Congress’ Missile Defense Opportunity | Commentary

Posted January 5, 2015 at 6:58pm

One of the first tasks the new Congress will need to consider is how to strengthen the U.S. National Missile Defense program. No congressional responsibility is more important than protecting the American people against nuclear threats from North Korea and other U.S. adversaries.

Congress can have an early impact by highlighting the issue during the Senate confirmation hearings for Former Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter. He is a renowned ballistic missile defense expert who, in his response to Senate questions, can help dispel some misconceptions about how next to proceed on this critical issue. The House can augment this process thorough its joint work with the Senate on the Fiscal Year 2016 defense authorization and appropriations bills.

Some Congressional critics, pointing to technological flaws in current defense systems, advocate suspending building national missile defense systems further until the underlying technology improves. In particular, they propose waiting for what could take more than five years to design, develop, and deploy a next-generation exoatmospheric kill vehicle — the critical part of the missile interceptor that destroys enemy missiles in space — to protect the U.S. homeland.

However, suspending construction of any of our missile defense systems is a risky venture; an unexpected North Korean or Iranian missile threat to the U.S. homeland could emerge before the new technology is ready. And there is no guarantee that future systems will be more effective than currently available versions. Therefore, the most prudent budget and security strategy for the Pentagon and Congress is to work on improving the existing interceptors while developing and testing new ballistic missile technologies.

Missile defense relies on a variety of platforms, providing multiple opportunities to defeat limited missile attacks. This mixture of sensors and interceptors is an underappreciated strength of our national missile defense shield, as no single system is capable of engaging ballistic missiles of all ranges and through all phases of their flight. Moreover, if one part of the system fails to work properly, an incoming missile may still be destroyed by other components.

In particular, the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense is a critical component of the architecture, as it targets a long-range ballistic missile when it is flying outside the atmosphere. This midcourse phase lasts much longer than the short time the missile needs to ascend into space or to later release its warheads into the atmosphere during their terminal phase.

A crucial feature of midcourse missile defense is that the defender, if supported by adequate sensors and shooters, has time to concentrate on destroying the incoming missile and to exploit multiple shooting opportunities against its warheads, helping compensate with the inescapable complexities of target identification and inevitable intercept failures.

Currently, the United States has 26 Ground-Based Interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. This GMD system is designed to shoot down incoming long-range ballistic missiles, such as those from North Korea or Iran, which lack the sophisticated countermeasures available to Russia, China, or the United States.

At Congressional urging, the Pentagon is adding 14 more interceptors by the end of 2017. Engineers have identified hardware and software fixes for the flaws exposed by recent tests, shortcomings the system has had to overcome because it was fielded so quickly. Having more interceptors would further improve the system’s overall reliability.

The new Congress should also fully fund future Missile Defense Agency’s budget requests to redesign the existing EKV. The effort to make it more reliable should take advantage of more modern technology and technical fixes, as well as engineering know-how and “hardware in hand” gained from years of work improving the system.

There is bicameral and bipartisan support for boosting missile defense spending, but shortfalls persist given the need to augment the existing systems and develop better EKVs in the future, including a multiple kill vehicle that can improve the defense-to-offense balance by allowing one interceptor to attack multiple incoming targets.

The new EKV, which is now scheduled to have its first test in 2018, should undergo a comprehensive development and testing phase. This can be compressed into a reasonable timeline through more frequent testing than the current average of one system test annually.

Members appreciate that improving the reliability of our homeland missile defense system is a substantial investment, but this upgrade will cost less than many other U.S. military and non-defense activities. More importantly, Congress should treat the costs of missile defense as an insurance against paying the unimaginable costs of recovering from a nuclear ballistic missile strike on the American people.

Richard Weitz is the director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.