The 2022 Missile Defense Review: Still Seeking Alignment

The Biden administration released its unclassified Missile Defense Review today, as part of the National Defense Strategy. As policy guidance to an increasingly broad enterprise, the 2022 MDR represents an opportunity to achieve greater alignment between U.S. air and missile defense (AMD) efforts and the strategic competition with China and Russia.

The new MDR is a step forward from past reviews in several respects. Gone is the primary focus on rogue state ballistic missiles that defined the 2010 review. It also corrects the 2019 MDR’s insufficient attention to integration, air defense layering for cruise missile and UAS threats, and survivability. Although the public version of the review leaves much to be desired, it nevertheless advances several critical mission areas: a comprehensive approach to missile defeat, homeland cruise missile defense, the defense of Guam, and distributed operations.

This MDR has three parts: the first addresses the evolving air and missile threat environment, the second, the U.S. strategy and policy framework, and the third, ways to strengthen international cooperation. Following the overarching theme of the 2022 NDS, the MDR describes missile defenses as a critical component of “integrated deterrence,” defined as a framework bringing together all instruments of national power.

The 12-page, 4,700-word document is dramatically shorter than the 2019 version, which came in at 28,834 words and 100 pages. While brevity can bring readability and concision, it can do so at the expense of what is unsaid and of questions left open.

Despite the National Defense Strategy’s emphasis on this as the “decisive decade,” the MDR does not specify dates or timelines, and budget documents suggest that key new capabilities appear to be pushed to the 2030s. Other notable absences include the usual reference to arms control limitations, the need for increasing production quantities, the need for maintaining flexible acquisition authorities, and specifics on who exactly will manage this new “missile defeat” enterprise.

Weapons of Choice

One of the strengths of the 2019 MDR was its broader description of missile threats, to include ballistic, cruise, and hypersonic missiles. The Trump administration’s actual programmatic and budgetary implementation of hypersonic and cruise missile defense, however, were quite modest. The 2019 review also neglected UAS as a species of air defense, or what the new review calls “missile-related” threats. As seen in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Iranian attacks in 2019, and the Ukrainian war this year, that neglect is no longer tenable.

The 2022 review draws attention to the more complete spectrum of air and missile threats. It describes UAS as an “inexpensive, flexible, and plausibly deniable” means to “carry out tactical-level attacks below the threshold for major response, making them an increasingly preferred capability.” Still, other delivery systems must also be contemplated going forward, including spaceplanes and fractional or multiple orbital delivery systems “that move in and out of the atmosphere.”

The threat description in the MDR is, however, less sharply put than that conveyed by the May 2022 congressional testimony of Assistant Secretary of Defense John Plumb: “Offensive missiles are increasingly weapons of choice for Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, for use in conflict and to coerce and intimidate their neighbors.”

Strategic Deterrence and Defense

Like the Obama and Trump administration reviews, the Biden MDR notes that "the United States will continue to rely on strategic deterrence . . . to address and deter large intercontinental-range, nuclear missile threats to the homeland.” While this distinction may apply specifically to Chinese and Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles, it need not apply to other delivery systems, to non-nuclear strategic attack, or to the likes of North Korea.

Even as threats increase, the new MDR states “the United States will also continue to stay ahead of North Korean missile threats to the homeland through a comprehensive missile defeat approach, complemented by the credible threat of direct cost imposition through nuclear and non-nuclear means.” The use of “missile defeat” represents a subtle but important shift which applies broadly to the missile defense enterprise. A broad defense and defeat-dominant posture toward North Korea remains intact, but attack operations and more novel measures left of launch will help size the requirements for active missile defense interceptors within the comprehensive missile defeat enterprise.

Homeland ballistic missile defense is here to stay. The Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system is “an essential element” of missile defeat, and its “continued modernization and expansion” is necessary to maintain both “a visible measure of protection for the U.S. population” and an assurance to “allies and partners that the United States will not be coerced by threats to the homeland.” The Biden administration initiated a competitive development process to procure 20 Next Generation Interceptors (NGIs) in March 2021. The MDR notes that the NGI may not merely “augment” but “potentially replace” today’s fleet of 44 Ground Based Interceptors.

Air Defenses

The 2022 MDR corrects past inattention to aerial threats, including unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and homeland cruise missile defense. The review says that “homeland and regionally forward deployed forces require the fielding of technical and integrated C-UAS solutions.” While not discussed in the review, the U.S. Army is moving out rapidly as the acquisition authority for countering UAS (C-UAS). Possible capability improvements are legion, but capacity and training for the mission remain paramount. The new MDR likewise embraces cruise missile defense for the homeland (CMD-H), which first appeared in the 2022 and 2023 budget requests. The past focus on rogue state ballistic missile attacks should give way to a focus on a nonnuclear strategic attack by major powers: “To deter attempts by adversaries to stay under the nuclear threshold and achieve strategic results with conventional capabilities, the United States will examine active and passive defense measures to decrease the risk from any cruise missile strike against critical assets, regardless of origin.”

The discussion of future technologies prioritizes sensors above all, followed by battle management and command and control (C2). The missions for AMD sensors are to “detect, characterize, track, and engage current and emerging advanced air and missile threats regionally, and to improve early warning, identification, tracking, discrimination, and attribution for missile threats to the homeland.” Requiring engagement support for regional threats but not for attacks on the homeland seems especially odd since the document repeatedly highlights the specter of nonnuclear strategic attack on the homeland. CMD-H must also include engagement capabilities; its sensors must include those capable of combat identification and fire control quality tracks. That paragraph highlights modern over-the-horizon radars for “improving warning and tracking against cruise missile and other threats to the homeland.” The same criterion must be applied to the emerging space sensors. It is not good enough to provide “strategic and theater missile warning and tracking.” Sensor architectures must also support fire control.

The 2019 review referenced “transregional” threats, which blur the legacy distinction between homeland and regional concerns. As it turns out, cruise missiles, UAS, and aerial threats that threaten U.S. forces and allies in other regions are a global concern. North America is a region, too, and cruise missile defense for the homeland is a capability the United States has neglected for too long. Embracing the priority of homeland missile defense requires attention to more than just rogue state ballistic missiles. It remains to be seen whether the Air Force moves out to field not just sensors but active defenses for CMD-H.

Complex and Integrated Attacks

The new MDR notably recognizes how various air and missile threats would be used in conjunction for complex and integrated attacks. The text places special attention to UAS: “Adversaries also are utilizing multiple types of missile salvos—such as one-way attack UAS in combination with rockets—in an effort to defeat missile defense systems.” America’s perceived birthright to air superiority is long gone. Recognition in a policy document of how adversary air and missile threats could suppress and disintegrate active defenses is long overdue. Its implications are profound.

It is critical to acknowledge that adversaries will attempt to suppress U.S. and allied AMD capabilities. The 2018 NDS endorsed dispersed basing and operations, but the 2019 MDR did not apply that logic to AMD. The 2022 review does so explicitly: “Future air and missile defense capabilities must also be more mobile, flexible, survivable, and affordable, and emphasize disaggregation, dispersal, and maneuver to mitigate the threat from adversary missiles.”

AMD is necessary not only for fixed infrastructure, but for “joint maneuver forces.” It is all well and good to move swiftly around the battlefield, but loitering munitions and cruise missile targeting has dramatically improved. Mobility is no longer a panacea. With limited room to move on a small island like Guam—where launchers have little place to be repositioned—it may not be worth the time and expense to require AMD elements to be fully mobile. When one must defend what one cannot move or hide, fixed emplacements may be good enough.

The defense of Guam is, indeed, one of the most important new initiatives of the Biden administration. Despite years of urging by U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the matter only first appeared in the 2022 and 2023 budget requests. As with CMD-H, the problem of Guam further defies the homeland-regional dichotomy of yesteryear. Guam has a “unique status as both an unequivocal part of the United States as well as a vital regional location.” The significance of Guam as a test case for full-spectrum, 360-degree AMD cannot be overstated.

International Cooperation

Three of the MDR’s 12 pages are devoted to describing international missile defense cooperation. Its discussion of cooperation with Canada is accompanied by reference to the “acute” (read: Russian) threat of “increasingly sophisticated conventional missile capabilities that are able to target critical infrastructure in North America.” Again, the document commits to improving “early warning surveillance for potential incursions or attacks,” but does not discuss the need for fire-control quality tracking and engagement support.

In the Indo-Pacific, the MDR highlights cooperation with Japan, Australia, and South Korea. Within NATO, the Patriot, NASAMS, and the SAMP-T systems get shoutouts in the endorsement of 360-degree AMD (read: to include Russia). The European Sky Shield Initiative may be an important element of this, although C2 and sensors for NATO probably deserve prioritization. Recent developments in Europe include Germany’s consideration of Arrow-3, Poland’s defense buildup across the board, and Finland and Sweden’s likely accession to NATO. Slovakia, moreover, likely needs new defenses to replace the S-300 units it donated to Ukraine. The document recognizes the longstanding cooperative efforts with Israel, encourages Gulf Cooperation Council cooperation, and notes the “ongoing normalization efforts between Israel and key Arab states” to create new opportunities for AMD cooperation.

The global market for AMD capabilities has continued to increase. The MDR notes how Russia uses “several lower-tier air defense systems for its own use and export as a foreign policy instrument.” The sale of the S-400 to countries like Turkey and India, for instance, has certainly been a wedge within the alliances. How well Russia is able to maintain the operation and upgrades of those exports in the face of sanctions on its defense industry will remain to be seen.

Honorable Unmentions

The brevity of the 2022 review means that it leaves several issues unmentioned. One notable absence is timelines and phases. It is one thing to say that the United States must defend Guam, that it must have hypersonic defense, and that space sensors are critical, but there are no express milestones or dates to assess whether they will be available within the decade, let alone at the speed of relevance.

Also missing are the usual recitations about arms control. The 2010 review declared that “the Administration will continue to reject any negotiated restraints on U.S. ballistic missile defenses,” and the 2019 review affirmed that “the United States will not accept any limitation or constraint on the development or deployment of missile defense capabilities needed to protect the homeland against rogue missile threats.” Instead, with language reminiscent of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty’s preamble, the document highlights “the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive systems.” Without endorsing limitations, the 2022 MDR suggests “strengthening mutual transparency and predictability.”

Another omission is any reference to acquisition authorities, the protection of which was affirmed in both the 2010 and 2019 reviews and in numerous legislative pronouncements. This may reflect the legacy of what is known as the “Trump DTM,” the Directive Type Memorandum. Even when the Pentagon was pushing acquisition authorities down across the services, the Trump administration began to undermine the acquisition authorities of the Missile Defense Agency. The 2022 MDR does, however, acknowledge the need for “adaptive acquisition approaches.” Rescinding the Trump DTM would help protect such approaches.

The document omits past discussions on directed-energy missile defense systems. Given the intensity of the air and missile threat spectrum, non-kinetic effects offer considerable promise. The Trump administration removed directed energy from the Missile Defense Agency’s budget. As technology has advanced in service and DOD-wide applications, concepts like high-powered microwaves, short-pulse lasers, and other types might now have applications for active defense missions.

The MDR’s policy direction does not seem to address who will manage the department’s missile defeat enterprise. While embracing of the full means of countering and defeating missile threats has much to commend it, an unbalanced pivot to “missile defeat” carries could have pitfalls. A prudent “fly before you buy” approach should apply to exotic non-kinetic and left-of-launch capabilities just as it does to hit-to-kill interceptors. Reliance on highly secret solutions that sacrifices deterrence for warfighting may be necessary, but nonkinetic and left-of-launch capabilities could be unproven, untestable, incapable of demonstration, and unsusceptible to foreign military sales.

A final unmentioned item worthy of policy guidance relates to production. One of the many lessons of the Ukraine conflict is how quickly missiles and munitions are expended in a conflict with a major power. The necessity of mass-producing AMD elements must be addressed. European countries who have given their air defenses to Ukraine, for instance, will no doubt be expecting a backfill. NATO’s air defense initiatives signal a demand for significant procurement and the potential for collaborative and bulk approaches.

Next Steps

As Assistant Secretary Plumb said in May, “Missiles have become a common and expected facet of modern warfare,” which makes “missile defeat and missile defense efforts more important than ever.” If the Trump MDR foundered for disconnects from budgets and programs, the Biden MDR deserves similar scrutiny so that these capabilities do not remain paper programs. While advancing certain mission areas on paper, taking the next steps requires implementing CMD-H, the defense of Guam, space sensors, and hypersonic defense with the seriousness they demand. The missile threat spectrum is not a boutique problem, but a central military challenge from China and Russia. Whether the Biden administration will properly resource and implement the goals of its MDR and NDS is now the question.

Tom 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.

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© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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