Trump’s Muscular New Plan to Fend Off Russian and Chinese Missiles

The U.S. president rolled out the most ambitious missile defense strategy since the end of the Cold War.

U.S. President Donald Trump participates in a Missile Defense Review announcement at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on Jan. 17. (Martin H. Simon - Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump participates in a Missile Defense Review announcement at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on Jan. 17. (Martin H. Simon - Pool/Getty Images)

The United States is seeking potentially the most serious expansion of its missile defense capabilities since the Cold War, with President Donald Trump putting his weight behind an ambitious new plan that explicitly states America’s intent to defeat missiles fired from Russia or China.

In his fifth visit to the Pentagon since he took office two years ago, Trump rolled out the results of the administration’s long-delayed Missile Defense Review, which was initially anticipated by the end of 2017. Putting his presidential clout behind the new strategy, Trump tied a stronger missile defense posture to his long-promised wall along the southern border, saying that, as president, his first duty is “the defense of the country.”

“All over, foreign adversaries—competitors and rogue regimes—are steadily enhancing their missile arsenals,” Trump said in an address at the Pentagon auditorium. “I will accept nothing less for our nation than the best, most cutting-edge missile defense systems.”

The review reflects a more aggressive U.S. position on missile threats. Where previous missile defense reviews focused primarily on rogue states such as North Korea or Iran, the 2019 strategy explicitly addresses threats from Russia and China. The report notes that if deterrence and diplomacy fail and a conflict begins, the United States will target an adversary’s missiles even before they are launched.

“Missile defense necessarily includes missile offense,” said Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan during the rollout event.

As part of the new strategy, the Department of Defense will focus on tighter integration of offensive attack capabilities—both U.S. and allied forces—with existing missile defenses, with the goal of detecting and shooting down an incoming missile much earlier in its flight, according to the report. The document also stresses that regional missile defense systems, such as the THAAD battery in South Korea or the Aegis Weapon System mounted on cruisers and destroyers all over the world, are mobile and can be rushed to conflict zones.

Another key piece is adapting existing systems to strike enemy threats prior to or during a missile launch. The U.S. military is currently testing the possibility that the F-35 fighter jet, which has a state-of-the-art sensor system that can track boosting missiles, could be equipped with an interceptor capable of shooting down an adversary’s ballistic missile in its boost phase—as it is launching.

The review also for the first time addresses the threat of cruise missiles—which are maneuverable and thus much harder to detect, track, and defeat than missiles with a ballistic trajectory—and hypersonic glide vehicles, which are lofted into the atmosphere and glide down more than five times faster than the speed of sound. The decision to include cruise and hypersonic missiles in addition to traditional ballistic threats is directly in response to Russia’s and China’s recent development of these types of weapons. Russian President Vladimir Putin has in recent months touted a nuclear-powered cruise missile, an underwater nuclear drone, and an “invulnerable” hypersonic weapon.

“To our competitors: We see what you are doing, and we are taking action,” Shanahan said.

Another major difference between this missile defense review and previous versions is that a U.S. president, for the first time, personally advocated for a new, space-based missile defense layer, a layer of sensors in space that can detect and track missile launches. Top officials have advocated for such a layer in the past, but the effort has never gotten off the ground.

“The MDR’s endorsement of [a space sensor layer] is its single most significant recommendation, and its timely deployment represents the single most significant goal in the review’s implementation,” noted Thomas Karako of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, referring to the new Missile Defense Review.

Mike Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, told reporters after the rollout that a network of satellites in low earth orbit is “the best approach” to spotting hard-to-detect threats such as hypersonic and cruise missiles. The Pentagon, he added, will also undertake a six-month study to assess whether to develop space-based interceptors—possibly in the form of lasers—that can shoot down adversary missiles from orbit.

In many ways the review is a continuation of previous policies, including pressing forward with expanding the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system—currently the only U.S. missile defense system devoted to defending the United States from long-range ballistic missile attacks—and developing a new “kill vehicle” for its interceptors. Unlike President Barack Obama’s 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review, it neither cancels nor announces the beginning of any new major programs, notes Karako.

In some ways, the review fell short of expectations. It did not include any decision to deploy space-based missile interceptors or to activate a Kauai, Hawaii, site of the land-based version of the Aegis Weapon System. It also did not include a decision to deploy a new interceptor site on the East Coast, something Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan told reporters he had been expecting.

And ahead of the president’s budget request, which is expected in February, it is not clear how much money the administration is putting behind the planned expansion—a key point in determining its effectiveness. Even after the Pentagon submits its budget request to Congress, lawmakers must still approve it.

“If this gets implemented and funded, this will be the most serious approach to missile defense that we’ve seen since the Cold War,” said Rebeccah Heinrichs, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute. But she cautioned that a newly Democratic-controlled House may not go along with spending additional dollars on missile defense.

Though Sullivan maintained that the review has “bipartisan support,” the new House Armed Services chairman, Democratic Rep. Adam Smith, took a cautious approach, warning against a possible nuclear arms race with Russia and China.

“First, it is essential that we ensure we are spending money on programs that are reliable and rigorously tested before they are deployed,” Smith said in a statement. “Second, we must avoid missile defense policies that will fuel a nuclear arms race.”

Smith also came out against the idea of a space-based interceptor layer, which he said has been “found to be technologically challenging and prohibitively expensive.”

“While it is essential that we continue investing in proven missile defense efforts, I am concerned that this missile defense review could lead to greater investment in areas that do not follow these principles, such as a space-based interceptor layer,” he said.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman