Missile Defense Review Begins

By Reif, Kingston | Arms Control Today, May 2017 | Go to article overview

Missile Defense Review Begins


Reif, Kingston, Arms Control Today


The Trump administration is undertaking a congressionally mandated review of the U.S. approach toward missile defenses that could significantly alter long-standing policy and have far-reaching implications for the U.S. strategic relationship with Russia and China.

The review comes amid concerns about the growing North Korean ballistic missile threat, declining overall budgets for missile defense, pressure from congressional Republicans to expand the scope of U.S. national missile defenses beyond the currently limited goal of defending against Iran and North Korea, and continued Russian and Chinese objections to U.S. missile defense advances. President Donald Trump has provided few details about his vision for missile defense systems. A brief reference on the defense issues page of the White House website states, "We will...develop a state-of-the-art missile defense system to protect against missile-based attacks from states like Iran and North Korea."

In a Jan. 27 executive order titled "Rebuilding the U.S. Armed Forces," Trump directed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to produce a national defense strategy, a new Ballistic Missile Defense Review, and a new Nuclear Posture Review. The directive language on the missile defense review, just one sentence long, states that the review should "identify ways of strengthening missile-defense capabilities, rebalancing homeland and theater defense priorities, and highlighting priority funding areas."

Despite this limited initial direction, the review is likely to cast a wide net.

The fiscal year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law last December, requires the Defense Department to conduct a broad review of missile defense policy and strategy, including programs and capabilities to defeat ballistic missiles before and after launch, as well as to defeat cruise missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles. The bill mandates that a report describing the results of the review be completed by the end of January 2018.

Gen. John Hyten, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 4 that the Pentagon review will begin "soon" and take six months to complete.

Homeland Defense

For nearly two decades, U.S. ballistic missile defense policy has been guided by protection of the homeland against limited, long-range missile strikes from states such as Iran and North Korea and not from major nuclear powers Russia and China.

The missile defense system designed to provide this limited protection is known as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. It consists of ground-based interceptor sites in Alaska and California. The Obama administration announced in 2013 that it would increase the total number of interceptors from 30 to 44 by the end of fiscal year 2017.

There have been serious concerns about the viability of the GMD system since it was rushed into service in 2004 by the administration of President George W. Bush. Nevertheless, in a significant departure from long-standing U.S. policy, the Republican-led Congress voted in December to expand the declared role of U.S. national missile defenses by revising a 1999 law expressing the "limited" purpose of U.S. defenses. (See ACT, January/ February 2017.)

It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will push on the door opened by Congress and seek to protect the U.S. homeland from missile attacks by Russia and China. In a sign that this policy change could be on the table, Trump has nominated David Trachtenberg, a former Pentagon official during the Bush administration, to be principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy.

Trachtenberg, who will play a major role in the missile defense review, wrote last year that "continued American vulnerability to Russian nuclear missiles is unacceptable."

But any decision to abandon the "limited" condition will likely encounter significant technical, financial, and geopolitical obstacles. …

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