everything from the BMDR, but simply adds more. Those with no prior analogue in statutory requirements include:

  • Role of deterrence for missile defeat
  • Missile defense posture, capability, and force structure
  • Desired 5- and 10-year end-states for missile defeat programs, with benchmarks and milestones, as well as their integration and interoperability
  • Means to affect the offense-defense cost curve
  • Options for codevelopment with allies
  • Statement of declaratory policy
  • Role and plans for achieving multi-mission capabilities
  • Description of the required indications and warning capabilities and a description of how to acquire them
  • Ways in which adversaries can adversely affect U.S. indications and warning, and the impact of such effects.

Another important change from the BMDR to the MDR is authorship. Rather than being directed to the secretary of defense alone, the secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs will jointly conduct the review. This coordination could lead to the report having a relatively more operational flavor, and better highlight the demand signals from combatant commands relative to both capacity and capability. The Joint Staff created several significant documents on the role of air and missile defense after the BMDR, including the Vision 2020 report submitted in 2013 by then-chairman General Martin Dempsey as well as the 2012 Joint Publication Countering Air and Missile Threats, both of which are discussed below.

Given the emphasis on “integration of offensive and defensive force,” the staff of JIAMDO, or at least the Joint Staff, will likely have a significant role in drafting the MDR. Charged with looking at this particular problem set on a military-wide perspective, JIAMDO has helped develop requirements, conduct simulations and analysis, and develop new doctrine, architectures, and concepts of operation. It would be unfortunate if JIAMDO’s expertise on such matters were not leveraged for the MDR.

Missile Defense Policy

Another development informing the review is the updated expression of missile defense policy found in the recent defense authorization act. The revision made four basic changes to the National Missile Defense Act of 1999, namely an updated status of homeland or national missile defense; a more comprehensive list of the objects to be defended; a modified description of the threat; and a revised description of the desired capability.

Comparison of 1999 NMD Act to 2016 Update

 1999 NMD Act2016 Update
StatusIt is the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possibleIt is the Policy of the United States to maintain and improve
Description of defensean effective National Missile Defense systeman effective, robust layered missile defense system
Object of defensecapable of defending the territory of the United Statescapable of defending the territory of the United States, allies, deployed forces, and capabilities
Description of threatagainst limited ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized, or deliberate)against the developing and increasingly complex ballistic missile threat
Fundingwith funding subject to the annual authorization of appropriations and the annual appropriation of funds for National Missile Defense.with funding subject to the annual authorization of appropriations and the annual appropriation of funds for National Missile Defense

This updated language reflects changes to both the missile threat and to the current state of U.S. missile defense efforts. Much has transpired in the last 17 years, and the updated language removes some anachronisms. Homeland missile defenses were deployed in late 2004, for instance, so it makes sense to replace “deploy as soon as technologically possible” with “maintain and improve.”

Other elements of the 2016 update are not too dissimilar from past expressions of current programs and policy. Expanding the scope to encompass both homeland and regional missile defense, rather than national territory alone, is also consistent with policy and program developments of the past decade, including the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Aegis defenses.

Another change applies to the adjectives describing the desired defense, from “effective” to “effective, robust [and] layered.” These changes, however, may represent a less significant policy shift than meets the eye. The 2010 BMDR also embraced “robust” defense for both long-range threats to the homeland as well as regional defenses. The Obama administration had also originally planned for a layered homeland defense featuring both Ground-based Interceptors (GBIs) and forward-deployed SM-3 IIBs. MDA’s own charter (updated in 2009) also prescribes “an integrated [and] layered ballistic missile defense.”14

Finally, the new text removes the description of a “limited ballistic missile attack,” and instead prescribes a defense against “the developing and increasingly complex ballistic missile threat.” This language, too, is not far removed from recent policy statements. The BMDR, for instance, also described missile threats as complex and growing.15

These legislative changes should also be seen as but a piece of a more complete expression of U.S. missile defense policy. The 1999 National Missile Defense Act never defined the whole scope of missile defense policy or activities under the Bush and Obama administrations, and neither will the 2016 update. While executive branch expressions of missile defense policy by the Bush and Obama administrations were informed by the 1999 act and tended to hew closely to it, they did not merely restate it verbatim. President Bush’s NSPD-23 from 2002, for instance, had a slight reformulation of the “limited” language from 1999, as did the 2010 BMDR. Other documents and statements by the Trump administration will provide additional detail about the parameters of missile defense efforts, perhaps most notably in the forthcoming MDR. The MDR’s legislative requirement for policy and strategy statement on homeland cruise missile defense, for instance, already goes beyond the 2016 revisions in the NDAA.

Growing Attention to IAMD

Given the new role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs in drafting the MDR, it may be relevant for the review process to recall the 2013 chairman’s document, Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense: Vision 2020, and some related Joint Staff publications. Vision 2020 warned of an evolving security environment characterized by a “full spectrum of air and missile threats,” in the hands of both major and minor adversaries, taxing some elements of American military superiority and creating an expanded battlespace that blurs the operational lines between regional, trans-regional, and homeland.

Despite declining defense budgets, this emerging reality has driven an increasing demand for air and missile defenses, both among combatant commands, allies, and partners.

To help meet these demands, Chairman Dempsey identified six imperatives to make IAMD a reality:

  • Better distribution and use of information
  • Increased interdependence among the services as well as with allies and partners
  • Targeted development, modernization, fielding, and science and technology to fill capability gaps
  • Connecting passive defense efforts to addressing capability and capacity shortfalls
  • Improving and leveraging partner contributions
  • Improving awareness of IAMD and integrating a framework of concepts, doctrine, acquisition, and war planning into combat operations16

To be sure, Vision 2020 was an aspirational document articulating goals, rather than a description of current capabilities or even currently planned capabilities. In the three years since the document was issued, the DOD’s budget has tightened significantly, so it is far from clear that the U.S. military is on track to achieve anything approximating these goals by 2020. The MDR notably requires end-state descriptions for the years 2023 and 2028, as well as milestones and benchmarks along the way, but much would be required to tackle the ambitious goals of Vision 2020.

Paving the way for the 2013 call for increased IAMD effort was another document also worthy of close consideration prior to the upcoming MDR. The 2012 Joint Publication 3-01 on Countering Air and Missile Threats laid out many of the operational procedures and problems for conducting counterair operations and the priorities commanders should consider in planning. Of particular note is the repeated emphasis that offensive counterair operations (OCA) are “the preferred method of countering air and missile threats,” and furthermore that “The best missile defense strategy is to destroy missiles prior to launch.”17

But while left-of-launch may in principle be optimal, the aspiration is probably too good to realize, and at any rate an offensive-only posture is too great a gamble: “A mission failure in IAMD risks suffering potentially devastating attacks that could affect the outcome of the entire campaign.”18

The 2012 document also emphasizes the importance of integration, particularly as a means to maximize a limited inventory. Assets for ballistic missile defense are singled out as a uniquely valuable and scarce resource, so while many of these assets may have a multimission capability, such as for air defense, the document suggests they ought to be conserved for ballistic missile attack.

Another notable emphasis of the 2012 publication is the role of passive defense, which it highlighted as “the responsibility of every commander in the joint force.”19

Attention to the active-passive dichotomy is another new addition to the MDR statutory requirements relative to the BMDR. Passive defenses can help compensate for capacity shortfalls in active air and missile defenses. While mobility and deception are not always considered part of the air or missile defense mission, the increased quantity and quality of adversary missiles could raise the importance of such tactics for U.S. policy and planning.

Path Forward

Missile threats to the United States continue to grow, and the various means to counter them will require more attention. As the Joint Staff and the Office of the Secretary of Defense embark upon the Missile Defeat Review process, a wide range of policy, budgetary, and strategic considerations will play a role, as well as a review of the current programs of record and a new assessment of emerging missile threats. The recent statutory revisions to missile defense declaratory policy and the renewed attention to the broad IAMD problem set make the review especially important and timely.

To help inform the conversations around the MDR, the following essays help lay down some markers for what considerations and solutions will be important to defending against and defeating the missile threats of the near future.


    1. In January 2017, President Trump also directed a new national defense strategy to include both a nuclear policy review and a new ballistic missile defense review. Presidential Memorandum No. 2017-02282, 82 Fed. Reg. 8983, February 1, 2017, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/02/01/2017-02282/rebuilding-the-us-armedforces.
    2. Martin E. Dempsey, Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense: Vision 2020 (Joint Chiefs of Staff, December 5, 2013); Department of Defense, Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, June 2014); William E. Gortney, Countering Air and Missile Threats (Joint Publication 301, March 23, 2012).
    3. 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).
    4. Counterair is the term used in Gortney, Countering Air and Missile Threats. Antiair is the term used by the U.S. Navy and Marines, and is thus the object of the Aegis Ashore antiair study mandated by Congress in the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). See U.S. Marine Corps, Antiair Warfare (Washington, DC: U.S. Marine Corps, 2000), http://www.marines.mil/Portals/59/Publications/MCWP%203-22%20Antiair%20Warfare.pdf; National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, Conference Report to Accompany S.2943, Sec.1685, 114th Congress (2016): 632–33.
    5. Admiral Archer Macy, “Next Steps in Missile Defense: Future Directions” (speech, CSIS, Washington, DC, April 7, 2015).
    6. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, Conference Report to Accompany S.2943, Sec.1684, 114th Congress (2016): 629–32.
    7. As the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense Organization (JIAMDO) director recently observed, “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.” Cashman, “The Missile Defeat Posture and Strategy of the United States—the FY 17 President’s Budget Request.”
    8. Jonathan W. Greenert and Raymond T. Odierno, “Adjusting the Ballistic Missile Defense Strategy,” Memorandum, November 5, 2014.
    9. See Brad Roberts, “Anticipating the 2017 Review of U.S. Missile Defense Policy and Posture,” elsewhere in this volume.
    10. Gortney, Countering Air and Missile Threats, V-17. As the Defense Science Board further noted in July 2015, “To provide secure ballistic and cruise missile defense, DoD will need to develop capabilities that allow its forces to move ‘left of launch’ and attack the kill chain.” Defense Science Board, DSB Summer Study Report on Strategic Surprise (Washington DC: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, July 2015), 3.
    11. Dempsey, Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense: Vision 2020, 3.
    12. Tony Munroe and Jack Kim, “North Korea’s Kim says close to test launch of ICBM,” Reuters, January 1, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-kim-idUSKBN14L0RN.
    13. Roger McDermott, “Moscow Pursues Enhanced Precision-Strike Capability,” Eurasia Daily Monitor 14, issue 1 (January 17, 2017), https://jamestown.org/program/moscow-pursues-enhanced-precision-strike-capability/.
    14. “The Missile Defense Agency’s (MDA) mission is to develop, test, and field an integrated, layered, ballistic missile defense system (BMDS) to defend the United States, its deployed forces, allies, and friends against all ranges of enemy ballistic missiles in all phases of flight.” Missile Defense Agency, “Our Mission,” https://www.mda.mil/about/mission.html.
    15. Department of Defense, Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2010), 3, 16, 23.
    16. Dempsey, Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense, 4–5.
    17. Gortney, Countering Air and Missile Threats, xviii.
    18. Dempsey, Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense, 3.
    19. Gortney, Countering Air and Missile Threats, xxii.
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Tom Karako, "Missile Defense and Defeat: Considerations for the New Policy Review," Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 1, 2017, last modified April 28, 2021, https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile-defense-and-defeat/.