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DoD Pushing New Missile Defenses as Existing Technologies Age

A major new review of the country’s ballistic missile defenses is wrapping up, and the president is promising “billions” in funding.

The Missile Defense Agency tests a Ground-Based Interceptor  at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. on June 22, 2014. (U.S. Air Force)
The Missile Defense Agency tests a Ground-Based Interceptor at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. on June 22, 2014. (U.S. Air Force)

The Pentagon is ready to deliver a top-to-bottom review of the military’s missile defense programs to the White House by the end of the year, taking a broad look at new technologies, basing options, and potentially billions in new spending, according to defense officials.

The report promises to be the Trump administration’s first stab at reshaping a critical area of defense spending for years to come, and follows the president’s promise in August to “be increasing the anti-missiles by a substantial amount of billions of dollars.”

Defense officials tell Foreign Policy that the review will not only focus on existing programs, but also take stock of new threats posed by Iran, North Korea, and the changing nuclear and ballistic missile posture of both Russia and China.

Iran is emerging as a particular focus of the review. U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this month refused to certify that Iran was living up the the 2015 nuclear agreement with Western nations, and Iranian leaders have refused to back off plans to continue work on long-range missile programs.

“Part of the [Ballistic Missile Defense Review] is to try and figure out how much of a threat Iran is, and what more we may need to do beyond what we have right now,” one Pentagon official with knowledge of the planning told FP.

The review comes as Trump charts a hawkish course toward both Iran and North Korea. The regime in Pyongyang is much closer to developing intercontinental ballistic missiles than Tehran, and it is thought to be within a year of placing a nuclear warhead on one of its long-range missiles.

As the threat of war inches closer, however, the generals at the Pentagon are facing the reality that many of their missile defense systems are aging, leading to reliability issues and raising questions over how effective they might be against a potential attack.

Those concerns were reflected in a $440 million emergency funding request the Pentagon sent to Congress last month, which asked lawmakers to pump more money into missile defense upgrades, new interceptor silos, radar systems, and classified satellite capabilities.

Some analysts and government watchdogs fear the increasing pressure to field complex new systems quickly could result in rushing out new technologies, which might prove effective.

One item high on the Pentagon’s wish list is $128 million to build new Ground-Based Interceptor silos at Fort Greely, Alaska. The United States currently has 44 interceptor silos in California and Alaska, and the goal is to bring that up to 64.

While the request was met with approval on Capitol Hill, the Pentagon official familiar with the spending request told FP that the work there won’t begin for several years — and not until an ambitious new $6 billion missile interceptor program is complete in 2022.

“You can’t do these right away. You wouldn’t want to build new [Ground-Based Interceptors] with the old technology, so it all depends on development,” the official said.

The old technology is the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, a 1990s-era system that is designed to strike incoming ICBMs launched from North Korea and Iran.

But years of incremental upgrades and piecemeal modernization has resulted in two different variants, meaning many of the 44 existing interceptor sites in California and Alaska have different versions of the weapon. Fielding two variants has led to difficulties in getting spare parts and raised questions over its reliability.

Since 1999, only 10 for 18 tests against ICBM-like threats have been successful.

A “Redesigned Kill Vehicle” program is designed to to be cheaper, easier to maintain, and more reliable. Those upgrades would allow U.S. Northern Command to “change their shot doctrine, which would allow the U.S. to shoot fewer interceptors to knock down missiles,” the defense official said.

But some analysts are worried about this approach.

“DoD is placing a significant amount of eggs in the RKV basket,” said Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association.

Given that the new technology is still over two years away from its first planned flight test in 2020, and frequent delays of ambitious Pentagon programs, “it begs the question of whether the plan for deployment in 2022 is realistic,” Reif said.

But the review will be much more than a wishlist for new radars and missiles. “One would hope it emphasizes the need for opening the aperture and thinking about the missile problem more comprehensively than just the ballistic missile threat,” said Thomas Karako, director of the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Karako said that the Pentagon has to begin considering how drones and swarms of missiles fired from land and sea simultaneously could be employed — and defeated — in “a complex and integrated attack.” The wars of the future will likely feature a mix of high- and low-end technologies thrown together on a messy and crowded battlefield, he said, and the new Pentagon review needs to begin to account for how American forces will handle such conflicts.