Some pretty good work by Congress on missile defense this year

September 18, 2019 | 12:30 pm
Laura Grego
Research Director, Senior Scientist

Photo: Eric E Johnson/Creative Commons (Flickr)

The Congressional defense budget process is entering its conclusion, though battles remain. Despite little to show for it, the overall budget for missile defense continues to be robust. For example, the Senate appropriators met last week and added $1.2 billion above the Trump administration’s budget request for missile defense, including an additional $532 million for upgrades and six more boosters for the beleaguered Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, and added $222 million to fund program to replace the recently canceled Redesigned Kill Vehicle program. That is an unfortunate waste of tax dollars.

However, in other areas Congress—in particular the House—made a number of useful and positive corrections to the administration’s $9.4 billion missile defense budget request. The House also put several sensible new missile defense policies in place that deserve support.

While the final outcome will not be known until the House and Senate agree on a final version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) (conferees are due to start meeting this week), we have hopes that Congress is finally beginning a much-needed reassessment of the overall role and value of the US missile defense program. Here’s a review of the major developments.

Space-based missile defense

While they sound superficially appealing, space-based missile defenses are a bad idea.

Impractical, expensive and—worst of all—deeply destabilizing, we have opposed them since President Ronald Reagan sought massive investments in fantastical ideas like lasers powered by nuclear explosions in space. In the last decade, space-based missile defense has been exclusively a congressional add-on. Fortunately, its most important champions are no longer in the best positions to advance that agenda. Senator Ted Cruz, a long-time proponent, left the Armed Services Committee for Foreign Relations, while Representative Trent Franks, the House ring-leader, resigned in 2018.

Instead, we were worried that the Trump administration would jump on the space-based band wagon in a big way. Despite the enthusiasm expressed by Undersecretary for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin, however, the administration didn’t commit to the idea in the President’s 2019 Missile Defense Review. It instead recommended another study, one of many in the Review on a variety of topics.

However, the administration did not wait for the results of these studies to try to move ahead on some of these misguided ideas.  Its Fiscal Year 2020 budget request sought funding for two space-based missile defense programs. First, they requested the Missile Defense Agency receive $34 million to “design, develop, and conduct a feasibility demonstration for a Space-Based Directed Energy intercept layer” using a neutral particle beam. This is an old, 1980s Strategic Defense Initiative-era relic and a surprising choice. While the science of creating a neutral particle beam is well-established, the technical challenges of building such a massive and delicate structure—a particle accelerator and its massive power source and optics—in space are enormous. Such a thing would be both expensive and easy to target, not to mention destabilizing.

The administration’s budget request also asked for $15 million for the newly created—and untested—Space Development Agency to study the idea of a space-based kinetic interceptor and propose a reference architecture. This idea has been studied numerous times and found to be ineffective and expensive, and—yet again—destabilizing.

Congress proved extremely skeptical about both these programs. The House and Senate versions of the NDAA zeroed out the money for the neutral particle beam and the kinetic interceptor study, and the House appropriators did as well. The Senate NDAA judged the kinetic interceptor study “duplicative” of boost-phase missile defense studies already being done at the Missile Defense Agency, and that funding a space-based neutral particle beam program is premature, since the studies mandated in the Missile Defense Review haven’t been finished. Last week, Undersecretary Griffin said that the Pentagon would be deferring the neutral particle beam work “indefinitely.”

(However, someone should pass that message on the Senate appropriators. As near as we tell, they provided funding for both space-based missile defense programs. At least we can’t find any language denying the money, which seems to imply support for the program.)

In another positive step, the House bill eliminated a requirement in the 2018 NDAA (Public Law 115–91) to develop a space-based missile defense test bed. While a test bed might sound appealing—it’s just research, right?—if interceptors were put in space even as part of a test bed, they could have substantial capability against other countries’ satellites even though they would not be an effective missile defense. That is one of the primary reasons that space-based defenses are so destabilizing: They do a bad job at their nominal task but are highly effective against other targets, like satellites.

Classified missile defense work

Unfortunately, a sizable and growing chunk of the Pentagon’s missile defense work is being done out of the public’s eye. Specifically, the Missile Defense Agency’s classified budget got a significant bipartisan boost. The House Authorizers added $135 million to the $377 million request; the Senate Authorizers added $125 million. Unofficially, we were told that none of this is for space-based missile defense interceptors or directed energy, which is reassuring, but we are concerned about what this half-billion dollars in classified work is.

Test of an Aegis SM-3 IIA interceptor against an ICBM-range target

The most important missile defense issue to be resolved in conference is whether the congressionally mandated but ill-conceived test of an SM-3 IIA interceptor against an ICBM-range target will go forward. In FY18, Congress set a requirement that the Missile Defense Agency test the Aegis’ SM-3 IIA interceptor, currently under development, against an ICBM-range target by 2020. The test is intended to demonstrate its suitability to provide a supplemental homeland defense to the struggling Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system.

The Aegis missile defense system, based on ships and a few land-based sites, was designed as a regional defense but it may have some capability to engage ICBM-range missiles, if properly cued. The speed of the interceptor suggests that it may be able to reach the targets, but a demonstration would help identify issues with the ability to successfully destroy long-range missiles.

Notably, Mike Griffin, the enthusiast for space-based defenses and head of the Pentagon’s research arm, recently cancelled the GMD system’s Redesigned Kill Vehicle program, a major initiative intended to improve existing U.S. long-range defenses that would have used the same seeker as the SM-3 IIA. That may indicate some problems with using it against long-range missiles. (The Government Accountability Office indicated in its 2017 report that this might be a problem.) And the Aegis system, just like all missile defense systems, has yet to be tested against countermeasures, including credible decoys, that could confuse the system.

The Aegis system, however, could present a serious challenge to long-term prospects for nuclear arms control. The future inventory of these mobile defensive interceptors is projected to be in the hundreds. If that happens—and if the system has proven capability against long-range missiles—it would present a strategic challenge to which Russia and particularly China will almost certainly respond. (We lay out these issues in some detail here.) As the system has historically always been presented as a regional system without strategic capabilities, the United States will also need to seriously discuss this change with its allies that participate in missile defense systems that use this technology, including NATO and Japan.

In that light, the House appropriators wisely reprogrammed the funding for missile defense test to rescope it as a non-ICBM test. Similarly, the House NDAA eliminated the funding for the ICBM-range test. Unfortunately, while the House NDAA initially had a provision rescinding the ICBM testing mandate, it was stripped out during consideration in the House Armed Services Committee. And the Senate NDAA provided funding for the test. The final outcome, therefore, will be determined in conference over the coming weeks.

Positive House NDAA Measures

The House approved a number of very useful missile defense-related measures in the NDAA.

More realistic testing for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system.

Representative Bill Foster’s (D-IL) amendment revises the testing requirement for the GMD Systemto include the use of threat-representative countermeasures. None of the 19 intercept tests of the system have included realistic countermeasures of the type that an adversary would use to confuse the defense. In fact, this is a weak spot in the testing of all of the US ballistic missile defense systems; the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation’s 2015 unclassified missile defense assessment indicated that no recent tests of any BMD system had included realistic countermeasures. An UCS-led expert study in 2000 concluded that realistic countermeasures would readily defeat the hit-to-kill technology used by the GMD system.

Detailed assessment of the of the effectiveness of missile defense systems

Representative Salud Carbajal (D-CA) got approved an amendment tasking the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation with publicly providing in the agency’s annual report important information about the test program and the effectiveness of the systems—information that is currently provided only in special missile defense assessments. These detailed assessments provide information essential to rigorous Congressional and public oversight but more often than not are issued only in a classified version.

National Academies study of the impacts of strategic missile defense on US security

Another Representative Foster amendment will task the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study of the impacts that the pursuit of strategic missile defense has had on US security, including an assessment of adverse reactions by potential adversaries and whether US missile defense has dissuaded any state from pursuing long-range missile programs. This work is essential to beginning a necessary reassessment of the role and value of US missile defenses. Are Americans getting a positive return in terms of US security for the more than $40 billion we have invested in the last two decades? We think the answer to that question is no, but it certainly deserves serious study and the full engagement of Congress.

Boost-phase missile defense Analysis of Alternatives

Noting that the MDA’s budget submission included—with little justification—initiating a space-based boost phase neutral particle beam missile defense, the House directs the Director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) to conduct a comprehensive Analysis of Alternatives on current boost phase technologies being developed or investigated, with a report due March 31, 2020. As noted above, it is unlikely that the particle beam concept will now go forward but having the relatively independent CAPE office look at all the alternatives is probably a pretty good idea.