Deploying Missile Defense: Major Operational Challenges

Article excerpt

Key Points

By October 2004, the United States will have begun initial deployment of a missile defense capability--albeit a modest, limited, and not completely proven one--to defend the homeland against a limited ballistic missile attack.

The gradual phase-in of ballistic missile defense deployments will mark an important change in the policy context of the missile defense issue. Past debate focused on whether missile defenses should be deployed and whether they would work. These issues will now share the limelight with another pressing question: how would missile defenses actually be used? Operating a missile defense system presents seven challenges:

* to whom weapons release authority should be delegated

* how limited missile defense assets should be allocated

* what roles the President and Secretary of Defense should play during intercept operations

* how strike options should be coordinated with defenses

* which U.S. command should be responsible for conducting missile defense operations

* how testing and operational requirements should best be balanced

* what arrangements are needed to notify Russia when the United States launches missile defense interceptors, to reduce possible miscalculation by Moscow.

To manage the transition to defense, policy guidance to address these challenges will have to be somewhat flexible; it will likely evolve over time, based on the evolution of the system as well as operational experience and future testing using varied assumptions and scenarios.

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If all goes according to plan, by the end of 2004, the United States will deploy eight ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) interceptors (1) in Alaska and California, along with land-, sea-, and space-based sensors and the command and control systems to support the interceptors. By the end of 2005, 12 more GMD interceptors will be added, along with additional sensors and interceptor missiles on Navy ships.

The initial deployments of 2004-2005 are only the first step on the path to the Bush administration goal of an integrated, global missile defense (2) to protect the United States, its friends and allies, and deployed forces against limited attacks by ballistic missiles of all ranges (short-, medium-, intermediate-, and long-range) in all phases of flight (boost, midcourse, and terminal). (3)

The main concern driving this goal is not the ballistic missiles of major powers such as Russia but the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missiles--particularly for rogue states such as North Korea and Iran. The program, however, is not tied to country-specific threats; instead, it takes a capabilities-based approach that "focuses more on how an adversary might fight than who the adversary might be and where a war might occur." (4) This means, as the director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) observed:

We have to consider a wide range of missile threats posed by a long list of potential adversaries. And those threats are constantly changing and unpredictable.... A capability-based approach relies on continuing and comprehensive assessments of the threat, available technology, and what can be built to do an acceptable job, and does not accommodate a hard requirement that may not be appropriate. (5)

Thus, there is no final architecture. Under the current plan, the missile defense program will proceed in 2-year block increments of spiral development. (6)

For the most part, the Bush administration has been careful not to oversell the initial defensive capabilities so that expectations do not exceed reality. Officials have characterized the first deployments as "very basic" and a "nascent defensive system." (7) Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called it a "capability with a small 'c'" (to distinguish it from a formal initial operational capability) that "will probably, one would hope, improve as you go along. …

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