A Vector Check for America’s Missile Defense: Assessing the Course for the Trump Administration

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Note: This appears as Chapter 5 in Missile Defense and Defeat: Consideration for the New Policy Review.

A Vector Check for America’s Missile Defense: Assessing the Course for the Trump Administration

Kenneth Todorov

The reality of a Trump administration has given rise to a wave of euphoria about increased Pentagon budgets, new possibilities for hawkish zealots, and second chances for programs thwarted by the previous administration. Nowhere is that euphoria more prevalent than in the missile defense community, made up of national security watchers, political power players jockeying for position, interested industry constituencies, and the military community itself.

There is little doubt that the defense budget and spending for the missile defense mission will increase under President Trump, but the key questions are how much additional funding will be available and exactly what the nation should do to best defend itself. Mr. Trump himself has been adamant that any increases in defense spending would require offsets through reductions in overhead, bureaucracy, and other Pentagon programs. Given that the decisions surrounding the future of America’s missile defense will be bounded by fiscal reality, it will be critical to make the right choices. Missile defense has been and will remain an expensive venture, and the nation does not have the luxury to choose carelessly, both because we simply cannot afford to, but also because the growing threat will demand we plan realistically for the future, or potentially suffer unthinkable consequences.

The threat from a ballistic missile and increasingly from a nonballistic missile attack on the United States continues to grow. Threat systems around the world continue to mature in quality, quantity, and variety. Adversary technologies are demonstrating more sophisticated and reliable missiles with increasing complexity, range, and accuracy. America’s ability to develop robust yet affordable missile defense will be challenging. Despite the almost certain increases in missile defense funding, the anticipated windfall is unlikely to measure up to the anticipated appetite.

Now is the time for a fresh look at the many challenges and resulting questions that surround our nation’s missile defense posture—exactly how do we proceed; in what do we invest the still-limited resources we have; and to what lengths do we go in order to defend our homeland and our interests around the world from the growing threat of ballistic and nonballistic missiles? For further consideration—is it possible to upset the global strategic balance and deterrence equation if we go too far? These are the fundamental questions facing the Trump administration.

Current Missile Defense Policy

On February 1, 2010, the secretary of defense delivered the nation’s first ever Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR) to Congress after a nearly yearlong effort within the Department of Defense to dissect the then-current challenges being faced by the missile defense mission. Given the new administration, changes in the threat, our own capabilities, and technological advances that might enable new options, it is time to reexamine our national policy. The policies implemented in 2010 sought to sustain and enhance our ability to defend the homeland against a limited long-range ballistic missile attack from specific rogue states. The world has rapidly changed and our approach must keep pace. It is time to expand our national policies and focus areas for missile defense.

Let us first briefly review the existing guidance. The 2010 BMDR Report outlined six broad missile defense policy priorities:

  1. Defend the U.S. homeland from a limited attack from states such as North Korea and Iran;
  2. Defend against regional threats to U.S. forces (whatever their source), while protecting allies and partners and enabling them to defend themselves;
  3. Test new capabilities under realistic conditions before deploying;
  4. Ensure new capabilities are fiscally sustainable;
  5. Ensure the flexibility in capabilities needed for a changing world;
  6. Lead expanded international efforts for missile defense.

These priorities have served us well over the past seven years, and while some will be continued in the new administration, there is a need for change, expansion, and growth. Clearly, much has changed in the world of missile defense since the last BMDR. The ways in which the threat has developed demand a fresh look at strategies we designed to protect our interests, first at home, and then abroad. Changes in the applicable variables have been so rapid in recent years that our nation has de facto embarked on a course for missile defense that has advanced faster than our national policy of 2010 had articulated. In essence, the rate of change of the threat landscape has resulted in a mismatch of policy to strategy to technology. It is also time for a fully synchronized approach to all of missile defense— ballistic, nonballistic, and air breathing—where our national strategy catches up with the totality of the threat rather than being focused on only one element of it. This updated approach, considering all existing and emerging threats and possible new technological solutions in response, while enormous in scope, is critical. The Trump administration will naturally want to put its imprint on where we go as a nation, and in doing so, will reshape our critical national policy on missile defense. This points to the question of exactly where and how far we go.

In military speak, a “vector check” is a term of art often used to connote taking a look to validate one’s direction or “course heading” on a given issue. It is also a check with leadership to ensure one is on the task assigned. It is an opportunity to examine where one has been, and where one goes from there. A vector check usually comes with course corrections that even if minor, have the possibility to alter possible outcomes long into the future. The remainder of this essay will examine the many aspects of current missile defense priorities and policies. It will attempt to offer a fresh look, a vector check of sorts regarding those priorities, programs, and policies, then suggest where we as a nation should either remain on course, make minor course corrections, and perhaps most importantly, where we need to blaze a new trail for America’s missile defense.

Stay the Course

Maintain the Current Homeland Ballistic Missile Defense Program of Record

We should maintain the vector that will make us safer—in this case, the existing program of record (POR) for the U.S. homeland. This applies not only to finishing the plan to deploy 44 Ground-based Interceptors (GBIs), which is nearing completion, but more importantly, continuing our commitment to update and modernize the existing ballistic missile defense system (BMDS) to ensure continued performance improvements and long-term sustainment. Included within this vector is maintaining our commitment to enhancing features of the existing system that take it into the future.

We should also maintain our commitment to upgrading the existing Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) with the follow-on Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV). Leveraging technological advances within industry, and using a “best of breed” approach, the RKV will result in a kill vehicle that is much more reliable, producible, and testable than the existing model. This program remains a necessary step toward making the BMDS more operationally effective and reliable. The methodical systems engineering rigor required to develop the RKV will also provide invaluable lessons for the nation’s next-generation kill vehicle, the Multi-Object Kill Vehicle (MOKV)—for example, the ability to communicate from one kill vehicle to another.

Other POR enhancements, such as ground system upgrades and infrastructure improvements, are absolutely critical to future BMDS health and also must be maintained.

Continue Preliminary Work on a Third Interceptor Site, but Make No Commitment to Putting More Interceptors in the Ground

For the last several years, debate surrounding a potential “third site,” sometimes referred to as the “East Coast Site,” has been one of the hottest topics regarding the future of missile defense. The Obama administration and the Department of Defense have not formally committed to a third site, citing limited resources and higher priorities such as improvements to the existing BMDS and enhancements in midcourse discrimination technologies. Given that little has changed that lowers the priority of those upgrades, and the fact that a commitment to more interceptors would cost billions of dollars, a decision to move forward with a third site would at this point be folly. The prudent path would be to continue the operational and environmental work required to enable the possibility of a third site, should the operational need, which does not today exist, arise to emplace more interceptors in the coming years.

The argument to refrain from committing to a third site is not based on fiscal realities alone. Considerable debate remains on whether additional interceptors in any location, east coast or elsewhere, would provide additional operational advantage over the existing BMDS architecture. Proponents have long argued an additional site would provide “shoot-look-shoot” capability against incoming threats, yet that argument falls short when we consider the nation lacks effective means to “look,” or confirm a kill of an incoming reentry vehicle. A fact widely acknowledged by the warfighter is that a third site would offer more “battlespace,” providing more intercept decision time and therefore more interceptors with which to react. Despite the benefits, spending billions of dollars on a third site would not, at this time, provide the requisite “bang for the buck” to make the effort worthwhile. Increased battlespace and inventory alone do not justify the cost of committing resources, considering the other higher priorities that clearly exist.

Make Course Corrections

Accelerate Work on the Multi-Object Kill Vehicle

In light of recent rapid advances of potential threats, the current pace of technological development for the Multi-Object Kill Vehicle is inadequate. The MOKV system allows for more than one kill vehicle to be launched from a single booster, and consists of a carrier vehicle with onboard sensors and several small, simple kill vehicles that can be independently cued against objects in a threat cluster. The integrated payload is designed to fit on existing and future interceptor boosters. Each interceptor will be equipped with an advanced sensor, as well as divert, attitude-control, and communications technologies, to enable each MOKV to home-in on an individual target. The current program is currently largely experimental and developmental. Now is time to accelerate the technology/miniaturization and prototyping of MOKV, alongside RKV, rather than at the relatively glacial pace of MOKV delivery by the middle to late in the next decade.

Given the very real potential for increased raid sizes of incoming hostile missiles and the increased complexity of the target scene, the possibility exists in the not-too-distant future that the current BMDS could be outmatched by sheer numbers of incoming threats. It is a simple game of numbers. The current approach of countering one incoming threat with a single kinetic kill vehicle on an expensive booster is adequate today, but will be much less so as the numbers of potential threats increase. The MOKV is the force multiplier that will enable the nation’s competitive advantage, and its development must be accelerated.

Acknowledge the Cruise Missile Threat and Develop an Action Plan to Address It

It is time for America to prioritize homeland cruise missile defense above regional ballistic missile defense. The threat to the U.S. homeland from cruise missiles, predominantly from China and Russia, is increasing at an alarming rate. Russia in particular is progressing toward its goal of deploying long-range, conventionally armed cruise missiles with ever-increasing standoff launch distances from its bombers, submarines, and surface combatants, augmenting Russia’s possible courses of action for flexible deterrent options short of the nuclear threshold. The use of these weapons in such scenarios has been part of Russia’s publicized doctrine for years. Making the problem worse, detecting cruise missiles launches, which can be done from the air, ground, or sea, is much harder than detecting a ballistic missile launch, making the element of surprise a more likely reality for any potential adversary. Published guidance on national missile defense policy has been limited to ballistic missiles, but the reality of the threat demands we take a “whole-of-missile-defense” look to include cruise missile defense in the greater problem set, focusing first on defense of our national capital region.

Today, DoD’s efforts toward solving the cruise missile conundrum are uncoordinated, underresourced, and lack a dedicated technology and developmental sponsor. Attempts to “assign” this problem to one of the military services, most recently the U.S. Air Force, have been met with institutional resistance and ambivalence. While some efforts have been made toward solving the problem of cruise missile detection (most recently the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS, for which funding was pulled by Congress), those efforts are largely conducted piecemeal and without sufficient coordination or service “buy-in.” Any efforts to review U.S. policy toward missile defense must include cruise missile defense and establish it as a national imperative. It is a problem we can no longer ignore.

Fund the Missile Defense Agency to Refocus on Research and Development

Through no fault of its own, and largely a victim of its own success, DoD’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has lately been forced to focus on procurement of missile defense systems, sustainment of existing capabilities, and increasingly, operations. As a result, research and development of innovative experimental technologies has suffered. MDA’s original charter was to develop cutting-edge missile systems and then transfer operating responsibilities to the respective branches of service—but in almost all cases, this has not happened. In the rare instances where it has happened, programs have suffered for lack of attention, or have fallen victim to service parochialism or diverging financial priorities. In addition, MDA has seen its annual budget reduced by more than $1 billion (roughly 13 percent) over the past four years. Having been forced to do more with less, the trend at MDA has increasingly been toward operations, maintenance, and procurement of existing systems versus research and development of new ones. Important pieces of the mission are being neglected.

Left to tend their own interests, the respective military services will gladly stand idly by and watch this trend continue. From their perspective, the alternative is to fund these activities from their own budgets, something less than tenable given all the other budget pressures on maintaining force structure and readiness. Yet if defense of the U.S. homeland is indeed a priority, Congress must consider legislating a solution that forces the services to pick up some of the financial burden for missile defense systems, thereby freeing MDA’s resources for developing technologies agile enough to respond to a rapidly growing air and missile threat.

Designate Missile Defense as a Specific Major Force Program (MFP)

To counter the trend of services reallocating monies from missile defense programs into other needs, the DoD and Congress could “fence” monies appropriated for missile defense systems in a way that stipulates by law that those funds may only be used for missile defense systems. Precedence for such an arrangement exists within the DoD’s Major Force Program (MFP) designation, which aggregates program elements that reflect a force or support mission of DoD and contains the resources necessary to achieve an objective or plan. Special Operations equities have long been well protected from hungry service budgeteers since the monies appropriated for Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and its service components have been off-limits to anything but special operations needs. A separate MFP designation for missile defense would go a long way toward ensuring missile defense funding, increasingly critical to the defense of the nation, would be left untouched for anything but its intended purpose.

Accelerate Work on the Long Range Discrimination Radar in Alaska, and Commit to a Second Discriminating Sensor on the East Coast of the United States

The fact that MDA validated warfighter requirements to build the Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR) and put it on contract in less than two years is a testament to the urgent need to provide the BMDS an enhanced tracking and discriminating radar. The LRDR will provide the warfighter increased battlespace, a clearer depiction of the threat scene, better discrimination, increased probability of engagement success, and the possibility of freeing up additional assets to be used elsewhere.

The system is currently slated to be online by 2020, yet with recent advancements in North Korean missile and nuclear technologies, the timeline to field the LRDR should be accelerated.

While the LRDR greatly enhances sensor coverage in the northern Pacific, the BMDS lacks similar reach, scope, and coverage for the east coast of the United States. With recent developments in threats from southwest Asia, our nation needs additional discriminating sensor coverage to provide earlier detection (and the resulting increased battlespace) for threats targeting east coast population centers and the National Capitol Region. This additional coverage could be provided via another permanent ground-based sensor, or a commitment to move the Sea-based X-band Radar (SBX) to an east coast location. By accelerating fielding of the LRDR, we will not only be keeping pace with the growing threat, but could also develop and field a more balanced sensor coverage to the nation sooner.

Make a Real Commitment to Passive Defense Measures

Too often ignored, passive missile defense measures are genuine force multipliers and must not be neglected. Indeed, passive defense is one of the tenets prescribed in the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s 2013 publication, Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense: Vision 2020, and yet DoD has paid little attention to a strategy or policy on passive missile defense measures. Given the complexity required for active defensive technologies to succeed, the systems cannot be expected to be flawless—no complex system is. Passive defense measures such as denial, deception, mobility, hardening, and information operations, coupled with active defensive and offensive operations, are force multipliers ensuring mission success. Failure to fully integrate and coordinate offensive, active, and passive actions places Joint Force objectives and resources at unnecessary risk.

The planning required to take full advantage of these passive missile defense measures must occur before fielding and employment of the systems takes place. In order to take maximum economic advantage of the values of these measures, requirements makers, materiel developers, and industry partners must work together more closely with end users to determine how best to take advantage of these opportunities. Any fresh look at America’s missile defense policy should explicitly consider passive defense measures as a mandatory part of the entire equation.

Chart a New Course

Rethink Missile Defense Policy toward “Near-Peer” Nations

Ever since walking away from the ABM treaty in June of 2002 (notification actually took place in December 2001), the United States has gone to great lengths to convince near-peer nations that America’s missile defense is not oriented toward them. It is time to rethink that policy, at least to a degree. Russia continues to show a penchant for violating the borders of its nearby neighbors, and China continues attempts to expand its influence in and around the South China Sea. The idea of designing our regional missile defenses as a deterrent against similar incursions should be placed back on the table.

Rethinking our policy regarding near peers and the U.S. homeland should be considered as well. Our stated policy of homeland missile defense as “limited,” directed only toward rogue nations, has served us well thus far, yet it is time to consider taking off the self-imposed handcuffs and acknowledging that some of America’s missile defense needs to be arrayed toward an attack from a near-peer competitor. While missile defense against the totality of near-peer inventory of ballistic missiles is both impractical technologically and fiscally, missile defense against some threats, such as the aforementioned cruise missiles, should be overtly acknowledged by our policy and strategy toward defense of the nation.

Tackling Emerging New Threat Technologies

The threat from missile technology is very real today. It stands to only increase in complexity. New methods of countermeasures, maneuvering technologies, and vexing technologies such as hypersonics are already beginning to dot the landscape. The Trump administration must make a concerted and deliberate effort to tackle these challenges head-on. DoD must establish and fund new research and testing measures to counter these challenges. If properly resourced, MDA could lead such an effort, but it must go beyond MDA and extend to a “whole-of-defense” approach, including the best and brightest technical minds from defense, academia, and industry.

Commit to Developing a Space-based Tracking and Discrimination Capability

MDA is currently reviewing options to develop a space-based tracking and discrimination capability. The nation needs to commit to operationally fielding this capability as soon as possible. Space remains an expensive venture; however, the notion that “space is unaffordable” is dated. Responsible combatant commanders have for years listed a persistent missile tracking capability from “birth to death,” or through all phases of flight, as a priority. Currently, the capability does not exist. Today we use multiple sources of piecemeal information to create a complete end-to-end picture of an incoming threat. We rely on numerous data sets from various sources to track those threats, often resulting in an incomplete picture or one based on extrapolated data from previously known tracks, and requiring complex matching and merging algorithms to operate.

Develop a National Strategy toward Nonkinetic Kill R&D

Developing alternate means of engagement of incoming threats is essential not only to addressing the missile defense “cost-curve” problem, but also to providing the warfighter additional tools with which to defend the nation. Advances in laser miniaturization, increased power density, and viable platforms are being explored, but not with the appropriate urgency or to the level of effort required to field these capabilities in the near term. Year after year, Congress has used advanced technology budget lines to fund other programs of record. This practice must cease, and the nation must make a real commitment to advancing new and innovative technologies for missile defense.

Notably, the use of directed energy in the boost phase of a missile launch, with its goal of substantially reducing the number of lethal objects entering the battlespace by destroying potential incoming threats early, would significantly reduce the number of relatively expensive interceptors needed to address increasingly complex threats. Boost phase defenses have the potential to defeat ballistic missiles of all ranges, up to and including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Early detection in the boost phase from space layer sensors would also allow for a rapid response and intercept early in a threat missile’s flight, possibly before any countermeasures can be deployed. If properly resourced and explored, challenges to boost phase intercepts could be addressed today. The possibilities for such a capability, although not without its operational challenges, must be fully explored with an appropriate budget.

Think beyond Ballistic Missile Defense and toward a More Holistic Integrated Air and Missile Defense Mindset

As a nation, we have too long been focused on just ballistic missiles and have ignored the growing threat of cruise missiles, breakthroughs in hypersonic technology, maneuverable reentry vehicles, and other air-breathing threats. The conversation has recently changed to include these strategic imperatives, but our national policy has lagged. Now is the time to embrace these threats in a more holistic approach to Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD). Wars are not fought in stovepipes, yet we are largely developing defense systems, capabilities, and policies that way, without putting much thought into how to fold in other elements of the “integrated air” part of the equation. Future IAMD systems need to demonstrate more commonality in sensors, shooters, and all elements of command and control. The nation needs to respond to the full range of threats, missile and air, and not just one domain or the other or even just a subset of one, as we are currently doing.

Key to solving the air and cruise missile threat is research and development on an elevated sensor. Last year, Congress pulled the plug on funding for the JLENS three-year test exercise, citing problems with the tethered aerostat, rather than considering the elements of the test that really matter. The program was not about the balloon—its key effort was developing holistic solutions that go beyond ballistic missile threats and address dangerous air and cruise missile threats to the homeland. Despite some well-publicized issues, it was a mistake to lose sight of the significance of the test in developing the capabilities to ensure BMD/IAMD integration for the future.

Further toward a more holistic BMD/IAMD approach, the recent trend in the Department of Defense and Joint Staff to gut the budget and manpower of the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense Organization (JIAMDO) must be reversed. JIAMDO is the only organization operating across the entirety of DoD’s requirements processes. They have proven themselves to be a trusted, disinterested agent able to influence research and development while vetting requirements and monitoring acquisition with no vested interests or agendas other than implementing the chairman’s vision for IAMD. They also serve as a first point of contact for industry to vet IAMD concepts, something the military services cannot do without bias. In short, JIAMDO is able to sustain contact and IAMD conversation across warfighting combatant commanders, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, joint staff, services, U.S. government interagency, industry, and academia, all without parochialism. The idea that JIAMDO’s work is somehow complete and that the organization can be stood down is simply ludicrous. Given the challenges to efficient execution in the BMD and IAMD mission sets, the critical work that JIAMDO does is vitally important now more than ever.

Consider Missile Defense as Part of a Larger Offense-Defense Mix of Capabilities

Finally, the nation must rethink its mindset for missile defense, especially when it comes to considering other kinds of capabilities as a part of a larger picture. Missile defense systems are inherently expensive, and we will never be able to afford everything we need. This will become increasingly true going forward. The new administration needs to take a more balanced approach and consider the nation’s missile defenses as part of a total mix of offensive and defensive capabilities. Missile defense was never intended to be a “catch-all,” “shield,” or “bubble.” Rather, missile defense is intended to be but one tool in the warfighter’s “tool kit,” a continuum of capabilities that might be employed in a given battlespace. And it is a transitory effect as well—interceptor inventories do not last forever, and sensor and launch sites are themselves targets. Missile defense allows the operational commander a few days of protection during which he can energize the other tools in his kit to take the offense to the adversary.

Considering the Strategic Balance

Whatever the course, the new administration would be wise to consider each decision in the context of implications for relationships with other nations, especially the near peers. It is worth restating that regardless of what windfalls may come for defense spending, a major vector check on current missile defense policy would be prudent before proceeding and is long overdue. A BMDR that served the Obama administration well for missile defense policy in 2010 will not necessarily be best for the Trump administration. In terms of missile defense, we are now presented with the perfect opportunity to dust off a good starting point and determine which portions warrant a decision for the United States to “stay the course,” “change the course,” or “chart a new course.” In most instances, senior DoD officials would agree the threat landscape has drastically changed over the past six years, and as a result, U.S. missile defense requires not only an update, but also new thinking to “chart a new course.” As we review where we have been, we need to keep in mind where we want to go to defend the United States from not only ballistic missile attack, but the whole gamut of potential air-breathing threats that continue to emerge from traditional states and nontraditional actors.

The question will always remain on “how” to effectively and efficiently allocate funds to an expensive challenge—we know “why,” and “when” is now. Missile defense has never been cheap, but the stakes are high. By revising and establishing altogether new missile defense policy, the Trump administration has an opportunity to shape the future of U.S. missile defense for decades to come and drive the department to make a decision, that while tough, will benefit the effort and the nation. This is an opportunity to chart a “clear course” that the department and services can fully support and make lasting through their vision, programs, and budgets. The difficult task at hand is creating that policy, and that will be a task the new administration will need to tackle head-on. It will require both new thinking, and thinking grounded on years of experience in the missile defense community.

The Trump administration will face this and myriad other challenges affecting national security well beyond the next four years. There will be some who recommend we go “all-in” on missile defense, while others will argue for more of an “appetite suppressant” given missile defense’s technological challenges, high costs, and policy implications. The right answers probably lie somewhere in the middle. The effectiveness with which the United States fields competent, tested, reliable, and dependable missile defense capabilities will determine our ability to prevent catastrophic attacks on the homeland, ensuring the U.S. and global economic systems remain stable and viable. To be sure, it is important now more than ever that we take a fresh look at our options and choose wisely.

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Missile Defense Project, "A Vector Check for America’s Missile Defense: Assessing the Course for the Trump Administration," Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 1, 2017, last modified April 28, 2021, https://missilethreat.csis.org/vector-check-americas-missile-defense-assessing-course-trump-administration/.