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Getting Missile Defense Right | Commentary

Not long ago, missile defense was a contentious issue about Cold War strategic stability. Today, it has widespread bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. We no longer debate whether to have defenses, but which programs, at what cost, and how well they will work.

Atop the list of programs requiring improvement is Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD), which remains the only system dedicated to defending the homeland against long-range threats. President Obama’s FY2015 budget further reduces missile defense funding, exacerbating a troubling, five-year pattern. It also does something quite praiseworthy, to the tune of investing nearly $200 million over five years in a new “kill vehicle” (KV) to replace the current Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) deployed in Alaska and California.

Addressing these KVs (the part that collides with a target), Frank Kendall, the Department of Defense’s Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, recently declared that “we’ve got to get to more reliable systems.” That Congress’ policy recommendations are finally being pursued reflects the leadership of Vice Admiral James Syring, director of the DOD’s Missile Defense Agency. If implemented well, this long-awaited move could be among the more promising developments for GMD in years.

Americans always do the right thing, Churchill quipped, but only after trying everything else. In 2009, President Obama cancelled deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic to which Russia had objected, reduced the number of interceptors planned for deployment in Alaska from 44 to 30, slashed spending for homeland defense, and cancelled a next-generation KV. Instead of GMD deployments in Poland, the administration conjured up the idea of an SM-3IIB program, which then Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., panned as a “paper missile,” and which after significant criticism was cancelled in March 2013. While abandoning the third site in Europe and simultaneously opposing relocation to the East Coast, the Obama administration has fallen back to one part of the Bush-era architecture: restoring by 2018 the full 44 interceptors for Alaska. Although now more expensive and behind schedule, the administration is now doubling down on the same systems it cut just five years ago.

Today’s KVs, CE-1 and CE-2, have suffered important setbacks. Despite several successful intercepts with CE-1, the 2013 intercept attempt failed due to a faulty battery. In 2010, a CE-2 test failed due to a separation problem — the kind of thing engineers solved in the 1960s. Although these failures were addressed and although GMD is certified to meet today’s threat mission, no one — in the Pentagon or Congress — believes band-aids are sufficient.

This mixed record is partly due to GMD’s relatively quick deployment and lack of subsequent funding. When first emplaced ten years ago to remedy the absence of any defenses, EKVs were little more than prototypes with roots in the Homing Overlay Experiment in the 1980s, and the ABM Treaty-compliant testing in the 1990s. While continually improved, they were never expected to be final — thus the blow from post-2009 cuts to development and testing. Whereas ICBMs are tested several times annually to ensure reliability, GMD has had only two intercept tests since 2008.

The path forward requires short, medium, and long-term action. Immediately, we must continue to maintain and improve EKVs, and begin testing at an operational pace. For the longer term, GMD needs an entirely new interceptor, tested and purchased in a more customary way, with each of the major industry players developing and competing proposals on the merits. This route holds great potential, perhaps with “volume-kill” force multipliers, but everyone knows it will take a decade or more.

The bad news: homeland defense can’t wait that long. The good news: it doesn’t have to.

Drawing on current programs and technologies, a medium-term GMD fix can shorten painfully long acquisition cycles and defend the homeland against increasing missile threats.

A host of recent reports point the way. In 2012, the National Academy of Sciences recommended that GMD harvest improvements present on existing or past programs, including the now-cancelled KEI and the sensors and seeker used in the today’s highly successful SM-3 family. This means upgrading EKV’s more sophisticated “front end” brains, while keeping the “back end” that maneuvers. Last June, a DOD report specifically suggested a new “common” KV using components from SM-3s, which likewise builds upon the 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review urging greater reliance on “proven capabilities.”

Using components from other platforms is further consistent with the Defense Science Board’s 2011 recommendation of more flexible acquisition processes, modular “building blocks,” and open architectures — and with Under Secretary Kendall’s acquisition tenets on better buying power. Recently-released budget documents state MDA’s intention to contract redesigned KVs by 2015 using a “modular, open architecture” (also recommended by the committee report for the House-passed defense bill last year).

In this manner, a better KV would become available for the additional 14 interceptors planned for 2018. Something must be done within these next few years to carry us through the coming decade of missile threats from Iran and North Korea. Omitting a medium-term solution in the hope of immediate savings risks greater long-term cost and guarantees greater vulnerability.

To be sure, the administration has not restored adequate funding for missile defense, but it is turning a programmatic corner by embracing Congress’s past recommendations. Congress should welcome this pivot, while taking care to provide necessary funding and exercise oversight so that next-generation programs do not preclude concrete and near-term GMD evolution. Fixing these problems requires sustained effort, but in the meantime practical, cost-effective, and increasingly lethal interceptors can strengthen homeland missile defense.

Thomas Karako is director of the Center for the Study of American Democracy at Kenyon College, and a former fellow with the House Armed Services Committee.

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