Expert Commentary

Missile Defense Policy Review: A Ripe Opportunity

Thomas Karako
Senior Fellow, International Security Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies

The defense authorization act signed into law in December 2016 contained an important provision mandating a review of missile defeat policy, strategy, and capability, to be completed and submitted to Congress in 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 (BMDR) and other publications by the Joint Staff. The statutory requirement comes none too soon, given the need for a more comprehensive approach to countering missile threats.

The mandate also comes as the strategic environment is witnessing a kind of missile renaissance, one characterized by increased global supply and demand for a spectrum of high-precision, high-velocity, unmanned standoff delivery systems. This complex spectrum includes guided rockets, artillery, and mortars (RAM); anti-ship missiles; supersonic and long-range subsonic cruise missiles; guided and maneuvering reentry vehicles; depressed trajectory ballistic missiles; hypersonic boost glide vehicles; and anti-satellite weapons—and active means to counter them.

In November 2014, Navy and Army heads General Raymond Odierno and Admiral Jonathan Greenert sent an “eight-star memo” to then-secretary of defense Chuck Hagel, noting that budget pressures had allowed evolving missile threats to outpace defenses and called for a comprehensive strategic review. In reply, Hagel noted that a new Joint Capability Mix (JCM) study would begin, hopefully in time to inform the 2017 budget. As it turns out, the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense Office (JIAMDO) has just now concluded a new JCM to help inform the 2018 and subsequent budgets.

But the Greenert-Odierno memo called for more: a holistic, long-term “capstone” strategy to countering ballistic missile threats, one that both addressed increased combatant commander demand for missile defenses and incorporated other means of defeating missiles left-of-launch, that is before launch. The need for such an effort had been previously highlighted in 2013, when then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey released Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense: Vision 2020.

During the defense budget drawdown, however, little has been done to implement Dempsey’s vision.

Which is where Congress came in. The MDR requirement mandates a review of U.S. missile defeat capability, policy, and strategy. Like the expression of threats found in Vision 2020, MDR’s mandate is broader than either the 2010 BMDR or the Greenert-Odierno memo, expressly adds hypersonic boost glide vehicles and cruise missiles to the threats to be countered, and encompasses means to counter missile threats both left- and right-of-launch.

The phrase “left-of-launch” is sometimes used as shorthand for Scud hunting (operations that targeted mobile Scud missile launchers), but in fact incorporates a much broader set of means such as electromagnetic warfare, cyber attacks on command and control, and numerous other activities that quickly bleed into special operations, counterproliferation, and threat reduction. Another stated requirement of the MDR is to inform operational planning and create declaratory policy about just what, exactly, defeating missiles “left-of-launch” actually means.

One may expect such capabilities to rightly assume greater prominence in the MDR. But efforts to defeat missiles prior to launch should be understood as a complement to active right-of-launch defenses, not as a replacement. Among other things, hunting mobile missiles can be hard. In 2015, for instance, then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Sandy Winnefeld cautioned against undue exuberance for such efforts: “While we would obviously prefer to take a threat missile out while it’s still on the ground, what we would call left-of-launch, we won’t always have the luxury of doing so.”

Indeed, expectation control about left-of-launch is actually emphasized in many of the documents and public statements that encourage it. General Dempsey, for instance, had noted that “While these offensive actions can attrite portions of the air and missile threat, they cannot assure complete negation.”

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.

As the MDR takes shape, it might be useful for the review to consider five distinct but complementary paths of effort to mature missile defenses and help focus the services attention on Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD), or rather “missile defeat.” These five include capability evolution, capacity increase, more international cooperation, revolutionary technologies, and new concepts of operation.  

The first path concerns capability evolution. Incremental and block evolution of the program of record represents the simplest, most reliable, and most cost-effective way to improve the fielded missile defense force. Such an approach should be systematically considered for all four major interceptor families (Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD), Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), Aegis, and Patriot) and the larger global sensor suite.

A second path is building capacity. Today’s Aegis force falls significantly short of the stated COCOM (Combatant Command) demand of 77 ships, and similar shortfalls have made the Patriot force one of the most strained in the Army. Despite a requirement for nine THAAD batteries, there is no plan to move beyond seven. And while the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is on track to field 44 Ground-based Interceptors (GBI) by late 2017, that number will then fall by 10 percent in subsequent years as the result of tests and a lack of operational spares.

Expecting more of allies and partners and doing more with them is yet another avenue for which much remains to be done. International lines of effort include integration and interoperability, foreign military sales, coproduction and codevelopment, and synchronized transnational bulk buys to reduce unit costs through economies of scale.

Advanced technology investments are another important effort, to include a space sensor layer and various forms of directed energy. UAV-based lasers, for instance, hold considerable potential to defeat some missiles in their boost phase. Revolution does not come easy, however, and MDA’s advanced research and development funding has been consistently cut amidst a declining top line and increasing competition from procurement and operations costs.

A fifth and final path is the too-often neglected area of concepts of operation. Current air and missile defense capabilities have been characterized by developmental and operational stovepipes. More network-centric command and control structures and more modular and open architectures hold significant potential for increasing defended area and lower costs. The ambition for network centric capabilities (“any sensor, any shooter”) is a refrain in missile defense circles, but other follow-on concepts should also be explored. Some possibilities include mixed loads (“any shooter, any launcher”), distributed basing modes (“any launcher, anywhere”), and giving low-tier interceptors multi-mission capability, including for strike (“any seeker, any target”).

There are no silver bullets, and the goal of integrated and robust missile defeat capability will not be achieved easily. Creativity and commitment will be required to build a more robust missile defense architecture. The Missile Defeat Review represents an especially ripe opportunity, however, to create a new strategy to counter the current and emerging spectrum of air and missile threats.

The Author is Thomas Karako

Thomas Karako is a senior fellow in the International Security Program and head of the Missile Defense Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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