Lawmakers contradict Trump on purpose of country’s missile defenses

Two defense bills the president plans to soon sign seek to clarify U.S. antimissile policy

Aerial view of the Pentagon building. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Aerial view of the Pentagon building. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 18, 2019 at 1:29pm

The national defense authorization act the Senate sent to President Donald Trump this week rebuts his claims about the function of America’s strategic antimissile system.

And the fiscal 2020 NDAA — like a corresponding spending bill the Senate is poised to approve Thursday — pushes back on some Pentagon plans for space-based missile defenses.

The rebuttals stand out in two bills that otherwise mostly endorse and even augment the president’s plans for anti-missile systems.

The new spending package would provide $10.5 billion for such programs, more than $1 billion above the president’s request and nearly equal to the fiscal 2019 level, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The fiscal 2020 NDAA, which Trump has said he will sign, says U.S. policy is to build defenses that can knock down missiles overseas that threaten U.S. allies and American forces and, secondly, to protect the U.S. homeland against “missile threats posed by rogue states,” a phrase that chiefly means North Korea and Iran.

But, the new law will also say, America will “rely on nuclear deterrence to address more sophisticated and larger quantity near-peer intercontinental ballistic missile threats.”

In other words, the U.S. shield is not intended to protect against the strategic missiles of Russia and China.

“The FY 2020 defense authorization bill wisely puts a brake on what has long been a dangerous, unaffordable, and controversial dream to protect the U.S. homeland against large-scale Russian and Chinese missile attacks and put interceptors in space,” said Kingston Reif, an expert on strategic weapons at the Arms Control Association.

‘Anywhere, anytime, anyplace’

The NDAA’s new policy statement stands in sharp contrast to Trump’s descriptions of the purpose of U.S. missile defenses.

In January, at an event to unveil a Pentagon Missile Defense Review that assessed U.S. antimissile plans and programs, Trump said U.S. policy is to “detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States anywhere, anytime, anyplace.”

In the remarks, which were some of Trump’s only ones as president on missile defense, he went on to say: “We will terminate any missile launches from hostile powers or even from powers that make a mistake. It won’t happen, regardless of the missile type or geographic origins of the attack.”

Trump’s comments were widely interpreted as suggesting U.S. defenses would aim to knock down even the thousands of warheads in the combined arsenals of Russia and China.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a broadcast interview later that month, struck a similar note.

“What is Russia seeing from the Trump administration?” Pompeo asked. A “missile defense review that makes sure that America will be capable of defending itself not only next year but 20 years from now. I assure you that none of these things sat well with [Russian President] Vladimir Putin.”

MAD world

The statements departed from the bipartisan position of multiple previous administrations: that the U. S. strategic missile defenses — those aimed at intercepting continent-spanning missiles potentially carrying nuclear warheads — are aimed only at the handful of warheads that could be possessed by rogue states, not the larger arsenals of Russia or China.

Nuclear peace among superpowers has rested precariously since the 1950s on each superpower’s perception of “mutually assured destruction” — that they are not protected from strategic weapons.

So any move that makes either side question the other’s vulnerability is potentially destabilizing, many experts believe.

Trump’s January statement harkened back to former President Ronald Reagan’s sweeping vision of a system to shield the United States from any and all nuclear missiles.

Although Trump’s comments were made in the context of unveiling the Missile Defense Review, they contradicted it.

The review itself said that U.S. missile defenses would continue to be sized for “rogue states’ offensive missile threats.” The United States, it added, “relies on nuclear deterrence to address the large and more sophisticated Russian and Chinese” arsenals.

The NDAA then, is essentially confirming the view of the Trump administration, not that of Trump himself.

The new legislation’s statement of policy is also significant in that it expands the kind of missiles that U.S. defenses are meant to intercept to now include low-flying cruise missiles and hypersonic missiles, which can travel faster than the speed of sound while maneuvering in an attempt to avoid interceptors.

Patchwork policies

U.S. lawmakers have been inconsistent about which nations U.S. missile defenses are aimed at combating.

Congress in 1999 stated that U.S. policy was to defend against “limited” strategic missile strikes, suggesting the larger arsenals of Russia and China were excluded.

But in the fiscal 2017 NDAA, Congress deleted the word “limited,” opening up the possibility that the current system, which has interceptor missiles in silos in Alaska and California, could be expanded to counter Russia and China.

The fiscal 2020 NDAA does not restore the word “limited” to the law, but it effectively does so with its policy language focusing the strategic system’s mission on rogue states.

The new bill risked muddying its message on whether the United States intends to intercept Russian or Chinese missiles with a separate decision to authorize $54 million to test a new version of the Standard Missile against intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The Standard Missile upgrade could one day be used to intercept ICBMs fired by North Korea or Iran. But Russia and China fear that the missile could also intercept their ICBMs, including when the Standard Missile interceptors are fired from ships or land bases that are close to Russia and China, making the U.S. upgrade potentially destablilizing, critics say.

The NDAA would also require a study into how missile defense programs affect U.S. security in a full sense, including taking into account how adversaries react to the deployment of U.S. anti-missile systems.

The NDAA “increases oversight of missile defense programs and lays the groundwork for a needed discussion on both the national security benefits and costs of missile defense,” said Reif.

Slowing space roll

The NDAA would slow efforts to develop and eventually deploy space-based missiles or lasers to intercept enemy missiles, though some doubt the Pentagon was rushing to work on these things anyway.

First, the NDAA would delete a statutory requirement for a “space based test bed,” which would be a prototype antimissile satellite for tests.

The NDAA also would recommend cutting the administration’s $30 million request for studies into space-based interceptors and space-based systems for discriminating warheads from materials that adversaries might use to confuse anti-missile systems.

Appropriators’ new bill would subtract $10 million from that account, citing “insufficient justification” for the efforts.

Meanwhile, the administration itself has scrapped indefinitely a plan to develop, starting with $34 million this year, a so-called neutral particle beam that is seen as a way to one day zap missiles out of the sky. Both the NDAA and the final Defense appropriations measure would eliminate that funding.

On the other hand, the bill still would not alter a section of the fiscal 2018 NDAA that mandates development of a “space based intercept” system.

Thomas Spoehr, a defense expert with the Heritage Foundation, says the Pentagon was not ready to execute research this fiscal year on space interceptors anyway. And he said the small restrictions on space-interceptor spending and policy should be considered in the context of substantial support from the defense committees for missile defense programs.

“It’s really kind of a home run,” he said of the final appropriations bill.
Uncoordinated satellite programs

The two bills would okay spending on satellite-borne sensors to track enemy missiles.

For example, the money measure would add $108 million to develop a system for tracking ballistic and hypersonic missiles. The administration did not ask for that money, but it was on a wish list of Pentagon projects that officials considered priorities.

Despite support for the satellite sensor programs, the appropriators criticized the Pentagon for lacking a plan to coordinate the proliferating space programs.

“Currently, the Air Force, Missile Defense Agency, Space Development Agency, and others, are planning to spend tens of billions of dollars pursuing various potential satellite constellations, with a variety of sensor types, constellation sizes, and orbits ranging from proliferated low-earth to geosynchronous and others,” the report said. “The Department has yet to synchronize or harmonize these proposals into a clearly articulated executable and affordable integrated enterprise space architecture.”