The path forward requires short, medium, and long-term action. Immediately, we must continue to maintain and improve EKVs, and begin testing at an operational pace. For the longer term, GMD needs an entirely new interceptor, tested and purchased in a more customary way, with each of the major industry players developing and competing proposals on the merits. This route holds great potential, perhaps with “volume-kill” force multipliers, but everyone knows it will take a decade or more.
The bad news: homeland defense can’t wait that long. The good news: it doesn’t have to.
Drawing on current programs and technologies, a medium-term GMD fix can shorten painfully long acquisition cycles and defend the homeland against increasing missile threats.
A host of recent reports point the way. In 2012, the National Academy of Sciences recommended that GMD harvest improvements present on existing or past programs, including the now-cancelled KEI and the sensors and seeker used in the today’s highly successful SM-3 family. This means upgrading EKV’s more sophisticated “front end” brains, while keeping the “back end” that maneuvers. Last June, a DOD report specifically suggested a new “common” KV using components from SM-3s, which likewise builds upon the 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review urging greater reliance on “proven capabilities.”
Using components from other platforms is further consistent with the Defense Science Board’s 2011 recommendation of more flexible acquisition processes, modular “building blocks,” and open architectures — and with Under Secretary Kendall’s acquisition tenets on better buying power. Recently-released budget documents state MDA’s intention to contract redesigned KVs by 2015 using a “modular, open architecture” (also recommended by the committee report for the House-passed defense bill last year).
In this manner, a better KV would become available for the additional 14 interceptors planned for 2018. Something must be done within these next few years to carry us through the coming decade of missile threats from Iran and North Korea. Omitting a medium-term solution in the hope of immediate savings risks greater long-term cost and guarantees greater vulnerability.
To be sure, the administration has not restored adequate funding for missile defense, but it is turning a programmatic corner by embracing Congress’s past recommendations. Congress should welcome this pivot, while taking care to provide necessary funding and exercise oversight so that next-generation programs do not preclude concrete and near-term GMD evolution. Fixing these problems requires sustained effort, but in the meantime practical, cost-effective, and increasingly lethal interceptors can strengthen homeland missile defense.
Thomas Karako is director of the Center for the Study of American Democracy at Kenyon College, and a former fellow with the House Armed Services Committee.