Unresolved Issues Hang Over U.S. Missile Shield
For the second year in a row, lawmakers will be squabbling this fall over if and when the United States should shore up its defenses against North Korean and Iranian ballistic missiles.
The lightning rod in this debate is a Republican-led proposal to build a new ground-based missile interceptor site on the U.S. East Cost. Proponents contend that current sites, based in Alaska and California, do not provide enough coverage against a future possible attack by Iran, which is reportedly developing intercontinental ballistic missiles that could target the United States.
The deployment of a new site — endorsed by the House in its version of the 2014 defense authorization bill — is one of several controversial items that the Senate will take up in the coming months.
A confluence of trends and factors — Pentagon budget cuts, competing demands for homeland and overseas missile defense systems, poor test results of U.S. ground-based interceptors, and a toxic political environment — makes it a safe bet that an East Coast site or any significant enhancements to the nation’s missile shield systems will be deferred years into the future, possibly into the next administration.
The missile shield discussion, like most other topics in national security, has become a political football.
The East Coast site is being championed by defense hawks at a time when the Pentagon faces deep budget cuts and pressures to deploy regional missile defense systems around the world. And it has emerged as a coveted jobs program for states such as Maine and New York, where several locations are in contention for the East Coast site.
Democrats have cited the poor track record of the ground-based missile defense system — of 10 tests, only three successful hits and none in the past five years — as a justification for delaying or nixing the East Cost location. But the elephant in the room clearly is the budget — whether the nation can afford to pour billions of dollars into new missile defenses when government spending is being squeezed.
Within the Pentagon’s existing budget, funding for the Missile Defense Agency is expected to remain steady or drop slightly, but MDA resources already are stretched thin, analysts point out, by the demands of other parts of the world where the U.S. military wants to build missile shields, including Europe, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region.
The U.S. missile-defense system relies on kinetic-kill vehicles to intercept ballistic missiles at various points in the missile’s trajectory. Ground-based interceptors are designed to counter ICBMs that are aimed at the continental United States. Tactical, shorter range systems such as the Patriot, the Navy’s Aegis SM-3 and the Army’s theater high-altitude air defense are intended to protect regional forces.
The Pentagon is under pressure to bolster U.S. defenses against enemy ICBMs as it also contemplates how to satisfy commanders’ requests for tactical missile shields to protect U.S. forces abroad and allies.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in March agreed to fund 14 additional interceptor sites in Alaska, at a cost of about $1 billion. This would raise the number of domestic launch pads to 44. The Pentagon also is leading afive-year effort to deploy missile defense systems in Europe, the cost of which is still unknown. In Asia, the Navy has joined forces with Japan to develop a more advanced variant of the SM-3 interceptor, which would be deployed aboard ships and shore-based Aegis sites.
The Navy has set ambitious goals to intercept more sophisticated ballistic missiles and eventually to develop limited capabilities against ICBMs. Existing plans call for 41 BMD-capable Aegis vessels and more than 300 SM-3s deployed by 2018, said a Congressional Research Service report.
While the military and congressional missile-defense wish list keeps getting longer, funding for these programs is likely to shrink, said James Lewis, spokesman for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. The East Coast site proposal, he said, is an example of Washington not coming to grips with budget reality.
“U.S. military leaders have repeatedly stated that there are more cost-effective alternatives to improve long-range missile defense capabilities than to rush forward with the construction of an East Coast site,” he said. “This is especially true given the current budget environment and threat of the implementation of sequestration for the long haul.”
Benjamin Loehrke, senior analyst at the Ploughshares Fund, noted that the Pentagon’s $47.4 billion five-year budget for missile defense — which does not reflect sequestration cuts — leaves MDA “relatively unscathed.” But even with $9 billion to $10 billion a year, MDA will be hard pressed to fund existing programs, Loehrke writes in a blog post.
“The missile defense budget is going stagnant,” he said. “Particularly in a time of austerity, it’s survival of the fittest, where the weakest programs get cancelled so that growing programs can absorb the funds.”
The Pentagon is planning to end participation in the multinational MEADS medium-range extended air defense program and will terminate the Precision Tracking Space System, which would save $17.5 billion over 10 years. More cuts could be coming, Loehrke suggested. “If the DoD budget sees substantial cuts in the years ahead, it will need to rethink its missile defense strategy.”
By most accounts, the Pentagon could not afford to fund the East Coast site absent a significant influx of new money or cancellations of other programs. In June the Congressional Budget Office estimated that putting a ground-based midcourse defense system on the East Coast consisting of 20 interceptors will cost $3.4 billion over the next five years, Lewis said. A September 2012 report by the National Academy of Sciences projected that the 20-year life cycle costs to deploy a brand new long-range missile defense system at a third site on the East Coast and at a fourth site elsewhere could reach $25 billion.
CBO also weighed in on the potential price tag for installing the X-band radar at a new U.S. missile-defense site. Because advanced X-band radars that can track ICBMs cost about a billion dollars, CBO assumed that the Defense Department would not acquire a new one for the East Coast but would upgrade an existing radar used for missile testing at the Ronald Reagan Test Range on Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. That radar is a prototype ground-based radar called the GBR-P. CBO said the radar could be moved to a selected East Coast site at a cost of about $650 million between 2014 and 2018. That amount includes the costs of upgrading the GBR-P and buying communications equipment ($220 million), preparing the site and building facilities ($290 million), and operating the radar through 2018 ($140 million).
The Missile Defense Agency is going ahead with a series of studies on the possible environmental impact a missile defense site would have on three yet-to-be-selected East Coast facilities.
MDA spokesman Richard Lehner said there has been no decision to build an East Coast site so there is no plan or estimate of what it would cost to build one. “Per congressional direction, an environmental impact study process will begin after three sites are selected by the end of the year,” he told National Defense by email. The studies could take up to two years to complete. By conducting theses studies, he said, MDA would help shorten the time it would take to build a new site, “But at this point there is no plan for an additional missile defense site in the United States,” Lehner said.
Comments by senior military officials in recent months suggest that the Pentagon is less interested in deploying additional sites and more keen on investing missile-defense dollars in research and development to make the system perform better.
In a June 6 letter to Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, and Lt. Gen. Richard Formica, commander of U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, insisted that “discrimination and sensor capabilities would result in more cost-effective near-term improvements to homeland missile defense.”
Air Force Gen. C. Robert “Bob” Kehler, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, pleaded a similar case. To improve missile defense, he said, the key is to add sensors and connect the data from different sensors so incoming missiles can be better identified and targeted. “Every time we do that, our ability to discriminate gets better, our ability to track gets better,” he told reporters in Washington, D.C.
“We believe that incrementally improving the command and control system is something we need to do while we’re looking at the possibility of an East Coast missile site,” Kehler said. “We can defend the entire United States from a limited attack from either North Korea or in the future if it develops, from Iran with interceptors that are based at Fort Greely, but we do better at that if we have better sensor coverage, better command and control, and then ultimately our analysis is going to tell us if an East Coast missile site will contribute to this, and if so, how.”
Officials from The Raytheon Co., which supplies many of the key components of U.S. missile defense systems, second that view.
“There is a clear need for more discrimination,” Jim Bedingfield, director of missile defense and space programs at Raytheon, said in an interview last month. “The better the discrimination, the fewer interceptor missiles have to be fired, he said. The termination of the Precision Tracking Space System, Raytheon officials have said, could create a gap in sensor coverage unless MDA chooses to deploy other sensors.
Kehler would like to see more money spent on testing the existing ground-based interceptors before the U.S. government commits fresh funding for new sites.
The most recent test failure July 5 has cast further doubts on the performance of the system. A ground-based interceptor was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., against a rocket fired from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific. According to Syring, the “kill vehicle did not separate” from the booster rocket.
Kehler said he is “concerned with the recent test failure and I would like to see more testing done. … I think that’s a priority call within the resources that are available for missile defense.”
Each test is estimated to cost about $100 million. Nonetheless, said Kehler, “adding tests is necessary in my view” even if MDA has to raid other programs to pay for them. “I believe those choices have to be made.”
The public has to be assured that the system works before any more money is wasted on new sites, said Kingston Reif, director of non-proliferation programs at the Council for a Livable World. “We cannot simply move a broken system from the West Coast to the East Coast.”