Despite Trump’s Tough Talk, No Boost for Missile Defense Agency

The administration will instead increase investments in offensive missile defense capabilities, such as hypersonic technology.

The first of two Terminal High Altitude Area Defense interceptors is launched during a successful intercept test in the United States on Sept. 10, 2013. (Ralph Scott/Missile Defense Agency)
The first of two Terminal High Altitude Area Defense interceptors is launched during a successful intercept test in the United States on Sept. 10, 2013. (Ralph Scott/Missile Defense Agency)

Despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from a key nuclear treaty with Russia and his promise to bolster America’s missile defenses, the administration is not asking for a significant boost to the U.S. Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) budget this year, Foreign Policy has learned.

Instead, the promised buildup will come in the form of additional cash to develop offensive capabilities, which are not part of the MDA’s charter, particularly hypersonic weapons.

The Pentagon is expected to ask Congress for $9.4 billion for the MDA in its annual budget request, due out later this month, which actually reflects a slight decrease from $9.9 billion last year, according to two U.S. defense officials. In addition, one of the officials said, the department is asking for $2.6 billion for research and development of hypersonic weapons, which can travel at more than five times the speed of sound.

At first glance, this is far from the robust increase to America’s missile defense capability advocates were hoping for after Trump rolled out an ambitious new missile defense plan in January. During a rare appearance at the Pentagon, Trump promised a more aggressive stance against new threats from both rogue actors, such as Iran and North Korea, and near-peer adversaries Russia and China.

European allies are particularly concerned about new Russian missiles after the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The agreement, signed in 1987 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, prohibits the use of nuclear and conventional missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles.

Trump has vowed to establish a missile defense program that can shield “every city in the United States” and “protect the American people from all types of missile attacks.”

“Today marks the beginning of a new era in our missile defense program,” Trump said. “I will accept nothing less for our nation than the most effective, cutting-edge missile defense systems.”

But even as Trump touted a historic buildup, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Review itself fell short of expectations. In many ways, the plan is a continuation of previous policies, and, unlike President Barack Obama’s 2010 version, it neither cancels nor announces the beginnings of any new major programs.

“Contrary to the impression the president may have conveyed when he presented findings of the administration’s Missile Defense Review, there is no plan to actively defend the United States against a large-scale nuclear attack launched by Russia or China,” said Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute. “The U.S. will continue to rely on offensively based deterrence to minimize the likelihood of such an attack.”

The Pentagon plan, also known as the MDR, also did not include decisions on several hoped-for initiatives, such as deploying space-based missile interceptors; activating a Kauai, Hawaii, site of the land-based version of the Aegis Weapon System; or deploying a new interceptor site on the East Coast of the United States.

Unlike previous reviews, it did for the first time include the threat of hypersonic missiles, which maneuver in ways traditional U.S. missile defenses cannot counter.

Rebeccah Heinrichs, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, expressed frustration over the discrepancy between the president’s rhetoric and what the Pentagon’s plan articulated.

“The president’s characterization of the MDR was more ambitious than what was explicitly included in the MDR, and the MDR was essentially a beefed-up version of the current architecture,” Heinrichs said. “So the question was always, what is the budget going to reflect?”

But the defense official said this year’s budget request falls in line with the president’s plan. While the MDA request is a decrease from last year’s, that does not necessarily translate into a decrease in capability, the official stressed.

“FY20 is about what they needed,” the official said, referring to the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2020 budget request. “They got what they asked for.”

The official noted that the Pentagon received additional funding in previous years for interceptors—for instance, in Fort Greely, Alaska—and other homeland defense items that did not require money beyond fiscal year 2019.

“I would say that the department is sustaining its efforts in missile defense on the defense side,” the official said, calling homeland defense “the No. 1 priority.”

Heinrichs stressed that although it does not look like the boost will be reflected in this year’s Pentagon budget, that does not mean the president’s “more ambitious” plan is not going to happen eventually.

Experts noted that this year’s MDA budget, while a decrease from last year, is an increase from Obama-level funding. Obama requested $7.5 billion for the agency in fiscal year 2017.

But Thompson said that while this year’s budget will increase spending “well above Obama-era levels,” it will continue the pattern of “allocating more money to regional defense than defense of the U.S. homeland.”

In addition to the MDA request, the Pentagon is asking for money for the U.S. Army to buy Israel’s Iron Dome system to swat down rockets and incoming cruise missiles, which fly low to the ground, in contrast to traditional ballistic missiles, the official confirmed to FP. Inside Defense first reported that the Army is asking for roughly $370 million to buy two batteries’ worth of the system. The plan is a response to a congressional mandate that the Army buy a new capability to fill an emerging “cruise missile gap,” particularly in Europe and the Pacific.

However, one former defense official expressed skepticism that the Iron Dome actually has the capability to counter cruise missiles, noting that its primary focus is shooting down rockets and artillery fire. A better system for countering cruise missiles is the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System, jointly built by Raytheon and Norway’s Kongsberg, which is deployed in Washington, D.C., to defend the national capital region.

In addition to the MDA budget, the Pentagon’s overall missile defense request also includes funding for the needs of the four U.S. services. Last year, the overall request was $12.9 billion.

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

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