Some hawkish members of the House Armed Services Committee and conservative missile defense advocates are promoting a vastly expanded missile defense system that could entail huge new expenditures and be of dubious effectiveness.
That is the message of a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing on missile defense.
The current system to defend the U.S. homeland against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) is called the Ground-Based Mid-Course missile defense system (GMD). GMD is designed to counter an attack by a rogue state with a single or very few missiles (for example a future North Korean or Iranian ICBM threat), or an accidental or unauthorized missile strike from Russia or China.
While serious questions remain about whether the existing GMD system can perform its intended mission, the proposed expanded roles for missile defense are the height of folly.
The House Armed Services Committee Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing was entitled, “Adapting U.S. Missile Defense for Future Threats: Russia, China and Modernizing the NMD Act.”
The main question posed to the witnesses was, “Does a policy of limited missile defenses against limited threats continue to make sense in today’s threat environment?”
Here is the deal.
In 1999, Congress overwhelmingly adopted legislation endorsing a National Missile Defense system to defend “against limited ballistic missile attack.” The language also called for deployment only if the system is “effective” and “as soon as is technologically possible.”
Some of the committee Republicans, led by Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL), now think that it is time to go beyond “limited” missile defense. So too does the conservative Heritage Foundation and others.
In other words, these members of Congress and others would like to see our missile defense system efforts go beyond the ability to defeat one or two missiles from a rogue state and instead design the system to defeat all out attacks by Russian or Chinese ICBMs.
During the hearing, Ambassador Robert G. Joseph explicitly endorsed expanded missile defense that could include directed energy and space weapons previously rejected as impractical and too expensive. He also called for shifting emphasis from theater defenses and shorter-range threats to national missile defense.
Republican Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) also embraced space based defenses and directed energy weapons, options previously rejected by governments of both parties.
The two problems: even the limited GMD missile defense currently deployed is not “effective” as required by the legislation, and an expanded defense against the Russian and Chinese nuclear forces would be a prohibitively expensive scarecrow.
The witnesses were Philip Coyle, Senior Science Fellow, Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, former CIA Director James Woolsey, Jr. and Former Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security and Ambassador Robert G. Joseph.
Coyle is a recognized expert on U.S. and worldwide military research, development and testing. He has served under four U.S. Presidents, mostly recently as the Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs in President Obama’s White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Coyle’s remarks hit the nail on the head. In his opening statement, he outlined three important reasons why it would be unwise for the United States to pursue an expanded missile defense against Russia and China.
First, the technology simply does not exist to deal with a deliberate Russian or Chinese ICBM attack. U.S. missile defenses against ICBMs can at best deal with very limited attacks—say from Iran or North Korea—and even that goal continues to be a technological challenge.
Second, the costs of trying to deploy a system to deal effectively with a Russian or Chinese attack would be staggering. In 2002, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of several different proposed missile defense programs that would be integrated into one layered system in 2025. The CBO estimated that a system of ground-based interceptors would cost between $27 and $74 billion, a system of ship-launched interceptors would cost $50 to $64 billion, and a Space-Based Laser system would cost $82 to $100 billion. All of these systems are meant for only a “limited” attack. CBO has not yet estimated the costs of a system designed to defeat Russia and China’s ICBMS, but it would necessarily be considerably more expensive.
Third, if the U.S. had missile defense that could effectively defeat Russian and Chinese ICBMs without being overwhelmed, it would be strategically destabilizing and provoke military responses from Russia and China. If Russia and China perceived their ICBM arsenals had been rendered useless, Russia and China would need to respond with new forces—perhaps more attacking missiles, cruise missiles (against which our missile defense systems are useless), or perhaps even the deployment of troops areas of the world that are currently peaceful.
Furthermore, Russia would certainly not agree to further reductions in its nuclear arsenal and may then use new U.S. missile defense programs as justification to withdraw from New START and other important arms control agreements that have significantly reduced the threat from nuclear weapons.
Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral James A. Winnefeld Jr., in a May 28 talk at the Atlantic Council, punctured the expansive views of those who argue for massive new missile defenses as he explained why limited defenses are in the best U.S. interest.
“As you know,” he said, “we’ve told Russia and the world that we will not rely on missile defense for strategic deterrence of Russia because it would simply be too hard and too expensive and too strategically destabilizing to even try.” Later the Admiral reiterated this point, saying, “And let me be clear once again: it’s not the policy of the United States to build a ballistic missile defense system to counter Russian ballistic missiles.”