As a candidate, Barack Obama called ballistic missile defense programs “unproven” and vowed to cut them. As President, Barack Obama eventually had to appreciate the value that missile defense brings to the U.S. strategic posture and allied relationships. The Obama Administration initially cancelled some of the most important missile defense programs that were started after the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. The Obama White House has been proven wrong on its missile defense policies time and again over the past seven and a half years.
As the ballistic missile threat continues to grow around the world, ballistic missile defense programs remain a quintessential feature of the U.S. national security posture for the protection of the U.S. homeland, forward-deployed troops, and allies. President Obama’s missile defense policy shifts cost the nation precious time and capabilities at a time when adversaries are succeeding in advancing their own ballistic missile programs. The next President must avoid such missile defense policy weaknesses, fund missile defense programs adequately, and deploy a comprehensive layered missile defense architecture, including interceptors in space.
Ballistic Missile Threat: Sophisticated and Advancing
The threat of adversarial ballistic missiles has been growing, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Ballistic missiles remain a weapon of choice for many U.S. adversaries around the world. They are relatively inexpensive, they can be very destructive, and they can deliver different kinds of lethal payloads. Their psychological effect on a population should not be underestimated, as there is precious little warning time after a ballistic missile is launched. A long-range missile launched from the other side of the world can reach the continental United States in about 33 minutes. The timeline is even shorter when it comes to medium-range and short-range missiles. Most of the world is almost undefended against existing missile threats and the threat is increasing. Armed with weapons of mass destruction payloads, even a primitive ballistic missile can threaten hundreds of thousands of lives.
Difficulties in countering ballistic missiles and the general lack of deployed defenses against them indicate other reasons why adversaries pursue them. The United States uses hit-to-kill technology, which means that it positions an interceptor in the path of an incoming missile. Interceptors do not carry explosives. The incoming missile is destroyed by sheer force of impact due to the high speeds involved. After a successful hit, a majority of the debris subsequently burns in the atmosphere or is scattered, rendering it much less lethal than a missile that reached its intended target. Being able to precisely hit an incoming missile at an incredible speed is extremely technologically challenging and requires a competent workforce, competitive industrial base, and adequate funding.
Since President Obama took office, North Korea has conducted five nuclear weapons tests and launched numerous ballistic missiles, including placing a satellite into an orbit in December 2012 and in February 2016. This past April, the brutal regime in Pyongyang launched a missile from a submarine. Placing a satellite into orbit demonstrates many of the same technologies that a country needs to deliver a nuclear payload on a long-range rocket and can be used to trigger an electromagnetic-pulse (EMP) attack. After all, Americans woke up to the missile gap in 1957 after the Soviets placed a satellite in orbit, not after a Soviet long-range ballistic missile test. North Korea has progressed on nuclear-warhead miniaturization and already has the capability to put nuclear warheads on its medium-range ballistic missiles. The North Korean cash-strapped regime poses a proliferation risk, as does its collaboration with Iran and Pakistan. North Korea habitually threatens the United States and its South Korean ally with nuclear attacks. Pyongyang reportedly possesses ballistic missiles that can reach the continental United States.
The Pacific theater is not the only part of the world where the United States faces a well-armed adversary determined to obtain nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Iran is pursuing them, too. Some of these countries are hostile to U.S. interests. In the Middle East, U.S. forward-deployed forces and allies face short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles from both state and non-state actors, and particularly from Iran.
Iran’s ballistic missile ambitions extend far beyond the Middle East. Iran, in cooperation with North Korea, has been advancing its ballistic missile capabilities in defiance of the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1929, which stated that “Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology.” Iran violated the resolution by launching ballistic missiles in October and November 2015.
Iran currently has ballistic missiles that can reach U.S. allies in Europe, and continues to work on increasing the missiles’ range and sophistication. It has the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East. James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, stated that Iran is “the foremost state sponsor of terrorism” and that it pursues capabilities that would give it “the ability to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons, if it chooses to do so.” Iran has a history of lying about its nuclear program, including the military dimensions, to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the international community. The Administration’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) fails to address either issue, and in the long term puts Iran in a stronger position to threaten U.S. interests in the region. Additionally, the Obama Administration watered down language prohibiting Iran from conducting ballistic missile activities in the UNSCR 1929, making it easier for Iran to advance its ballistic missile program. The mullahs in Tehran did not miss a beat and conducted multiple ballistic missile tests as the JCPOA entered into force. Since Iranian ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities are bound to get better as Iran receives billions of dollars for sanctions relief, the JCPOA underscores, not obviates, the need for and the importance of a comprehensive layered ballistic missile defense system capable of protecting the U.S. homeland, forward-deployed troops, and allies.
In addition to Iran, North Korea, and a variety of non-state actors armed with short-range rockets and missiles, the next President will have to address ballistic missile threats from China and Russia. The Obama Administration, continuing the decades-old Cold War policy of mutually assured destruction, chose to limit U.S. missile defense programs so that they would not be able to deal with a ballistic missile threat from either country. Both Russia and China have active ballistic missile programs, continue to invest in modernizing and increasing mobility of their ballistic missile arsenals, and possess advanced nuclear warheads that can be delivered by their ballistic missiles. These missiles can threaten a variety of targets on land and sea. The Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles are of a particular concern to the U.S. Navy operating in the Pacific theater, and are a part of a wider Chinese comprehensive anti-access area-denial strategy. Beijing’s extensive work on countering missile defense systems should be of additional concern for future U.S. missile defense policy.
Russia is continuing its aggressive behavior in the European theater, pursues actions against U.S. interests in the Middle East, and has active ballistic missile and nuclear weapons modernization programs, including developing rail-based ballistic missiles that are very difficult to track. Russia is violating many of its international obligations and treaties. Especially relevant for U.S. allies in Europe, Moscow has been in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which requires the United States and Russia to permanently eliminate ballistic missiles with a reach of 500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers. On numerous occasions, Russia has threatened NATO allies with nuclear retaliation for their missile defense cooperation with the United States. In addition to modernizing its ballistic missile arsenal, Russia unveiled a nuclear-armed unmanned submarine last year. According to the Russian press, that submarine is designed to deliver a 100-megaton nuclear warhead and possibly a Cobalt bomb to both U.S. coastal areas, potentially putting the largest population areas at risk. Russia is also actively pursuing its own missile defense system.
Missile Defense Policies Based on Wishful Thinking
Despite an increased and growing ballistic missile threat from long-range ballistic missiles (with a range of at least 5,500 kilometers), the Obama Administration initially decided to focus on the near-term regional ballistic missile threat rather than continue the previous Administration’s missile defense plan to deploy 10 two-stage Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptors and a highly capable X-band radar to Poland and the Czech Republic, respectively. The plan was designed to protect the U.S. homeland from a long-range ballistic missile. Diplomatically, the Obama Administration handled the announcement of a shift in U.S. missile defense policy poorly; allies found out about the change at the last minute—on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland. Coupled with the Administration’s efforts to appease Russia in order to elicit improved behavior on the international scene, the Obama Administration was not only counterproductive in achieving its goals vis-à-vis Moscow, but Washington also managed to undermine relationships with European allies. Russia interpreted President Obama’s missile defense cancellation as its diplomatic victory and has since continued to push for additional missile defense concessions.
The Administration seems to be continuing its work on a two-stage GMD interceptor, but its flight test has been delayed by several years. The interceptor, deployed to Alaska, California, or to a third location on the West Coast of the United States, would give the United States an additional opportunity to shoot down an incoming missile. Vice Admiral James D. Syring, Director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), alluded to a two-stage GMD interceptor in 2016. The fiscal year (FY) 2016 budget request included $51 million for the program.
In 2009, the Administration also decided to decrease the number of GMD interceptors in the United States from 44 to 30, arguing that the long-range ballistic missile threat to the U.S. homeland was progressing more slowly than anticipated by the Bush Administration. The Obama Administration was wrong and later reversed the decision. To make matters worse, the Administration also let the GMD system go untested for more than two years. Continued testing is critical for validating the performance of the system and for maintaining critical skills within the workforce. Additionally, it is sometimes impossible to replicate conditions in space on the ground; therefore, some of the test failures can only be discovered during actual flight and intercept tests. A robust testing program is critical for validating the system and its algorithms, and for ensuring that it will be capable of protecting the United States from a long-range ballistic missile attack.
The Obama Administration has admitted that its GMD policy was wrong. In March 2013, then–Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that the United States will deploy an additional 14 GMD interceptors to Alaska, which was President’s Bush’s original number. The policy change was prompted by a recognition that the long-range ballistic missile threat to the United States has not diminished, as the Obama Administration had argued, and is, in fact, growing. The Administration lost years of additional protection that would exist had the GMD system been deployed in the numbers originally planned.
Reducing the number of interceptors and causing unnecessary delays in the long run, however, are only some of the ways in which the Administration undermined the GMD system. The Administration also decided to cancel the Multiple Kill Vehicle (MKV) program in 2009. The MKV program was designed to give each U.S. interceptor multiple kinetic kill vehicles to increase the chance of a shoot down and increase the efficiency of interceptors. The Administration called the program “not necessary” and argued that the United States does not need the program as a hedge should the long-range ballistic missile threat advance faster than expected. Yet again, the Administration was wrong. In August 2015, it awarded a contract for the Multiple-Object Kill Vehicle (MOKV), essentially the same concept, losing the country millions of dollars invested in the MKV program, and valuable time during which the MKV program could have been further developed. The MKV program was scheduled to be deployed in 2017. In 2009, the Administration argued that it could cancel the MKV program because it would focus on “assessing the feasibility of destroying threat missiles early in flight.” Yet, it cancelled or reduced almost every single program capable of doing so in the subsequent years.
Regionalization of the U.S. Missile Defense Program: Europe and Beyond
In 2009, the Administration announced its policy focus on the regional ballistic missile threat translated into the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). The EPAA originally consisted of four phases:
- Phase One (2011 time frame). Deploy the sea-based Aegis weapons system with a Block IA Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptor and sensors, such as the forward-based Army Navy/Transportable Radar Surveillance system (AN/TPY-2);
- Phase Two (2015 time frame). Deploy a more capable SM-3 Block IB interceptor in both sea-based and land-based configurations, and more advanced sensors, to expand the defended area against short-range and medium-range missile threats;
- Phase Three (2018 time frame). Deploy a more advanced SM-3 Block IIA to counter short-range, medium-range, and intermediate-range missile threats; and
- Phase Four (2020 time frame). Deploy the SM-3 Block IIB to address medium-range and intermediate-range missiles and the potential future ICBM threat to the United States.
In this form, the EPAA offered a more flexible and a more comprehensive protection from a ballistic missile threat of all ranges to Europe, U.S. forward-deployed forces, and the United States than the Bush Administration’s plan to place 10 GMD interceptors in Poland. The problem is that the Administration based its assessment on the flawed assumption that the regional ballistic missile threat will advance faster than the threat to the U.S. homeland. That has not proven to be the case, since the Administration reversed its decision to lower the number of GMD interceptors later.
The Administration “restructured” and in 2013 cancelled the SM-3 Block IIB program, partly due to a lack of support in Congress. Incidentally, Phase Four of the EPAA was the one that Moscow objected to the most, even issuing nuclear threats against U.S. NATO allies. Since these highly sophisticated capabilities take years to develop, the Administration is yet again leaving the United States without a plan for a more advanced SM-3 interceptor that would be able to handle the long-range ballistic missile threat, which will assuredly continue after President Obama leaves office. Future Presidents might find themselves scrambling for an adequate long-range ballistic missile defense as the threat advances.
Under the EPAA, the Administration selected Poland and Romania as future land-based Aegis ballistic missile defense sites. On the positive side, the first three phases of the EPAA seem to be on track. The United States broke ground on the site in Romania in 2013 and the site became operational in 2016. The construction of the land-based Aegis site in Poland started in 2016. The next Administration should continue these efforts to ensure that there are no further delays in developing the system. Additionally, the next Administration should expand the EPAA plan to include an advanced long-range ballistic missile defense interceptor capable of addressing a long-range ballistic missile threat as originally envisioned. The long-range ballistic missile threat has not slowed down, as the Administration claimed it would when it re-focused the plan on regional ballistic missile defense in 2009, and it is unlikely to slow down in the future. Technological trends point to the contrary.
The Administration made necessary investments into the Aegis missile defense weapons system—the weapon system itself and a family of SM-3 interceptors. The MDA conducted a successful launch-on-remote sensor intercept in April 2011. The launch-on-remote capability provides the system with an earlier opportunity to launch an interceptor farther downrange than the Aegis weapon system’s radar’s detection range. The Administration continues to develop the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor in cooperation with Japan. Japan is also a host country for two AN/TPY-2 radars that provide data for ballistic missile launches from North Korea.
The Administration also continues to upgrade Aegis-class cruisers and destroyers. The Navy currently operates 33 missile-defense-capable Aegis-class ships. However, it has completely terminated the program to develop an advanced cruiser (CG-X), which would have dramatically improved missile defense capability. The replacement, the DDG-51 Flight III, will have significantly more capability than the existing Aegis cruisers and destroyers, but much less than that which was planned for the CG-X.
The demand for ships with a missile defense capability is increasing as the regional trends worsen. The next President should properly fund the program and the interceptor procurement to keep up with the threat and meet the requirements of the combatant commanders.
The Administration repeatedly stated that international ballistic missile defense cooperation is one of its main missile defense priorities. Contrary to its stated policy emphasis, the Administration decided to curtail funding for the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) program in 2011. The MEADS program was designed to counter short-range ballistic missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, cruise missiles, and aircraft. The program was being developed jointly between the United States, Germany, and Italy to eventually replace the aging Patriot and Nike Hercules systems. Under the original agreement, Germany would cover 25 percent of the cost of the program, while Italy would cover 16.7 percent, thus contributing real resources toward the program. The United States would be responsible for the rest. After the U.S. cancellation, Germany decided to stop its funding for the procurement of MEADS. Most recently, the Polish government is said to be in discussions about a potential purchase of MEADS. The MEADS decision not only reduces the U.S.’s missile defense capability, it also hurts U.S. ability to counter stealth aircraft and cruise missiles.
The United States has had very successful ballistic missile defense cooperation with Israel. With strong congressional support, Israel has demonstrated that protecting an entire nation from a ballistic missile threat need not be a partisan issue. The United States deploys the AN/TPY-2 radar to Israel. The MDA and the Israel Missile Defense Organization also work on the David’s Sling Weapon System, the Iron Dome system, and the Arrow-3 interceptor. The Israeli missile defense gives the Israeli leadership time to take the most de-escalatory course of action in a conflict and an opportunity to protect Israeli citizens, by far the most important responsibility of democratic governments. Other countries in the Middle East are in the process of discussing missile defense, purchased the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) system, or are in the process of purchasing the Theatre High Altitude Area (THAAD) missile defense system.
The Boost Phase: Missiles at Their Most Vulnerable
The Administration retarded and largely failed to advance boost-phase missile defense programs. Ballistic missiles are most vulnerable in their boost phase, the initial stages of their flight. They are at their slowest and have not deployed decoys and countermeasures that pose a challenge to tracking, discrimination, and interception in the later phases of the flight. The downside of intercepting ballistic missiles in their boost phase is that the missile defense system has to detect the launch and respond to it very fast, so the intercept window can be anywhere from one to five minutes. The Administration inherited three boost-phase missile defense programs from previous Administrations: (1) the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI); (2) the Airborne Laser (ABL); and (3) the Network-Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE).
The KEI was supposed to be a multi-use hit-to-kill interceptor to counter medium-range to long-range ballistic missiles in the early phases of flight. The system was envisioned as a globally deployable system with a highly maneuverable kill vehicle, initially deployed in fixed silos, potentially as a road-mobile system and later at sea. One of the goals of the KEI program was to augment the GMD to increase the level of protection for the U.S. homeland. The Obama Administration deemed the program “inconsistent with the missile defense mission to counter rogue nation threats” despite having no back-up plan to pursue boost-phase missile defense programs.
The ABL was one of the most visionary missile defense programs the United States has pursued since withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense Treaty in 2002. The ABL was a megawatt-class Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser mounted on a Boeing 747-400F. The ABL achieved two successful intercepts of short-range ballistic missile targets in 2010. The Obama Administration cancelled the second prototype aircraft and relegated the program to a test bed in 2010. The importance of the ABL lay in maintaining and advancing critical technological skills for directed energy applications in future missile defense programs. The ABL’s contribution was not only in intercepting short-range missiles, but also in tracking ballistic missiles, including long-range. The Administration first mothballed the platform in 2011, grounded it in 2012, and later destroyed it completely, leaving future directed-energy missile defense efforts worse off than had it continued to operate the platform.
Lastly, the Administration seems to have reduced the NCADE program. The program was focused on developing boost-phase and ascent-phase interceptors capable of addressing short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles. The interceptor was meant to be mounted on tactical aircraft and unmanned combat aerial vehicles. The MDA and the Air Force agreed to develop the Airborne Weapon Layer based on the NCADE concept in 2011, but there was no publicly available programmatic funding for the program in FY 2013 and FY 2014.
Sensors: The Essence of Comprehensive Layered Missile Defense Architecture
Missile defense interceptors are only one of the elements of effective missile defense architecture. In order to maximize the probability that an incoming missile will be destroyed, interceptors need precise tracking and cueing from the launch until the time the kill vehicle collides with an incoming warhead. Interceptors have onboard sensors, but obtaining data from a wide range of sensors in a timely manner through a secure and resilient command, control, battle management, and communication (C2BMC) network is critical. To that end, the MDA relies on a network of space-based, sea-based, and ground-based sensors. These sensors are based on different technologies so that it is impossible to defeat them with just a single type of a countermeasure or a decoy, thereby imposing an additional burden on U.S. adversaries.
The Administration launched two Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) satellites in 2009. These satellites successfully provided near-real-time birth-to-death missile flight tracking and contributed to a successful Aegis missile defense intercept in 2013. Rather than continuing and expanding the program, the Administration started a new program in FY 2011, the Precision Tracking and Surveillance System (PTSS). The PTSS was supposed to be a less-complicated, lower-cost network of remote tracking satellites. The initial constellation operation for 2018 specified a primary focus on a regional ballistic missile threat, as opposed to ballistic missile threat of all ranges. Patrick O’Reilly, then–Director of the MDA, called the PTSS “the greatest future enhancement for both homeland and regional defense in the next 10 years.” The MDA terminated the program in FY 2014, losing millions of dollars and several years of effort invested in the program. Ground-based and sea-based sensors and radars are not able to provide the same capability, nor the same level of survivability, as space-based sensors and systems.
The Administration also did not replace the X-band radar that was supposed to be deployed to the Czech Republic. The radar’s primary goal was to improve the quality of data available especially for the GMD system protecting the U.S. homeland.
Space: The Importance of Space-Based Missile Defense and Obama’s Missed Opportunity
The Administration failed to explore space-based missile-defense-interceptor options. Ballistic missile defense interceptors in space would provide the nation with the ability to shoot down incoming missiles in the early stage of flight, thus preventing them from deploying countermeasures and decoys. The United States has had technologies that would make space-based interceptors available for years. The choice not to work on and build them is a political, not a practical, decision. Several studies point to the affordability and technological feasibility of space-based missile defense interceptors. Space is also the best environment for destroying a nuclear-tipped missile designed to deliver an EMP attack, the ultimate asymmetric weapon the United States faces.
Steps for the Next Administration
Program cancellations and some of the Obama Administration’s policy decisions cost the nation valuable time and capability when it came to building a comprehensive, layered ballistic missile defense system. The next President must avoid such bad decisions and take the opportunity to pursue a missile defense program that Americans deserve.
The next Administration should:
- Conduct a ballistic missile defense review based on realistic assumptions about international security, particularly with respect to the Russian and the Chinese ballistic missile threat.
- Identify opportunities to advance space-based missile defense programs.
- Continue the EPAA and include long-range ballistic missile interceptors as originally envisioned in 2009.
- Encourage allies to pursue their own missile defense capabilities. NATO allies in Europe can be particularly valuable additions to Alliance and U.S. missile defense efforts.
- Deploy the THAAD missile defense system to South Korea to enhance protection against the growing North Korean missile threat. Urge South Korea to integrate its independent missile defense system into the more comprehensive and effective allied network with the United States and Japan. Similarly, urge greater missile defense cooperation among countries in the Middle East. Increase investments in future missile defense technologies, including directed energy, and tracking and command-and-control infrastructure in space.
Steps for Congress
- Fund missile defense programs that have gone underfunded for years. A successful ballistic missile attack on U.S. territory, forward-deployed forces, or allies would carry enormous costs in lives and treasure, particularly if the incoming missile is fitted with a nuclear or electromagnetic-pulse warhead.
- Affirm that the United States will protect itself from any ballistic missile threat, no matter whether accidental or intentional, and regardless of the location of the launch origin.
- Demand that the next Administration develop and deploy a space-based missile defense interceptor layer. This step is the most appropriate for addressing the multitude of ballistic missile threats facing the United States.