A central theme of the 2019 Missile Defense Review is the desirability of integrating offensive forces with active and passive defenses. But what would the realization of such a comprehensive and integrated approach look like, and what would it require? Despite broad and sustained interest, little progress has been made in the actual integration of offenses with air and missile defenses, or even clearly elucidating and defining the concept.
In this report, CSIS Missile Defense Project senior associate Brian R. Green examines the meaning of offense-defense integration for the purposes of missile defeat, and describes the scope of what would be required for its greater realization. Thorough implementation of offense-defense integration for countering missile threats would touch almost every aspect of the U.S. military, including policy, doctrine, organization, training, materiel, and personnel. While desirable, complete integration down to the tactical level will be technically and operationally difficult to achieve. Even where possible, its realization will be neither rapid nor easy.
A central theme of the 2019 Missile Defense Review (MDR) is the desirability of integrating offensive forces with active and passive defenses. “If deterrence and diplomacy fail and conflict with a rogue state or within a region ensues,” the MDR says, “U.S. attack operations supporting missile defense will degrade, disrupt, or destroy an adversary’s missiles before they are launched.” The document calls for the United States to integrate missile defenses with both strike forces and information, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets to provide “the broadest set of options in a crisis or conflict and [improve] the overall likelihood of countering offensive missile attacks.” Such an approach is said to be necessary to “a comprehensive missile defense strategy.” But what would the realization of such a comprehensive and integrated approach look like, and what would it require?
The MDR’s attention to offense-defense integration (ODI) is part of a long, slowly intensifying trend. In November 2014, then-Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert signed out an “eight-star memo” to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel questioning the extant approach to dealing with missile threats. The memo contended that the “present acquisition-based strategy is unsustainable in the current fiscal environment” and, in the somewhat ambiguous observation that current strategy “favors forward deployment of assets in lieu of deterrence-based options to meet contingency demands,” also raised questions on the best balance of defenses and offenses. They called for “a holistic approach that is more sustainable and cost-effective, incorporating ‘left-of-launch’ and other non-kinetic means of defense.” Congress likewise expressed interest in ODI through its 2017 statutory requirement for a “missile defeat review,” directing the Department of Defense to examine U.S. policy, plans, posture, strategy, and capabilities to defeat adversary ballistic missiles both before and after launch. In April 2017, the Joint Staff released new doctrine on integrated air and missile defense. In May 2020, U.S. Army leadership expressed interest in better integrating its offensive fires with its defenses by using data from its future air and missile defense command and control system.
Despite broad and sustained interest, little progress has been made in the actual integration of offenses with defenses, or even clearly elucidating and defining the concept. The 2019 MDR touches on some of the policy, strategy, planning, and command and control (C2) aspects of ODI, but efforts to generate more in-depth understanding and action have largely foundered. To take one example, two of the U.S. Army’s six modernization priorities include long-range precision fires and air and missile defense. Despite locating both priorities’ cross-functional teams in the same building, plans for integrating their capabilities remain quite distant. This essay considers what ODI means and what it could mean for the U.S. military. Four major themes will be evident:
- ODI is more critical today than it has been in the past and represents an essential concept for achieving military advantage in the future. As the air and missile threats on the modern battlefield become faster, more complex, and more lethal, measures that help U.S. forces survive and increase combat efficiency will be paramount.
- ODI is relevant not just to ballistic missile defense (BMD) operations but to countering a variety of other missile threats as well.
- A thorough implementation of ODI would touch almost every aspect of the U.S. military, including policy, doctrine, organization, training, materiel, and personnel. It would require a fundamental rethinking of terms such as “offense” and “defense” and of how the joint force fights.
- Integration has limits. While desirable, complete ODI down to the tactical level will be technically and operationally difficult to achieve. Even where possible, its realization will be neither rapid nor easy
Improved ODI would go a long way to countering modern missile threats. But ODI is not a panacea. A better appreciation of its benefits and challenges should give decisionmakers a better sense of how to proceed.