By now, seasoned opponents – and untrained drive-by pundits – have lobbed their first salvos regarding the 2019 Missile Defense Review (MDR). There will be many more. Comments such as ‘a costly and dangerous new approach,’ ‘unrealistic,’ and my personal favorite, ‘Trump’s beautiful wall in the sky to match the one in Mexico,’ have drowned out honest debate about the role of missile defense. D.C. wouldn’t be the same without a fury of exaggerations, peppered with sardonic quips. A quick search for “Trump and Missile Defense Review” currently yields, as two of the top three hits, the terms: ‘mixed bag’ and ‘more theology on unproven technology.’ As with anything, the devil is in the details.
In short, the MDR is far from perfect, but a step in the right direction. After the decision to head back to the drawing board, staffers improved upon the product, adding more focus and meat. Left unencumbered by congressional constraints and bureaucratic limits, the MDR may have gone further. Does this document raise serious questions? Naturally. However, questions lay the groundwork for answers that America’s military has solved countless times. Are some of the technologies mentioned immature or currently the apple in an engineer’s eye? Absolutely! Still, discounting this important document based on animosity held towards the current President, fears of monumental costs, and concerns about the reactions of friends and foes misses an important and critical point: times have changed.
What the MDR accomplishes is reflect a new and scarier reality. A reality in which uncontested air and space supremacy is no longer certain. A reality active duty forces are well-aware. Will we pay to address this new reality? Time and budgets will tell. The MDR, though, goes a long way towards addressing the current and future calculus. It does so by:
- Candidly addressing the missile threat and missile defense landscape
- Investing in homeland defense amidst well-documented achievements by near-peer adversaries and emerging threats
- Addressing the challenge of hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV)
- Leveraging existing technologies and pursuing next-generation technologies to regain a technological edge and outpace peers
- Updating focus areas to provide a “march to” set of aspirations
- Assuring allies and modernizing relationships
The Missile Defense Landscape
The most critical feature of the MDR is that it presents a truer picture of an evolved and more dangerous landscape. A realm where survival is measured in seconds. Anyone who has sat in the tactical action officer chair can attest to this startling new era. Previous reviews made no mention of the challenge posed by China and Russia. Consider that for a moment. No prior mention of Russia, China, and missile defense in a core strategic document. Instead, the preference was to zero in on rogue states; namely Iran and North Korea. For some, the focus on rogue states was foolhardy and disingenuous to our allies. However, an appreciation for the long view suggests earlier compromises in language enabled missile defense technology to progress and gain broad political support. Russia might claim America’s pursuit of missile defense is destabilizing, but that argument is bunk. One would only to need point to Russia’s longstanding missile defense system consisting of 68 nuclear-armed interceptors and shorter-range, mobile systems encamped throughout its territory. Add to it, Russia’s development of anti-satellite (ASAT) technologies and hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV), and allusions to Hamlet arise. Me thinks thou protest too much, Putin. Likewise, China has made immense strides in areas of military modernization with no sign of letting up. China’s battle lines are being drawn throughout the waters of the ‘Nine-dash Line.’ Addressing these concerns is not only appropriate, but common sense. Arguments to the contrary ring hollow. How in one breath can someone say Russia and China pose grave threats in the cybersecurity realm and in another call for restraint in the military domain when faced with damning evidence of conflicting ambitions? Can we separate those two domains as we have in the past, or do they represent branch plans of a larger, coordinated strategy?
Of course, detractors cite “positive” developments regarding Iran’s denuclearization under the auspices of the Iran deal. Critics are also enamored with the possibility of peace with the Hermit Kingdom (North Korea). Hope is not a plan. Optimism should be tempered by measurable results. Even if there is truth to the claim that Iran has significantly reduced uranium enrichment, they still have the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East and continue to develop technologies necessary for capable intercontinental-range missiles. Iranian missiles may one day have the range to reach out and touch a metropolitan area near you. Do I need to remind everyone that this is Iran we’re talking about? When has Iran been an honest broker? Has their leadership suddenly changed out and completed an about face that the world missed? North Korea remains an international pariah prone to sweeping mood swings depending on its convenience. Holding out hope for a hasty retreat, brokered deal, or regime collapse are fanciful. North Korea has shown remarkable resiliency playing a long con…. they are experts in the realm of subterfuge. Should we try, as Trump has, to secure a grand bargain? Yes, but anyone holding their breath may just end up looking like Papa Smurf.
Thus, the MDR sets the table, clearly communicating the vexing state of play. In this environment, America’s unquestioned air supremacy is now in question. Simultaneously, a new space frontier enters the field with the introduction of ASATs; coupled with faster, stealthier, and more plentiful next-generation weapons designed to exploit gaps in American defenses. Space, long relegated to a support role, demands increased attention. Investigating the utility of a space-sensor layer and active defenses may, in time, aid the U.S. in regaining a technological edge.
Putting the Defense in Homeland Defense
Another key element of the MDR is bolstering homeland defense. Always a hallmark of deterrence, America’s ability to thwart attacks forces our adversaries to recalculate, keeping them unsteady. To achieve this aim, the administration is calling for qualitative and quantitative measures regarding the Ground-Based, Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. GMD is designed to engage incoming long-range ballistic missiles during their midcourse phase with time-tested GBIs – of which forty are deployed at Ft. Greely, Alaska and another four at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. These defensive missiles utilize the power of Newton’s Third Law to decimate targets with their kinetic kill vehicles. Specific expansions and investments to the current program include the $15.3 billion in FY18 congressional appropriations aimed at upgrading missile capabilities and command and control. An additional $4 billion was added in emergency funding to further enhance America’s homeland and regional defense layers. The MDR suggests further increasing the number of deployed GBIs from 44 to 64 as early as 2023. While critics have argued that investing in additional GBIs is unnecessary and instead should be devoted to improving areas such as integrated air and missile defense (IAMD), one could easily counter that the modest increase is still not enough to meet homeland defense needs. Though shot doctrine is classified, it remains doubtful that it stands at 1:1. Just as it’s unlikely a rogue state or near-peer would settle for a single salvo, nor would the U.S. trade single shots in any scenario, as terrible as it may be to imagine. What the MDR does provide is a modest and essential boost, coupled with reliability upgrades such as advanced boosters and the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV). Of course, IAMD investments are direly needed. Fortunately, Aegis modernization continues unabated with this in mind. Likewise, distributing maritime operations (DMO) doctrine is working to give our operational forces more teeth.
Worth noting is the possibility of operationalizing, even temporarily, the Aegis Ashore Missile Defense Center in Kauai, Hawaii. The operational site in Deveselu, Romania, already proving quite capable in assuring allies and frustrating adversary plans, may offer protection to American citizens as well. The key takeaway is that the MDR is providing options and vision. Choices are crucial in this complex environment. When added to already planned initiatives at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) – improved early warning, airspace monitoring upgrades, and new tracking and targeting sensors – the net effect is a robust network that mirrors EPAA’s evolutionary traits. To quote the father of Aegis, Wayne E. Meyer, “test a little, learn a lot.” This may seem like a massive shift. However, it is fundamentally pragmatic and iterative.
The Nasty Newcomer: Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGV)
The innovative, and frankly terrifying, HGV alters the current balance. Claims to the contrary are irresponsible. Are there many things yet to be learned about this capability? Absolutely. However, the existence of even experimental forms requires laser focus and steely determination. A maneuvering hypersonic missile traveling in excess of Mach 5 is troubling enough. When that missile rides just beneath or above the atmosphere, you have a disruptive, strategy-altering threat. Available tracking and targeting systems are rendered obsolete. Russia may be the first entrant, but others; notably China have tested their own like the DF-ZF (previously known as the WU-14). China has performed no less than seven tests – the first on January 9, 2014. With expectations for full operational capability in 2020, America must act fast. For some, fears of HGVs may be overstated. Yet, those working in the missile defense sector are accustomed to a long history of Aegis-killing technologies. Subsonic missiles gave way to maneuvering problems, supersonic sprinters, and jammers. Each time, the military and defense industry rushed to solve the new challenge. With enough investment that will continue. Make no mistake though, Russia and China are experts at finding and exploiting gaps. The HGV marks a continuation in the process. Oh, and it is believed the DF-ZF is capable of reaching between a lightning speed Mach 5 and mind-boggling Mach 10 (3,836 mph – 7,680 mph).
The MDR commits to finding solutions by enhancing ways to collect and process information from existing space-based and terrestrial sensors. Putting additional eyes and ears in the sky holds promise, but it starts by recognizing the problem. That is precisely what the MDR does.
Merging New with the Tried and True
Leveraging existing systems is critical to continued success in missile defense. They will remain the backbone for years to come. That being said, phasing in innovations is essential to tipping the scales in America’s favor. Regaining an edge on the competition is ultimately the expectation. Fortunately, DOD is taking important steps in the right direction through the budgetary process to improve current technologies and finding new uses for them. Adaptation reduces costs and opens avenues. It quickens our responsiveness towards eliminating capability gaps. In a time-competitive world, our ability to adapt to the situation on the seas, air, ground, and yes, space, yields the wielder a myriad of tactical and strategic benefits. Thus, the MDR seeks to adapt, relocate or surge mobile systems to meet objectives in addition to procuring new systems. What is important to understand is that the MDR is not a budget document. Studies in space-basing for sensors or boost phase intercepts are exactly that… studies. The verbal grenades that this is a reinvention of “Star Wars” or a “Wall in the Sky” are fantastic attention grabbers, but criminally unfair to the intent and aims of the MDR. Need I mention how misunderstood and miscast Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) has been by armchair historians, revisionists and pundits? For a historically accurate take see “Living on the Edge: SDI, ABLE ARCHER, and America’s Insurance Policy.” Again, studying is far different from fielding. This is rocket science!
DOD is, rightfully so, examining a portfolio of potential options. Scalable, efficient, and compact high energy lasers is one of them. Tests, both in the lab and in the field, show promise. However, delivering on these promises is another endeavor entirely. Of course, it’s easier to pluck a sentence from the MDR and write a click-bait article than to actually read the entire document. Truth is, marrying unmanned systems with lasers – capable of beam propagation and control – is something only conceivable in recent years. Heck, unmanned systems were an anomaly roughly a decade ago, lasers too! As Ferris Bueller once said, “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” As understandable as it is to scoff lasers, channeling Dr. Evil, lasers are here, they are real, and they are useful.
Space-basing is particularly intriguing. Scanning a large area viewable from space – air, ground, and at sea, units can benefit from improved tracking and targeting. Make no mistake, the key in modern warfare comes down to find, fix, track, target, kill. Improvements in the kill chain may one day enable U.S. forces to destroy adversary missiles in the boost phase (i.e. destruction near the source). That’s the type of insurance worth investing in.
Something to Strive Towards
President Trump’s announcement of the MDR rankled some by pledging to “detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States anywhere, anytime, anyplace.” Critics were quick to point out the infeasibility of this statement. What they miss, however, is the call to action embedded in those words. It is aspirational. This is the business of war. Should we be content with a 99% probability of success when the nukes fly? Why on earth are we doing this at all if our goal isn’t perfection? Again, the MDR is not a budget document. It is a vision for how America intends to move forward in this domain. Budgeteers will work their abacus, but missile defense is a zero or one game (there can be no leakers). His comments also sparked horror from numerous seasoned policy experts who fear an arms race as a result of America’s defensive ramp-up. Trouble is, countries like Russia already possess an arsenal capable of turning the globe into an ash tray. The idea that they’ll be emboldened to procure more nuclear weapons is debatable. As far as other missile developments, that ship sailed some time ago. China and Russia have chosen their path and continue pushing the offensive envelope with no signs of abating. From the Asia-Pacific to the Middle East, cruise missile proliferation is at historic levels.
The MDR provides a “march to” sets of goals and areas designated for further study. That’s not irresponsible, but extremely pragmatic. MDR calls for 11 different follow-ups. These include:
- Designating a service or defense agency with acquisition authority
- Designating entities to prepare a report that assesses the number of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries required
- Requesting a report on how all AEGIS destroyers can be converted to BMD capable within ten years.
- Directing NMDA and Northern Command to prepare plan to accelerate efforts to enhance missile defense tracking and discrimination sensors.
- Directing Air Force and MDA for a joint report on integrating the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
- Direct the DOD to examine operationalizing Aegis Ashore Missile Defense Test Center location in Hawaii.
- Directing MDA to study development and fielding of a space-based missile intercept layer capable of boost-phase defense.
- Calls for reviews of the current Warfighter Involvement Process to speed innovation.
- Orders The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs as well as the head of U.S. Strategic Command to develop a plan for optimal roles, responsibilities, and authorities for achieving greater transregional missile defense integration.
- Designate an office with acquisition authority specific to pre-launch attack operations — that is, someone who leads procurement of new technologies designed to destroy an enemy missile before it can take off.
- Direct the Pentagon, within nine months, to research improvements for timely warnings on hypersonic and advanced cruise missiles launched at the U.S. homeland.
The MDR sets the tone. These studies and directives will form the foundation of what is to come. This is an in-depth, pragmatic approach.
Bolstering and Linking Alliances
If the MDR is any indication, NATO and our European partners can rest assured that America remains resolute in expanding an umbrella of defense. Although the Trump Administration continues to challenge NATO members to increase defense spending to agreed levels, the MDR clearly conveys a continuing desire to improve NATO’s position by expanding theater capabilities and forging a global network. The MDR is also a call to action for allies to rise to the challenge. A resurgent Russia maintains an openly antagonistic view towards NATO, seeing it as an impediment to aspirations of regional hegemony. Concurrently, China’s rise presents risks to long-standing allies throughout the Asia-Pacific. Japan is keenly aware of this threat and has lobbied hard to secure their own Aegis Ashore sites. A global linkage is a natural and vital progression. As threats become faster, stealthier, and more plentiful, early warning and tracking takes precedence. A system of systems or evolutionary approach – demonstrated successfully by EPAA – will deliver a safer, more stable geopolitical environment. Using allies as building blocks to supplement U.S. investments is the most prudent course of action.
Down to Brass Tacks
The MDR is an admirable start of what will be a long-term commitment to missile defense at home and abroad. Cost, however, is a real concern. As mentioned, such decisions will await a series of budget proposals. Still, it seems a bargain can be achieved. Great problems require great solutions. When former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized NATO during his farewell tour, he wasn’t wrong. Trump echoed his thoughts, as do countless others. NATO is vitally important, but America cannot continue footing such a large bill. Our allies must take on more responsibility. But how? NATO in its current form is nearing obsolescence. As technology evolves so must organizations. According to Martec’s Law, technology changes exponentially, whereas organizations change at a logarithmic rate. What does this mean for a reorganization within NATO? For starters, does it make sense that there are roughly sixty thousand U.S personnel serving in Europe? Without delving into the nuances of these deployed units, imagine if America were able to recapitalize costs by shifting focus. Instead of the current construct, U.S. forces in Europe should execute high-end missions: cybersecurity, intelligence, special operations, missile defense, amongst others, in concert with partners. With the prospect of diminished budgets in future years, can we support armored brigades and infantry defending European soil, and should we? The Army isn’t alone. Air Force and Navy units are deployed throughout the theater. A force assessment is in order. NATO must reevaluate roles and contributions without skimping on security. Although the undertaking would prove extremely difficult, choices must be made. While the MDR makes a strong case for the criticality of missile defense, the costs will drive the pace. Great visions can suffer starvation. Decision-makers must balance the two or get neither.
The MDR sets a new tone, one that accurately describes the state of play and challenges America to establish a robust network in concert with allies. Any successful strategy, transformation, or reorganization – whether in business or government – requires first recognizing the problem. The MDR does just that in frank terms. Likewise, just knowing the problems means little without objectives. Although, some may seem far-fetched now, time and investment will ultimately reveal the merits of this strategic document. How will history judge it? That answer depends entirely on what follows. Will decision-makers balk or will they answer the test presented by reality…presented by near-peer adversaries? Congress, the choice is yours.
– Mark Daniel Pennebaker Olson is a former Lieutenant Commander, Combat Systems Officer, and IAMD Liaison to JOHN C. STENNIS Strike Group. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy (2006), he currently works for Delta Resources supporting Navy AEGIS Ashore’s Fleet Introduction Program Manager (PEO IWS 1.0) in Washington, DC.