After more than a year of delays, the U.S. military has finally released its long-awaited Missile Defense Review. The report outlines plans to improve and expand the United States’ existing missile defense shield, as well as add additional layers with space-based sensors and interceptors, technology to track and defeat hypersonic weapons, unmanned aircraft with lasers to shoot down threats, and missile-hunting F-35 stealth fighters, among others.
The Pentagon officially released the unclassified version of the review at a rollout event led by President Donald Trump, who has become a major advocate for missile defense, a well as Vice President Mike Pence, National Security Adviser John Bolton, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, and other senior officials, on Jan. 17, 2019. The U.S. military had originally expected this report to be ready before the end of 2017.
“Missile defenses are a key element of our strategy given this proliferation of offensive ballistic and cruise missiles and emerging hypersonic weapons technologies that markedly raise threats to regional balances and to our major allies and partners,” Acting Secretary of Defense Shanahan wrote in a preface to the review. “Our missile defense systems constitute a cornerstone of our efforts to deter a missile attack by a rogue state on the U.S. and make a clear contribution to our alliances.”
Given how long it’s taken for the Pentagon to release the final review, the bulk of the content has already emerged in budget documents and other public forums. Still, the report further cements the U.S. governments intention to pursue these policies and technologies and we’ve broken down the key points below:
- U.S. Missile Defense Shield remains focused primarily on countering threats from smaller potential opponents, such as North Korea and Iran.
- Traditional nuclear deterrence remains the primary means of responding to existing and future strategic threats from larger potential adversaries such as Russia and China.
- The U.S. government has no plans to limit developments of missile defense technologies to focus purely on smaller actors.
- The Missile Defense Shield is a component of an over-arching deterrent posture in that it helps ensure the ability of the United States to respond to a massive attack on the homeland.
- There is also a call for continued and expanded regional focuses, as well, including greater cooperation and coordination with allies and partners, especially in the face of the growing proliferation of ballistic missiles.
- The MDR has requirements for various components of the U.S. military to complete a number of studies within the next six months to better formalize and streamline command and control and identify services or other agencies within the Department of Defense to lead efforts to respond to particular threats.
- The new MDR adds an entirely new emphasis on potential non-ballistic threats posed to the homeland and to U.S. forces deployed abroad, with particular attention on cruise missiles.
- The 2010 MDR focused almost exclusively on ballistic threats.
Near-term technical developments
- Expanding the SM-3 Block II interceptor’s capabilities to allow it to engage intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, as well as intermediate- and medium-range ballistic missiles, or IRBMs and MRBMs.
- At present, the SM-3 Block IIA is primarily focused on engaging IRBM and MRBM type threats, though the Missile Defense Agency has long indicated its hope that it would also be able to conduct mid-course intercepts against higher and faster-flying targets.
- Add 20 more Ground-Based Interceptors (GBI) to the overall Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) portion of the U.S. Missile Defense Shield, which is situated in Alaska, for a total of 64.
- Continue development of the Redesigned Kill Vehicle, or RKV, to replace the existing Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, or EKV, on top of the GBI.
- Previous reports have indicated that the U.S. military will begin deploying RKV-equipped interceptors in 2020.
- The RKV, like the EKV, is a kinetic weapon designed to destroy an incoming ballistic missile by smashing into it.
- The EKV has struggled in testing since the late 1990s and only intercepted a target representative of an intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time in May 2017.
- Installation of Lockheed Martin’s advanced Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR) in Alaska to support the GMD system. This radar is set to be operational by 2021.
- Improving existing land-based radars and adding additional sites in Hawaii and elsewhere in the Pacific by 2023.
- These new radars will have improved capability to spot and track ballistic missiles during the mid-course portion of their flight trajectory when they have “gone cold” in the vacuum of space and are harder to monitor.
- New space-based sensors to track ballistic missiles during mid-course flight, as well as additional satellites, positioned closer to the United States, or its territories or other interests abroad, to monitor those weapons in the latter stages of their trajectory.
- Both systems, the first of which could be ready by 2023, will be able to cue surface-based interceptors or other weapons to engage those threats.
- The latter satellites will also provide a critical “kill assessment capability” to determine whether an intercept is successful and whether personnel on the ground need to re-engage.
- The deployment of additional and improved Patriot, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) ships, and Aegis Ashore land-based missile defense sites around the world to respond to more localized ballistic and cruise missile threats, such as those from Iran and North Korea.
- To support this the U.S. Army will submit a report within six months outlining the total number of THAAD units required to satisfy those requirements and the resources necessary to meet that goal. The U.S. Navy will similarly provide a review of the timeline and required resources to make all of its Arleigh Burke-class destroyers Aegis BMD capable.
- The Navy will also prepare a plan for how to activate the Aegis Ashore test facility in Hawaii as an operational site in an emergency situation.
- Further fielding of more mobile and readily relocatable missile defense systems and the further integration of those capabilities with conventional maneuver forces to protect them ballistic and cruise missile threats during both offensive and defensive operations.
- Improving interoperability of U.S. missile defense systems with those of allies and partners.
Novel missile defenses
- In line with the annual National Defense Authorization Act for the 2019 Fiscal Year, the MDR calls for exploration of space-based anti-missile weapons, potentially including physical interceptors or directed energy weapons, a concept you can read about in more detail here.
- Congress has already demanded that the U.S. military place such a system into operation “at the earliest practicable date,” though this does not guarantee any such system will ever be feasible.
- “We’re going to study it and we’ll see whether or not it’s feasible,” an unnamed U.S. defense official told reporters at pre-briefing on the MDR on Jan. 16, 2019.
- That study will be due within six months, according to the MDR.
- A laser-armed unmanned aerial vehicle that would be able to engage ballistic missiles during their initial boost-phase right after launch, a concept you can read about more here and here.
- During this phase of flight, ballistic missiles are particularly vulnerable since they are moving relatively slowly and are generating a large thermal signature making them easier to track and engage.
- Further exploration of potentially using the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as a boost-phase ballistic missile defense platform.
- The MDR asks the Air Force to produce a report within six months detailing how it would go about integrating a missile defense capability into the F-35.
- This is a concept that has been around for some time, but gained renewed traction at the height of tensions with North Korea in 2017.
- Though likely feasible at its most basic level, we at The War Zone have previously explained in detail why this concept will be extremely expensive and applicable only in a very narrow set of circumstances, calling into question whether it would ever be a worthwhile expenditure of resources.
- The development of systems to track and potentially defeat hypersonic weapons, which are only becoming an increasing threat.
- The MDR requires the Missile Defense Agency to outline the resources required for a program to meet those goals within six months.
- This plan would leverage existing work the Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have already done and would likely act as a follow-on or otherwise related effort to DARPA’s present Glide Breaker program.
- The MDR calls on U.S. Strategic Command to produce a sperate study within nine months assessing the present state and future requirements for early warning and engagement regarding hypersonics, as well as more traditional ballistic and cruise missile threats.
- A timeline in the MDR says the goal is to be able to demonstrate advanced space-based systems, laser-armed unmanned aircraft, and hypersonic defense options by 2030.
All told, this review has been in the works for so long that little inside is outright new. The biggest single takeaway is the expanding definition of missile defense to more cohesively include non-ballistic threats, including cruise missiles and hypersonic weapons. Concerns about the threat of cruise missiles, especially to the homeland, have waxed and waned over the years, but advanced developments among America’s near-peer competitors have surely contributed to the resurgence of interest in countering those weapons.
There renewed emphasis on new space-based systems, especially potential space-based weapons, is also significant. If the U.S. military goes ahead with plans to put weapons of any kind into orbit, it seems almost certain to prompt controversy and pushback. At the same time, without any existing arms control agreements regarding the deployment of conventional weapons in space, and with potential opponents, such as Russia and China, developing more robust anti-satellite capabilities, it’s easy to see how it could provoke an arms race.
Expanding and improving the U.S. missile defense shield will require significant time and resources, as well. At present, it’s unclear whether or not the next defense budget will be smaller or larger than the last.
When the budget request for the 2020 Fiscal Year comes out later this month, we will likely get an even better picture of how fast the U.S. military expects to move in implementing the plans the MDR has outlined for the next decade or so.
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Author: Joseph Trevithick
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