In response to recent bellicose statements by the government of North Korea, it was entirely appropriate that the Obama Administration announced steps, both immediate and for the years ahead, to bolster U.S. missile defense capabilities. The immediate steps included forward deploying missile defense–capable surface ships to the East Asia region, transferring a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery to Guam, and sending an additional x-band missile defense radar to Japan. The most prominent of the mid-term steps was to field 14 additional ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) interceptors in Alaska for the purpose of countering North Korean long-range missiles that are capable of reaching U.S. territory. This step was announced by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on March 15, 2013, and represented a reversal of the Obama Administration’s 2009 decision to scale back the domestic GMD deployment plan of the second Bush Administration.
It is for these reasons that the Obama Administration’s proposed budget for the missile defense program for fiscal year (FY) 2014 and beyond is so strangely disconnected from its recent announcements. According to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the new budget proposes to reduce the already inadequate missile defense budget of a bit more than $10.3 billion in FY 2012 to $9.7 billion in FY 2013, and down further to less than $9.2 billion in FY 2014. Worse, the lower funding levels do not reflect the application of automatic spending reductions, called sequestration, in either FY 2013 or FY 2014. Sequestration, which applies a reduction of roughly 9 percent to the requested level across all applicable missile defense programs, projects, and activities, is already under way in FY 2013.
Continued sequestration in FY 2014 is a real possibility, and could range as high as 13 percent, depending on how the Administration handles the still-pending plan for funding overseas contingency operations (OCO). When the effects of sequestration are quantified, the missile defense budget in FY 2013 will fall to somewhat more than $8.8 billion in FY 2013, and as low as $8 billion in FY 2014. If so, the missile defense budget will fall by more than $2 billion over the span of just two years. This is not in keeping with the steps to mobilize and expand certain elements of U.S. missile defense capabilities taken in recent weeks, which logically should lead to increases, not decreases, in the missile defense budget. Indeed, it is unlikely that these actions can be sustained in the future under this budget, particularly if sequestration continues. Accordingly, Congress should not simply rubber-stamp the Obama Administration’s proposed missile defense program for FY 2014 and beyond—Congress must protect this program.
Missile Defense on a Downward Spiral
As the U.S. response to North Korea’s threats demonstrates, merely making up for lost ground in the missile defense program will not keep the U.S. ahead of its adversaries. That would require decisively reversing the Obama Administration’s course of insufficient funding for missile defense, thereby putting the nation on a path to more robust defenses that would protect and defend the U.S. and its friends and allies, and that would dissuade potential enemies from investing in offensive missile capabilities. A fully funded missile defense program would require a total of more than $11 billion in FY 2014. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration’s practical position of seeking the continuing application of sequestration to the overall defense program, while denying that this is its policy, puts this level of funding far out of reach.
It is, therefore, important for Congress to examine what an ideal missile defense program looks like in order to provide longer-term guidance for restoring the program at a later time. Further, there are elements of an ideal program that could still be applied to the FY 2014 defense budget program, despite the ongoing application of sequestration. To that end, the Independent Working Group’s 2009 report is an excellent resource for Congress as it considers missile defense legislation as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2014.
Programmatic Weaknesses and Partial Remedies. Given the inadequate level of resources devoted to missile defense under sequestration, it should surprise no one that the Administration’s missile defense program not only suffers from glaring weaknesses, but also ones that are obscure. Fortunately, there are some steps that Congress can take to limit the worst of the damage in drafting the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2014. The following are the most important weaknesses, along with suggested partial remedies:
The Obama Administration’s missile defense program is unbalanced between the commitment to defend the U.S. homeland against missile attack and the commitment to defend U.S. forces and allies against such attacks in important regions. The Obama Administration missile defense program is overwhelmingly biased against providing a defense against long-range missile attacks on the American homeland, most prominently in the area of financial resources. This remains the case after Secretary Hagel’s March 15 announcement of the plan to reverse an earlier reduction in the GMD force and field 14 additional GMD interceptors in Alaska.
Given the imbalance in the missile defense program, Congress is all but compelled to respond by increasing its commitment to homeland defense. Rebalancing the missile defense program recognizes that a strong alliance structure depends on upholding the principle that the security of all alliance members is indivisible. A strong defense of the U.S. homeland will serve to bolster the American commitment to the defense of its friends and allies by securing the U.S. position to assist its allies. Accordingly, Congress needs to embrace Secretary Hagel’s initiative to restore the number of GMD interceptors in Alaska and California to the 44 that were originally planned by the Bush Administration. In doing so, Congress needs to recognize that sequestration-level funding for the GMD program in FY 2014 will permit only tentative steps in this direction. The continued application of sequestration beyond FY 2014 will render the Hagel initiative unviable.
By way of reference, the Department of Defense funded the GMD program at more than $1.1 billion in FY 2012. Last year, the Administration request proposed allocating $903 million to the program in FY 2013. Congress chose to increase this to $978 million. The application of sequestration will bring this congressional funding level back down to less than the Administration’s requested level. Regarding FY 2014, the Administration is requesting somewhat more that $1 billion. It is possible that sequestration will again bring the funding level down to below $900 million in FY 2014. The best that Congress can do under this circumstance is to establish a level of funding for the GMD program in FY 2014 that is high enough to permit some limited initial steps under Secretary Hagel’s initiative even after sequestration, and hope that sequestration will eventually be set aside.
Further, the U.S. needs better geographic balance in its homeland missile defense capabilities. North Korea is not the only missile threat. Iran, in particular, has been improving its ballistic missile capability. The current GMD system is more focused on countering North Korean long-range missiles and defending the western portions of U.S. territory. This leaves the eastern United States less well defended against a future long-range Iranian missile. The geographic imbalance caused Congress, last year, to include a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act to undertake environmental impact studies in preparation for the fielding of GMD interceptors on the East Coast. Congress should continue to press for more robust missile defense capabilities to protect the eastern portion of the U.S. from long-range missile strikes to the extent permitted by the budget circumstance.
In this regard, there is a cheaper and faster option for defending the eastern portion of the U.S., as well as the Gulf Coast region, against missile strikes. That option is to pursue missile defense systems that provide protection to both the U.S. homeland and vital regions. This starts with the sea-based system. With software modifications, new command and control arrangements, and access to off-board sensor data, the existing Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IA interceptor could intercept long-range ballistic missiles in the late midcourse phase. The successful interception of an out-of-control U.S. satellite in early 2008 demonstrated this capability. Specifically, Congress should insist that the Navy conduct an intercept test of either the Block IA or Block 1B interceptor aimed at a long-range target missile as soon as feasible. Further, a constellation of space-based missile defense interceptors will provide protection both in various regions and for the homeland, including interception of shorter-range missiles launched from ships off the coast carrying electromagnetic pulse (EMP) warheads.
The Obama Administration’s missile defense program makes an inadequate commitment to space-based missile defense capabilities. The Obama Administration has yet to recognize that missile defense interceptors in space would provide the best possible protection to both the U.S. and its allies against missile attack. Given that the 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report states that it is not the purpose of the U.S. missile defense program to deploy a system that could counter Chinese and Russian long-range missiles, it is reasonable to conclude that the Obama Administration erroneously believes that space-based interceptors would be destabilizing.
Congress’s proper response to the Obama Administration’s unwillingness to pursue an acquisition program for space-based interceptors is to require it to do so by law. What is not necessary, although it would remain marginally helpful, is to require another feasibility study for space-based interceptors. An exhaustive series of such studies was undertaken in the late 1980s and early 1990s under the Brilliant Pebbles program, which demonstrated that there were no “show stoppers” for deployment of space-based interceptors both in terms of effectiveness and cost. In accordance with these positive studies, the Pentagon’s Defense Acquisition Board (DAB) approved an acquisition plan for Brilliant Pebbles in 1990, and the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition directed execution of the plan. Further, two contractor teams expressed their willingness to accept firm fixed-price contracts for the delivery of the interceptors under the plan. Accordingly, Congress could include a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2014 that directs the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics to direct the execution of an updated version of the 1990 plan to acquire space-based interceptors under the Brilliant Pebbles program. Structurally, this directive should take the same form as the memorandum signed out by the Under Secretary in 1990. This same provision should instruct the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) to propose a proper funding plan to support the acquisition plan in the FY 2015 defense budget request and the accompanying future years defense plan (FYDP), with the stipulation that this funding should not assume the continuing application of sequestration in FY 2015 and beyond. Then, Congress may decide how to proceed in actually funding the program in its authorization and appropriations bills. The acquisition cost of a 1,000 interceptor constellation (with one replacement interceptor for each), which excludes launch and operating costs, will be approximately $17 billion.
Congress should also consider rationalizing the Missile Defense Agency’s (MDA) program for fielding space-based missile defense sensors. Currently, the MDA operates two Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) demonstration satellites. These satellites were used in a highly successful intercept test of the sea-based missile defense system on February 12, 2013. The satellites provided precise tracking data to the SM-3 Block IA interceptor in a way that it could be launched long before the ship’s own radar could pick up the target. Nevertheless, the MDA was planning to develop a new system called the Precision Tracking Space System (PTSS) to succeed STSS. This year, the MDA is reversing itself and proposing to terminate the PTSS. Given the positive performance of STSS, it was unclear why the MDA felt compelled to move to the PTSS satellites. The problem now is that the MDA is proposing to resort to only ground-based radar to perform the same mission. This assertion that ground-based radar can perform the same mission is misleading. Ground-based radar cannot perform the same mission in the same way that was demonstrated by the use of the STSS demonstrators on February 12. Therefore, a plausible alternative for Congress is to take the funds that the Administration would otherwise have given to the PTSS program and use them to start building a constellation of STSS satellites on a spiral-development basis.
The Obama Administration is terminating MEADS. The Obama Administration has pledged to cooperate with U.S. allies in developing and fielding ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities. At best, its record in this area has been spotty. A casualty of this spotty record is the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) program. On February 11, 2011, the Defense Department announced that the U.S. was walking away from the MEADS program, which left its international partners, Germany and Italy, hanging. The Defense Department plans to exit the program by 2014 for budgetary reasons, programmatic shortcomings, and the existence of alternatives. In the interim, the U.S. has continued to participate. For FY 2013, the MDA is committed to spending $400 million on the program to demonstrate the system’s capabilities in the context of identifying elements of the program that may be “harvested” for use in existing air defense architectures. For understandable, if misplaced, reasons, some Members of Congress are skeptical about continued funding for a program that the U.S. intends to exit. Indeed, a split emerged between congressional authorizers and appropriators over the issue. The National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2013 contained a provision to end all funding for the MEADS program. The Consolidated and Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013, by contrast, funded the MEADS program for the current fiscal year at slightly less than the requested level Secretary Hagel informed the German and Italian Defense Ministers through a letter dated April 8, 2013, that the Department of Defense would fund the MEADS program in FY 2013 at the appropriated level, less the sequestration amount.
In general terms, the Defense Department’s and congressional criticisms of the MEADS program do not stand up to scrutiny. The U.S. has already budgeted somewhat more than $2 billion for MEADS. Furthermore, two important U.S. allies have been sharing the cost of development from the outset. The program completed its design review in August 2010. MEADS had a successful flight test at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico on November 17, 2011. Further, it performed a successful intercept test against an air-breathing target on December 3, 2012. Another intercept test is scheduled for later this year. As a result, MEADS is pointing toward a more advanced battlefield missile defense system. For example, this system could provide a better defense against combined ballistic and cruise missile attacks. Both Congress and the Obama Administration should reverse course and state that it is their intention to advance the MEADS program to procurement, if Germany and Italy stand by their stated commitments to the program.
This is particularly important now because then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta informed Senator John McCain (R–AZ) in a November 14, 2011, letter that one of the potential longer-term effects of sequestration would be termination of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) cooperative missile defense program with U.S. allies in Europe. Sequestration is now underway and MEADS may represent the sole logical fallback option for any significant development and procurement cooperation with any European allies in the area of missile defense.
The Obama Administration is planning to buy an insufficient number of SM-3 interceptors. The Obama Administration’s missile defense program puts the Aegis missile defense system at the center of its Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) to missile defense. As pointed out above, however, Secretary Panetta indicated in 2011 that with sequestration the Obama Administration may terminate the European component of the PAA. Thus, it is uncertain what will happen to the SM-3 procurement program with sequestration now in effect. In its proposed FY 2013 budget, the Administration asked for $389 million to procure 29 SM-3 Block IB interceptors in FY 2013. With sequestration, it could be the case that the Navy will procure 26 interceptors during this fiscal year. The request for FY 2014 indicates that the Administration will seek 52 interceptors, but this does not account for the impact of sequestration. Last year, the Administration proposed buying 397 SM-3 interceptors of all types cumulatively by FY 2017, yet, in order to provide adequate protection the U.S. should buy at least 500 SM-3 interceptor missiles. This will require that funding for other defense programs be used to offset this higher cost.
The Obama Administration is not making an adequate commitment to boost-phase intercept capabilities. Since the Obama Administration downgraded the airborne laser (ABL) program and cancelled the kinetic energy interceptor (KEI) program in FY 2010, the boost-phase missile defense elements of the layered missile defense concept have essentially been eliminated, and the Administration has done nothing to advance space-based interceptor development. Indeed, the MDA budget no longer includes a boost-phase line item. This is nothing short of an abandonment of the layered missile defense concept that represents the most effective ballistic missile defense system design for protecting Americans, America’s deployed forces, and America’s allies.
In 2011, however, the MDA and Air Force agreed to develop the Airborne Weapon Layer, an airborne missile that could shoot down missiles in this early stage of flight. It is based on the Network Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE), an earlier program that conducted a successful intercept in 2009. Nevertheless, there was no programmatic funding for this technology in FY 2013, and it appears there will be none in FY 2014.
The cost of the Obama Administration’s reluctance to pursue boost-phase missile defense systems is now there for all to see. All the way back in 2007, the top U.S. commander in South Korea, General B. B. Bell, stated, “Intercepting these [North Korean] missiles during their boost phase while still over North Korean territory would be a huge combat multiplier for me.”
Accordingly, Congress must re-invigorate the boost-phase missile defense development and deployment program by pursuing airborne, sea-based, and space-based options in this area. An important step may be taken in this restoration by providing a modest amount of development money to a revived version of the Airborne Weapon Layer program. This should be achievable even with the continued application of sequestration to most defense accounts.
The Obama Administration ignores missile defense options for addressing the EMP threat by dismissing ascent-phase missile defense capabilities. The 2004 report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack clearly showed that the EMP threat is extremely serious and that the U.S. is vulnerable to an EMP attack. Nevertheless, the Obama Administration has not paid much attention to the EMP capabilities of existing and potential enemies. Thus, it has not designed effective missile defense capabilities, and its missile defense policies and plans do not establish specific mission requirements for responding to EMP attacks. Indeed, a September 2011 report of a Defense Science Board Task Force states that the early intercept of ballistic missiles, which is essential to providing a defense against EMP attacks with ballistic missiles, “is not a particularly useful goal or protocol for design of a regional BMD system.”
The Defense Science Board Task Force also stated that “the feasibility of achieving the very high regional missile burnout velocity, depending upon siting, far in excess of what has currently been achieved, to provide this [homeland defense] benefit over a large portion of the U.S. is uncertain.” In fact, it is not uncertain at all. The Navy conducted a successful ascent-phase intercept test against a short-range missile with its standard missile interceptor in November 2002. Upgrading the Aegis-based BMD system and establishing an East Coast test bed for missile defense would provide a substantive capability to address the EMP threat. Accordingly, Congress should adopt a “sense of the Congress” resolution that commends the Navy for its earlier successful ascent-phase test. Since the adoption of such a resolution involves no expenditure of defense appropriations, the ongoing application of sequestration will be irrelevant to the initiative.
The initial missile defense budget may underfund the cooperative program with Israel. Congress voted to provide almost $269 million to the U.S.–Israeli missile defense cooperation program for the current fiscal year. In addition, Congress funded the cooperative procurement program with Israel for Iron Dome interceptors, which are used to counter short-range missiles and rockets, at $211 million in FY 2013. Both funding levels, however, will be reduced by sequestration. Regarding FY 2014, the Administration is seeking $220 million for the Iron Dome cooperative procurement program with Israel. It appears the Administration is requesting $96 million for U.S.–Israeli missile defense cooperation outside Iron Dome.
The U.S. has a long history of cooperating with Israel on missile defense. Given the threats that Israel faces, and the demonstrated success of the Iron Dome system since last year, this cooperation should continue at no less than present levels. While recognizing the funding challenge posed by sequestration, Congress should fund the U.S.–Israeli missile defense cooperation program, including Iron Dome, at a level that at least matches this year’s funding.
The Need Is Great
The federal government has a constitutional obligation to defend the American people to the best of its ability. It also has international security obligations to U.S. friends and allies around the world, including cooperative missile defense programs. The history of President Obama’s overall missile defense policy has demonstrated that he is insufficiently committed to the program. The continuing application of sequestration makes it all but impossible for Congress to remedy the weaknesses that President Obama’s policies have created in the missile defense program.
The best that Congress can do at the moment is to take partial steps to hold the missile defense program together despite sequestration. Congress should use this year’s national defense authorizing and appropriating legislation to:
- Restore balance between homeland and regional missile defense capabilities by funding the initial steps in Secretary Hagel’s proposal to restore the number of fielded GMD interceptors in the U.S. to 44, as proposed by President George W. Bush, testing early models of the standard missile against long-range targets, and developing missile defense systems that will fulfill both homeland and regional missions. This effort to restore balance between national and regional missile defense should include an effort to establish a better balance between missile defense for the western half of the U.S, primarily against North Korea, and the eastern and southern U.S., primarily against Iran.
- Direct the approval of an acquisition plan for space-based missile defense interceptors based on the acquisition plan approved for Brilliant Pebbles in 1990, and build a constellation of STSS satellites, which Congress can use to consider funding options in the course of deliberations on FY 2015 defense legislation.
- Re-establish the procurement status for the MEADS program.
- Set a goal of procuring no fewer than 500 standard missile interceptors by FY 2017.
- Restore the commitment to build a layered missile defense system by developing sea-based, airborne, and space-based missile defense systems for boost-phase and ascent-phase intercepts, starting with the restoration of the Airborne Weapon Layer program. Congress should also commend the Navy for conducting a successful ascent-phase intercept of a short-range missile in 2002, recognizing that such demonstrated capability will provide the foundation for fielding a missile defense system to protect the U.S. from an EMP weapon delivered by a short-range or medium-range missile launch from a ship off the U.S. coast.
- Maintain at least the present level of funding for the missile defense cooperation program with Israel, including for the Iron Dome system, in FY 2014.
The nation still faces very real threats that only a viable missile defense enterprise can adequately address. Announcing a change without subsequent budgetary actions does not protect Americans; the policy must be supported. The common defense requires no less.—Baker Spring is F. M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.