By John Isaacs and Samuel M. Hickey
Pentagon missile defense costs could soar to a massive $176 billion between 2020 and 2029, a 40% increase, according to a new Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report.
Since programs were first launched in the 1950s to build systems capable of intercepting incoming long-distance nuclear or conventional weapons, the United States has spent more than $400 billion* on various missile defense programs. Despite decades of research, development and testing, there remains no reliably effective anti-missile system to counter enemy ballistic missiles.
Further, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program’s success rate over the past two decades is 10 out of 18 in highly scripted tests, that is tests where the missiles target and trajectory are known, and there are no countermeasures or decoys as there would be in a real ballistic missile attack. That means that even under the best circumstances, the GMD program only works about half of the time.
Despite this, the Pentagon is considering a massive expansion of missile defense programs.
A Huge ‘If’
At a time when the Pentagon budget is not expected to grow, meaning there will be competition between other budget (non-strategic) priorities, and a rise in other needs such as Covid-19 relief and economic assistance to struggling Americans, Congress will need to appropriate funding carefully.
This cost increase does not need to happen. The estimates are $50 billion or 40% higher than the 10-year 2017 projections last made by CBO due to the new directives in the Trump administration’s 2019 Missile Defense Review (MDR). While the Trump administration had plotted an escalatory and hugely expensive trajectory for missile defense, these are the costs only if those directives result in deployed systems.
And that is a huge “if.”
Not only is there a new administration, but the Missile Defense Agency’s (MDA) flexible acquisition strategy has been a programmatic failure. Thankfully, Congress is seriously questioning the current strategy, which has already thwarted plans in the 2019 MDR.
For instance, the MDA has attempted to expand the GMD system — charged with protecting the U.S. homeland — by constructing a new missile field in Alaska. Currently, the missile defense base at Fort Greely hosts 40 interceptors, but it is now slated to base 60 interceptors with the new missile field. As there are four additional GMD silos at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, this would bring the total to 64 interceptors.
At the same time, the MDA initiated a major redesign effort for the GMD hardware. However, the Redesigned Kill Vehicle, as it is called, was recently canceled due to overwhelming technical design flaws.
The Pentagon canceled the Raytheon and Boeing Redesigned Kill Vehicle in 2019 to replace its inadequate predecessor – after an expenditure of about $1.2 billion. These failed programs could require a review of the whole strategy only two years after the last MDR was published. This cancellation coupled with other failures (key MDA leadership changed substantially in 2019) could upend U.S. missile defense procurement and policy.
In fact, while the new missile field at Fort Greely is nearing completion, the new interceptor, the Next-Generation Interceptor, is not expected to be available until the late 2020s at the earliest.
Further, instead of focusing on finding a diplomatic solution, the United States might be entering a prolonged and expensive offense/defense race with North Korea.
U.S. Northern Command assesses that North Korea could overwhelm the GMD system as soon as 2025. While the hardware of the interceptor is missing, MDA is also considering further expanding the interceptors based at Fort Greely to 100 interceptors at a cost of about $5 billion dollars.
That means expanding the infrastructure, to the tune of $5 billion, for weapons that don’t even exist yet, and will likely continue to fail to live up to performance standards.
Increasing the “underlayer”
Not only is the GMD system planning a boost, but so too is regional missile defense.
About 35% of the CBO’s projected total, or $61 billion, is for systems that are primarily for homeland ballistic missile defense; about 40%, or $69 billion, is for systems that are primarily for regional ballistic missile defense; and the remaining 25%, or $46 billion, is for cruise missile defense. Not all of this goes to MDA. About 30% goes to the Army and 15% is split among other agencies within the Pentagon, but the CBO highlights that these estimates come with “substantial uncertainty” and cites significant fluctuations in missile defense planning and failed acquisitions.
Missing from these estimates are the costs to develop a constellation of satellites to track ballistic and hypersonic missiles, as are the costs to develop defenses against hypersonic weapons.
Moreover, the plans to deploy new regional missile defense capabilities and to integrate them with the GMD system are threatening to undermine Beijing and Moscow’s strategic deterrents.
In 2020, MDA tested a regional missile defense interceptor, the SM-3 Block IIA, against an ICBM. This interceptor was not developed for this purpose, but nevertheless could provoke a response or new deployments by near-peer competitors, who fear the real aim of U.S. missile defense policy is to weaken their nuclear deterrent. This could make U.S. nuclear adversaries less willing to come to the table and agree to critical arms control deals the Biden administration may seek in the next couple of years, or even lead to a destabilizing expansion of nuclear deployments in an attempt to overwhelm the perceived threat posed by U.S. missile defense systems.
Either way, integrating regional missile defenses with the GMD system could be hugely costly in terms of real dollars and diplomatic potential to the United States.
Another option the Pentagon is considering is to develop a boost-phase interceptor to be fielded on F-35 aircraft. CBO estimates that it would cost $15-$20 billion to develop interceptors for the F-35, $10-$20 billion for dedicated F-35s for North Korea and as much as $10-$20 billion per year to operate a standing defense against North Korea. This boost phase defense would have to be close to or within the airspace of the country launching the ballistic missile for an interceptor to be able to reach the ballistic missile while its engines were still burning.
Going further into the stratosphere, CBO estimates the cost of a constellation of space-based interceptors to be between $50 to $400 billion over 20 years. Previous CBO and National Research Council estimates are that 368 to 1,000 satellites would be required, depending on whether the United States sought a limited defense or a complete defense. To be clear, any efforts to pursue a complete defense harkens back to President Ronald Reagan’s efforts to make nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete” — a dangerously destabilizing idea.
With so many proposals on the table, and with such great uncertainty revolving around the timeline of their deployment and actual effectiveness, Congress should demand a clear picture of what is being spent on U.S. missile defense and which options might be reconsidered.
With so much in the balance, it is essential that our lawmakers take the time to rethink U.S. missile defense now, before we continue to throw good money after bad in this expensive, destabilizing and unreliable endeavor.
*This post was edited to update this statistic October 26, 2021.