By Samuel M. Hickey
President Joe Biden has inherited a missile defense architecture that is on the verge of bridging the gap between the long-accepted demarcation of theater systems and those defending the U.S. homeland. The Pentagon has ordered the transfer of 11 SM-3 Block II A interceptors to the Navy for possible deployment in the Pacific or European theaters, but here is the catch: while these interceptors are the centerpiece of the U.S.-European missile defense program – the European Phased Adaptive Approach – they might be able to intercept long-range missiles too. However dubious given a lack of credible test results, the Pentagon may assert a limited capability and therefore provide Putin with an excuse to avoid serious reductions in nuclear stockpiles.
What is the role of missile defenses in the United States’ deterrence strategy?
The United States’ deterrence strategy proclaims that offensive nuclear weapons deter nuclear weapon states, like Russia and China, while U.S. missile defenses are meant to protect against rogue-state threats, like North Korea and, maybe in the future, an Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). However, the previous administration’s plans to develop a “layered” missile defense system by integrating the Aegis SM-3 Block IIA and THAAD systems into homeland defense, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, complicates this paradigm.
Layered defense means getting several shots at an enemy projectile before it hits American soil, so an interceptor might be launched from a naval ship or forward-deployed U.S. base. However, theater systems are deployed near Russia’s and China’s borders and a global network of missile defenses appears to Moscow and Beijing like the United States seeks “absolute security.” Even though the layered architecture would still pose no credible threat to Russian nuclear deterrence, building more of it with greater capabilities to counter strategic weapons will be seen as a step toward nullifying those systems.
Congress has also forced missile defenses into tension with strategic stability
The Congressionally mandated test of the Aegis SM-3 Block IIA interceptor against a “simple ICBM” – test name, FTM-44 – in November 2020 was the first time the SM-3 IIA showcased this ability and, despite demonstrating only minimal capability, has provided propaganda value to both the Pentagon and Kremlin. DoD has tried to leverage the test for additional procurement, while Moscow has been eager to hype what could be at best described as a minor test success into something more sinister.
The SM-3 is the centerpiece of the U.S.-European missile defense program, which is supposed to protect against missile threats from Iran and the Middle East but does not need a longer-range capability as Iran is nowhere near developing a missile that can travel 9,000 km to reach the U.S. homeland. Although Iran and other states may later develop missiles with greater ranges, increasing the roles of SM-3 at this time can only play into the hands of those who would portray the United States as destabilizing and provoking a renewed arms race. At a time when Presidents Biden and Putin have just agreed to look at next steps in reducing numbers of nuclear weapons, it would be counterproductive to send mixed signals. Searching for additional missions for the SM-3 may make some military sense, but this should not come at the expense of the broader national security strategy.
A better path forward
It is time for the United States and Russia to discuss their missile defense goals. Both sides should not only outline the threats that they intend to defend against but also their plans to defend against each threat. The United States’ missile defense strategy should not be a closely guarded secret and transparency of strategy is the only way to possibly reassure Moscow and Beijing that U.S. missile defense plans do not target their nuclear deterrents. U.S. missile defenses should not give Moscow an excuse to walk away from arms control talks.
Such a policy would flip the narrative peddled by Moscow and Beijing that U.S. missile defenses represent a long-term threat to their nuclear deterrents. It is then incumbent on Congress to do their due diligence and only appropriate funds for systems that can meet discrete foreign policy goals, instead of wasting funds on technology that are being fielded without being tested and without mission clarity.