The 2019 Missile Defense Review: A Good Start

The Trump administration has today released its long-awaited Missile Defense Review (MDR). Initiated pursuant to both congressional and presidential direction, the report represents an attempt to adapt U.S. missile defense policy, posture, and programs to the strategic environment of great power competition. The United States and its allies face a more complex and challenging aerial threat environment than ever before. Emphasizing the utility of active and to some extent passive defenses against a wide spectrum of air and missile threats, the MDR points the way toward the ever-elusive vision of Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD), while also acknowledging the relationship between military, nonproliferation, and diplomatic measures to stem and dissuade missile proliferation. As Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan noted in its release, “to our competitors, we see what you are doing, and we are taking action.”

Q1: What’s new and different?

A1: Make no mistake: the 2019 MDR represents in many respects a striking degree of continuity in the missile defense enterprise, for both the program of record and the institutions that support it. Like the National Defense Strategy before it, the significance of the document lies in its prognosis of the strategic environment. The document also clearly shows a heavy influence of and continuity with the doctrinal developments by the Joint Staff in recent years, including from 2013 and 2017.

For the first time, the document puts Russia and China in the same sentence as missile defenses, making explicit what has hitherto been implicit. Consistent with the National Security Strategy and with the 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR), the United States will continue to rely upon nuclear deterrence for strategic nuclear attack from major powers, but it will more aggressively pursue a variety of kinetic and non-kinetic means to counter regional ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs)—from whatever source. While acknowledging that a path to peace with North Korea may theoretically be possible, the review endorses a defense and defeat dominant posture toward rogue states. The single most significant action in the MDR is the endorsement of a Space Sensor Layer (SSL).

President Trump’s remarks at the report’s release included the explicit ambition to defeat any missile fired at the United States, from any place, at any time. The actual programmatic muscle movements endorsed by the review, however, are comparatively modest. In contrast with the 2010 BMDR, this review neither cancels nor announces the beginning of any new major programs of record. So, while the 2019 MDR considerably expands the vision for missile defense, it does not break china.

Q2: How is the MDR’s diagnosis different?

A2: The preface to the report by Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan notes that “Military superiority is not a birthright,” and that “The scale and urgency of change required to renew our conventional and missile defense overmatch should not be underestimated.” This warning is much needed. For decades, the doctrines and cultures of the military services have taken air superiority as just such a birthright, but this has now changed. The report prudently identifies the “spectrum” of air and missile threats, which has probably never been more complex and challenging. This spectrum includes unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a variety of ballistic and cruise missiles, and hypersonic glide vehicles. In the face of complex integrated attack, the MDR prudently prioritizes integrated air and missile defense as a goal.

The realization of these goals will, however, require continued efforts well beyond the actions articulated in the 2019 MDR.

Q3: What are some major themes of the report?

A3: While limited in its direct policy and programmatic actions, the MDR contains a variety of themes that will likely shape follow-on activities. The most significant theme is that defenses against missile attack are stabilizing, introducing uncertainty to an enemy’s calculus and thereby contributing to overall U.S. and allied defense goals. Although the report does not use the word “strategic stability” (as had the National Security Strategy), the MDR repeatedly notes how active and passive defenses against air and missile attack contribute to stability, as well as to deterrence, assurance, and damage limitation in the event of deterrence failure.

A second recurring theme is what the MDR flags as the “the importance of space.” It highlights the need for a space-based sensor layer to provide birth to death tracking and discrimination of both ballistic missiles and HGVs, and seeks to explore the potential for orbital interceptors in the future. The MDR’s endorsement of SSL is its single most significant recommendation, and its timely deployment represents the single most significant goal in the review’s implementation.

Another central theme is the importance of integration, even if it remains aspirational in many cases. To be sure, the MDR drops the “B” (for ballistic) to encompass the need to counter cruise missiles and HGVs, but the attention to IAMD remains limited. This is a missile defense review, not an integrated air and missile defense review. The word “integration” is used in many ways in the document, including to reference offense-defense synchronization, the connectivity between air defense and missile defense, and interoperability among the Joint and combined missile defense forces. The National Defense Strategy Commission recently endorsed the idea of a defense-wide official with authority to advance integration and interoperability, a concept deserving further consideration.

The phrase “flexibility and adaptability” appears repeatedly, reflecting a point of continuity with the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review . Unlike the Nuclear Posture Review, which listed numerous characteristics that contribute to flexibility and adaptability, the MDR specifies only a few, such as mobility. Apart from the Patriot force and Aegis ships, many elements of the Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) are not actually that mobile. THAAD, TPY-2s, and elements supporting the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) for the homeland are largely in concrete, and elements such as the SBX take considerable time to move across the Pacific Ocean. One characteristic that might deserve further exploration is the survivability and resilience of the several elements of the BMDS. Although the BMDS is currently “layered” in the sense of having interceptors that work at different altitudes and threats, scarce and expensive assets like large ground-based radars remain under-protected. Although the MDR points to the need for air defense of these assets, further work will be needed to achieve their survivability.

One promising path to survivability is with dispersal and distribution of the basing of missile defense assets themselves, effectively leveraging passive defense for active defenses.

Q4: What major actions does the review take?

A4: The report chronicles how much has changed over the past 16 years and identifies a number of ongoing efforts for the current program of record, including the Redesigned Kill Vehicle for GMD and the completion of the two Pacific radars for homeland defense. It notes plans to use an SM-3 IIA against an ICBM class target and directs further study of space-based interceptors, but both were already required by Congress in past legislation. The report notably includes within its text hooks for the implementation of the MDR’s conclusions, namely a dozen italicized taskers for major areas that some combination of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, under secretary of Defense for Policy, under secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, Missile Defense Agency, STRATCOM, the Services, and other officials are assigned, usually six months from the release of the report (so, July or October 2019). These various taskers include studies or plans to:

  • Improve the command and control and concepts of operation for early warning of various missile threats
  • Designate an organization to acquire cruise missile defense for the homeland
  • Assess the required number of THAAD batteries
  • Convert all Aegis destroyers to be “fully missile defense capable” within 10 years
  • Accelerate efforts to enhance missile defense tracking and discrimination sensors
  • Integrate the F-35 sensor suite into the BMDS
  • Develop an emergency activation plan to potentially operationalize the Aegis Ashore test site in Kauai, Hawaii within 30 days of a decision to do so
  • Study development and fielding of a space-based missile intercept layer
  • Identify resources, testing, and personnel requirements for defense against hypersonic threats
  • Review the Warfighter Involvement Process (WIP) in the acquisition and requirements processes
  • Recommendations for optimal roles, responsibilities, and authorities of institutions and integration within the missile defense enterprise
  • Designate an organization with acquisition authority for capability development, employment concepts, and operational integration of pre-launch attack operations

The fact that these follow-on reports and studies have a time frame from six to nine months could indicate that many of these muscle movements may not be fully incorporated into the FY2020 budget request.

Q5: What isn’t there?

A5: A number of significant measures that had been anticipated in the review turn out not to have materialized. Items absent from the review include:

  • No apparent cancellations of major programs of record
  • No new announcements of incremental or block improvements to any of the four families of interceptors—SM, GBI, THAAD, or Patriot—beyond what has already been programmed
  • No decision to deploy space-based interceptors
  • No decision to activate the Hawaii Kuai site for Aegis Ashore, although there is a plan required to have it ready for activation.
  • No decision to deploy an SM-3 IIA underlay for homeland defense, although it is considered for the future and a chart in the report (figure 29) identifies the 2022 timeframe for such an underlay
  • No selection of a location for an East Coast interceptor site, or a decision to deploy there.
  • No revisiting of the fourth phase of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, the SM-3 IIB concept, or air defenses for the Aegis Ashore sites in Romania and Poland
  • No announcement of a timeline or architecture framework for the Space Sensor Layer

Q6: What comes next?

A6: Missile defense capabilities have matured dramatically over the past two decades, and the 2019 MDR represents a significant inflection point in the long history of this evolution. Now begins a national conversation about how and to what extent the United States and its allies will implement the vision of the MDR, and truly align missile defense activities with great power competition. The MDR provides the basis for this bipartisan conversation to begin.

Dr. Thomas Karako is a senior fellow with the International Security Program and the director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Tom Karako
Senior Fellow, International Security Program and Director, Missile Defense Project