July 11, 2016 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Missile Defense

Growing Ballistic Missile Threats Cannot Be Ignored

China, Russia, Iran, North Korea—all are U.S. adversaries, and all are making remarkable and continual advances in long-range ballistic missile capabilities.  Maintaining and modernizing our upper-tier missile defense system has never been more vital in order for the U.S. to be able to win on the future war landscape.

Repeated cuts to the U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) budget over the last eight years have already put us behind where we should be.  Moreover, the entire BMD enterprise has been retarded by leaders who reject a modern view of how technology should be developed and deployed.

Clearly BMD technology is not yet perfect. The “old school” method, embraced by the Obama Administration, is to test a new technology in “the lab” until it performs perfectly; only then do you deploy it. The modern view is that, since we need protection now, we should deploy BMD now to gain the protection it can provide (which, while not perfect, it is pretty darned good); then, use those real world deployments to fuel the technological improvements

Further slowing progress is the long-running debate between arms control advocates who don’t want to “rock the boat” with our adversaries, and those who say our first responsibility is to protect America’s interests, even if that bothers the likes of Putin and the Ayatollahs in Tehran.

To improve our upper-tier BMD capabilities commensurate with the threats we face, the U.S. must fund the program adequately, embrace the modern view on tech and put the protection of U.S. interests first.

The Growing Threat

According to the Army’s Space Missile Defense Command, 22 countries now have ballistic missile capabilities, and nine of them are like to already have nuclear capabilities.

North Korea possesses short- and medium-range ballistic missiles and is developing intermediate-range ballistic missiles that could further threaten our assets in the Pacific region. This April, North Korea reportedly tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile. It is now thought to be readying a test-launch of an intermediate-range ballistic.  Admiral William E. Gortney, Commander of US Northern Command, recently warned Congress that North Korea’s missile developments could have profound implications to the US homeland.

Iran continues making strides toward obtaining ballistic missile capabilities.  In April, Vice Admiral J.D. Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, testified before the House Armed Services Committee: “Iran has successfully orbited satellites and announced plans to orbit a larger satellite using a space launch vehicle (the Simorgh) that could be capable of intercontinental ballistic missile ranges if configured as such.” Last month, Tehran successfully test-fired a medium-range ballistic missile capable of reaching Israel and American military forces.

China’s threat to the continental United States continues to grow. It is re-engineering its long range ballistic missiles to carry multiple nuclear warheads. The latest test of Beijing’s newest, longest-range missile, the DF 41, came in April. It was a success, and deployment is expected soon.

Russia remains a provoking force that, according to Admiral William E. Gortney, Commander, United States Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, “could imperil our nation’s existence.” Russia continues to make next-generation advancements, most recently deploying new generations of ballistic missile submarines to its Northern and Pacific fleets.

The Lagging American Response

BMD technology is getting better with every test and with every day of use in the real world. But improvements are needed. To protect the homeland and our allies, we must upgrade the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (and eventually the Multi-Object Kill Vehicle), expand both land- and sea-based BMD capabilities, establish an East Coast BMD facility, and continue upgrading and expanding European BMD sites. At the same time, we must accelerate the development of new kill vehicles and develop more diverse launch and radar sites.

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has invested significant resources in developing the most successful kill vehicles to date. The Standard Missile (SM) family (SM-3 IB, SM-3 IIA, and SM-6) and the Ground Based Interceptors in Alaska and California have pulled off more than three dozen actual intercepts and taught us critical engineering lessons along the way. In today’s austere budget environment it’s vital that we use these hard-won lessons to improve our defenses.

While the Fiscal Year 2017 MDA budget request addresses some of the warfighter’s upper-tier missile defense needs, it also seriously misses the mark.  An example of the former is the $274 million request to continue development of the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV). That investment is essential, as it will improve the system’s accuracy and reliability.

But the Administration’s budget proposal cuts SM-3 IB by $159 million, slashing inventory procurement totals from 52 to only 35. The administration also proposes a $30 million cut to SM-3 IIA that would reduce inventory procurement and effectively shut down the missile’s production line.

What Must Be Done

To counter the growing ballistic missile threat, we need a larger arsenal of reliable missile interceptors, not a smaller one. The Standard Missile family provides that reliable, successful and currently deployed arsenal. Again the Fiscal Year 2017 MDA budget request shows us that reducing procurement of these interceptors only puts our homeland at risk. And the requested cuts don’t even provide statistically significant savings.  The Administration’s budget proposal cuts SM-3 IB by $159 million, bringing inventory procurement totals from 52 to only 35. The administration also proposes a $30 million cut to SM-3 IIA that would reduce inventory procurement and effectively shut down the missile’s production line. These cuts in critical missile defense production could prove extremely harmful to real U.S. capabilities.

Given the growing spectrum if ICBM threats, the administration, the Pentagon and Congress should make improving our upper tier missile defense capabilities a key policy and funding priority. On the policy front, Washington should do two things in planning for future missile threats:

First, patiently explain to Vladimir Putin again (as we’ve done since the early 2000s) that the BMD program aims to protect America and Europe from the likes of Iran and North Korea; it is not aimed at Russia.  Then, look him in the eye and say that if he really wants to be our enemy, we can use it to stop his programs, but we’d rather cooperate with Russia.  The call is his.

Second, put Iran on notice that, since it has not stopped ballistic missile testing (it has accelerated since the U.S. Iran nuclear deal was signed last July), the U.S. and her allies have no choice but to heighten their defenses against its growing capabilities.

The ballistic missile threat cannot be wished away. If it could, it would be diminishing, not increasing. Our adversaries have not been shy about investing in next-generation ballistic missile capabilities. If we continue underfunding BMD development and  downsizing our arsenal of upper tier missile defense systems, we will inevitably leave our homeland and allies more vulnerable to attack—and face consequences more costly than federal budgeters can imagine.

About the Author

Steven P. Bucci, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally published in RealClearDefense