The Ripon Forum

Volume 51, No. 4

Aug/Sept 2017

U.S. Missile Defense in a Proliferated World

By on September 5, 2017


It is perhaps a measure of the current state of U.S. missile defenses that when North Korea recently threatened to fire missiles at Guam, U.S. defense officials expressed confidence that ground-based interceptors, called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries, and naval-based systems in Guam and elsewhere could meet the threat.

Nearly 35 years and some $190 billion after Ronald Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in 1983, if ballistic missile defenses (BMD) have not become the ultimate fulfillment of Reagan’s vision, then they have become a key component to U.S. national security strategy. The Pentagon is now in the midst of its missile defense review, one seeking to cope with new challenges in a proliferated world, most immediately, in the form of an incipient North Korean ICBM.1

If ballistic missile defenses have not become the ultimate fulfillment of Reagan’s vision, then they have become a key component to U.S. national security strategy.

Many Americans may still have trouble coming to grips with the fact that our sense of security — provided by two great oceans and friendly borders to our north and south – has been shattered by technology. While few are likely to argue that missile defense is a cost-effective measure, the fact remains that BMD, despite its still limited capabilities, has become an important component of U.S. national defense. And for good reason.

Indeed, apart from North Korea, Iran has been developing an array of short and medium-range missiles, and is now entering into the space launch vehicle business, suggesting future ICBMs may be on the Mullahs’ agenda. And beyond U.S. security, BMD has become an increasingly important element not only for homeland defense, but in U.S. alliances and security partnerships with the Republic of Korea (ROK), Japan, NATO and the Gulf Cooperation Council nations in the Middle East. All this helps explain the Defense Department’s $7.9 billion budget request for the 2018 fiscal year.

An Evolution, not Revolution
The story of missile defense has been one of utopian visions of absolute security and dashed expectations, of overpromising and under-delivering. But it is also a story about learning-by-doing, of failures sowing the seeds of success, however incrementally.

SDI spurred research into a wide array of technologies, from those aimed at intercepting ICBMs and submarine-launched missiles to “Star Wars” sounding space-based directed energy weapons, including possibly being powered by nuclear detonation. This included ground-launched interceptors, a kinetic kill vehicle – essentially a bullet trying to hit a bullet and destroy a warhead. Over the past three decades, there were variants such as Brilliant Pebbles, a satellite-based interceptor, to the more modest Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS), which morphed in the current ground-based system.

What has evolved out of all these efforts is a more modest, layered missile defense architecture for the U.S. and its allies. At home, this includes a ground-based mid-course defense system, with 36 ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California (and in the near future, Hawaii) with an additional 8 planned for Alaska with land, sea and spaced-based sensors. One reason U.S. officials may think any North Korean missiles shot at Guam would likely be intercepted is a host of defense assets there: X-Band radar, sensors, a THAAD battery and a Naval-based system. THAAD has successfully hit its targets on 15 tests in a row.

One reason U.S. officials may think any North Korean missiles shot at Guam would likely be intercepted is a host of defense assets there … THAAD has successfully hit its targets on 15 tests in a row.

In addition, the United States, working with allies and partners, has deployed and continues to develop regional missile defenses. The Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC), now updated in 3rd generation (PAC-3), is an area system to protect troops or fixed positions. It was the PAC that intercepted Scuds during the first Gulf war. PAC-2 and PAC-3 are widely deployed in the Gulf, Japan, and the ROK. In addition, Aegis cruisers have sea-based missile defense interceptors, the SM-3 and SM-6, that can intercept cruise missiles as well as ballistic missiles. There is also a land-based version of these missiles, which Japan is leaning toward deploying. The U.S. has jointly developed with Japan a more capable system called the SM-3-Block2A that is expected to be deployed by 2019. THAAD has also been deployed in the Gulf and with some controversy, in the ROK, where China has pressured Seoul to halt deployments.

Current BMD systems and their interceptors are all designed to hit in the mid to latter phase of a missile’s trajectory. THAAD, for example, goes for the terminal phase, as it name indicates. The much desired goal of effectively killing a missile in its boost phase remains elusive. This is one of the challenges U.S. missile defense efforts is trying to meet. In addition, DOD’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is working on systems to meet the challenge of advanced cruise missiles and possible hypersonic vehicles that China and Russia are experimenting with.

The MDA is also working on a next generation of laser systems. Although an earlier effort in the 1980s and 90s to create airborne lasers using a 747 platform was a costly failure, one under-appreciated benefit was that it generated much useful data. Combined with advances in directed energy, DOD is intensifying efforts to create what may be the most effective BMD yet, an electric laser on a high-altitude, high endurance drone that could take out missiles in their boost phase from 63,000 feet.

These technologies are basically here and within reach of being operationalized. Smart DOD investments over the coming two to three years could yield highly capable systems relatively inexpensive to operate that rely on laser shots instead of expensive kinetic kill vehicles. This would clearly add a new dimension to missile defense in the 2020s.

That said, at the end of the day, absolute security remains a chimera. There is unlikely to ever be a dome protecting America from attack. Nor will the historic strategic reality that offense usually beats defense be reversed, though the odds may improve for defense. Nonetheless, missile defense has evolved into an important part of the fabric of national defense that, now and in the long run, makes the American people – and American interests – relatively safer.

Robert A Manning is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. He served as a senior advisor to the Asst. Secretary of East Asia and the Pacific (1989-93), Counselor to the Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group, 2008-2012.  Tweet: @RManning4



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