On Friday afternoon, March 15, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made a major announcement about US missile defense policy. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Winnefeld took questions from reporters after Hagel’s opening remarks. According to Hagel, the Pentagon plans to implement the following steps to improve the defense of the US homeland against a limited ballistic missile attack:
- Deploy 14 additional ground based interceptors (GBIs) at Fort Greely, Alaska. This will increase the number of deployed GBIs from the 30 that are currently deployed to 44. Undersecretary Miller stated that the additional interceptors are scheduled to be deployed by 2017, at an estimated cost of just under $1 billion. The interceptors will contain a newer kill vehicle, known as the Capability Enhancement (CE) – II, which has not yet had a successful flight intercept test. Miller said that their deployment will not begin until the CE-II has been successfully tested.
- Deploy an additional radar to Japan to improve early warning and tracking of any missile launched from North Korea at the United States or Japan.
- At the direction of Congress, conduct Environmental Impact Studies for a potential additional GBI site in the United States.
- Cancel the fourth phase of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). The idea behind this phase was to provide additional protection to the US homeland – not Europe – by deploying an advanced version of the SM-3 missile, the SM-3 IIB, to counter long-range missiles launched from Iran. Deployment of the SM-3 IIB had been delayed until 2022 at the earliest. The administration plans to move forward with the first three phases of the EPAA, including a site in Poland, to provide protection of Europe.
Below are a few initial comments on the announcement:
Cancelling Phase IV of the EPPA, by far the biggest announcement of the day, was the right decision. Phase IV was never more than a paper system. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified a number of technical and operational problems with the proposed interceptor. A National Academy of Sciences report released last year recommended that the system be cancelled because it was unlikely to be effective and because it was unnecessary for the defense of Europe. In addition, Iran does not currently possess a ballistic missile capable of hitting the US homeland and may not acquire the capability for some time, if ever.
Phase IV has been hurting U.S.-Russia relations, but for no good reason. Russia objected to the system on the grounds that it could threaten its strategic deterrent. It will be interesting to observe how Russia reacts to this decision and whether it will make Moscow more willing to discuss a further round nuclear weapons reductions.
Hagel pointed to North Korea’s third nuclear test and its development of long-range missiles as justification for expanding the ground based midcourse defense system. But the addition of 14 GBIs in Alaska is unlikely to significantly increase the defensive capability of the ground based midcourse defense system. Even though the Defense Department has invested approximately $39 billion in this system since 1996, it remains troubled. For example, the 2012 National Academy of Sciences study cited above said that the system “lacks fundamental features long known to maximize the effectiveness of a midcourse hit-to-kill defense capability against even limited threats.” The GBIs have never been tested against a target with an ICBM range, and the CE-II, the newest version of the GBI kill vehicle, failed in its first two flight intercept tests in 2010. The system has also yet to prove effective against decoys and countermeasures that an adversary could deploy to fool our defenses.
The United States should not spend money to deploy additional GBIs until they are demonstrated to be effective and suitable in successful, operationally realistic tests. To the Pentagon’s credit, it has stated that it will not deploy the newer CE-II interceptors until they have been successfully tested, but these tests should be operationally realistic, not highly scripted as previous tests have been.
Part of the administration’s rationale for deploying more GBIs was to send a signal to South Korea that Washington is taking the North Korean threat seriously. But the addition of 14 GBIs is unlikely to strengthen the credibility of deterrence against North Korea. If US nuclear and conventional capabilities are insufficient to deter North Korea from attacking the United States or its allies with nuclear weapons, it is not clear how deploying more imperfect missile defenses would alter Pyongyang’s calculus. Moreover, if 30 GBIs could not dissuade North Korea from continuing to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, neither will 44.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the combination of deterrence and diplomacy has been and will continue to be the most effective strategy to protect the United States against nuclear weapons. As difficult and frustrating as it may be, we must continue to constructively engage North Korea and Iran to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons and achieve a nuclear-weapons-free Korean peninsula.