July 1, 2013
by Richard Weitz
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In March 2013, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, citing the progress of North Korea's nuclear program, announced that the United States would be bolstering its missile defenses. Fourteen new ground-based interceptor missiles, known as GBIs, would be deployed to Alaska, augmenting the thirty already in silos there and in California. The Pentagon would develop a new two-stage GBI, as well as a more advanced version of the "kill vehicle," which interceptors carry to smash into adversary warheads ("hit-to-kill"). The Obama administration would be deploying a second advanced mobile radar system, the Army Navy/Transportable Radar Surveillance 2, in Japan. And Hagel even indicated that the administration would restructure its plans for US missile defenses in Europe, canceling the SM-3 IIB interceptor, the cornerstone of the fourth and final phase of its European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), which had been announced in 2009 as a means of deploying more-advanced interceptors in Eastern and Central Europe specifically designed to defend the US homeland from intercontinental ballistic missiles launched from Europe, Eurasia, or the Middle East.
Hagel's announcement came in the middle of a steady buildup of the size and capability of ballistic missiles among states antagonistic to the US and its allies. More than thirty countries already have acquired, or are acquiring, short- and medium-range missiles able to deliver conventional payloads at great speed and distance. Some are trying to develop longer-range missiles that can carry warheads armed with various weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, and biological), seeing these as cheaper, easier to maintain, and often more effective strike weapons than manned aircraft. The most immediate missile threats to the West come from Iran and North Korea. US government experts believe that either or both of these countries might have an intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of hitting a target in North America within the next few years.
Under both the Bush and Obama administrations, the United States has employed a variety of tools to address this possibility—multilateral diplomacy and bilateral negotiations, economic sanctions and inducements, warnings against developing these capabilities, and threats of retaliation for their use. It has reinforced these measures by constructing missile defense architectures around the world, including short-range missile defense systems such as surface-to-air batteries, theater defenses such as Aegis-equipped naval vessels and ground-based systems capable of targeting midrange missiles, and the ground-based midcourse interceptors based in Alaska and California.
The main difference between Obama's policies and those of Bush is that the current administration has deemphasized near-term efforts to develop and apply new ballistic missile defense technologies, such as space- or airborne-based lasers and two-stage GBIs that could conduct an early intercept of an Iranian ICBM, and instead has sought to build on proven existing technologies such as the Patriot Air and Missile Defense System, designed for countering attacking missiles in their terminal (or final attack) phase, and the family of combination Aegis SM-3 midcourse interceptors currently used by the US Navy. Of the six main ballistic missile defense programs inherited from its predecessor, the Obama administration has expanded some and restructured or cut others. It cancelled the Kinetic Energy Interceptor program because of high costs and the Airborne Laser program in February because of technological challenges as well as cost. (Yet while the US is no longer developing these directed-energy weapons, which use lasers to heat the metal skin of a long-range ballistic missile until it ruptures and disintegrates, it has built systems that can use lasers against unmanned aerial vehicles and cruise missiles, while researching how direct energy could assist with discriminating between warheads and decoys, a difficult discrimination problem.)
Another weapon the United States lacks at the moment is an operational early interceptor, designed to attack an enemy missile in its boost or ascent phrase, when the rocket has ceased burning but the missile is still gaining altitude and when it is most vulnerable to attack. Previous attempts to build such weapons interceptors failed because of their immature technologies (lasers and rapidly accelerating interceptors that can compute an interception solution even before the missile goes ballistic), impractical operational concepts (the interceptors would have to be located on land near the enemy launch site), and exorbitant costs. Some defense strategists have suggested the development of a high-speed, two-stage, hit-to-kill interceptor missile, launched from a high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles, but for now the main protection of the US homeland from missile attack comes from the GBI and Aegis SM-3 systems.
Thus the new moves Hagel announced may provide the incremental enhancements needed to match a potential adversary's missile capabilities, notably those of North Korea, but the margin for error is still small—adversaries may make unexpectedly rapid progress or the defenses may suffer unanticipated technological setbacks. To reduce the risks of an offense-defense gap arising, America's best option for the next few years would be to continue improving its two midcourse defense systems—ground-based interceptors on US territory and mobile, sea-based ones—and make greater use of enhanced variants of the sea-based interceptor, the SM-3, as a hedge against the continued development and reliability problems with the GBIs in Alaska and California. This structure, supplemented by the construction of an advanced missile defense radar in the northeast United States, would create a layered defense to better protect the US homeland, especially in light of the cancellation of the final phase of EPAA. The US should also continue to pursue as well as fund new technologies (such as direct-energy weapons) that can broaden its defensive capabilities.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute.
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