Strategic Forces in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)
December 18, 2014
In the areas of nuclear forces and missile defense, the FY2015 NDAA is characterized by a range of prudent advances for U.S. capabilities and remarkable caution about Russia and China.
Russia gets the most special attention. Concern about Russia’s actions in Ukraine, its probing and taunting of NATO and other neighbors, and its disregard of treaty obligations are reflected throughout the bill. So long as Russia is occupying Crimea, Congress prohibits almost all military cooperation with Russia. Notably, Congress expressly finds Russia in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, encourages that the treaty remain in effect and for the Russian Federation to return to full and verifiable compliance, but also encourages preparations should the treaty cease to exist. The House version had required a plan to counter Russia’s INF-noncompliant cruise missiles with the Aegis Ashore missile defenses now being deployed, but this was replaced with a broader report on the full range of DoD plans to counter Russia’s INF activities.
While Russian aircraft buzz NATO airspace and nuclear exercises occur in Kaliningrad, Congress reaffirms in the NDAA its sense on both the importance of NATO’s air and missile defense modernization and on the conclusions of NATO’s 2012 Deterrence and Defense Posture Review, whereby the alliance determined to retain forward-based nuclear weapons in Europe. The bill also extends a past prohibition on giving sensitive missile defense information to Russia, particularly concerning the velocity at burnout (VBO) of U.S. interceptors, and limits integration of Russian missile defenses into those of NATO. Dependence on Russia for space launch has long been recognized as a problem, and the bill both prohibits further contracts for space launch services and funds the development of a new domestic launch system by 2019. While probably not a return to the annual Soviet Military Power volumes from the 1980s, DoD is now charged to produce a substantial report on military and security challenges from Russia, mirroring the (sometimes) hefty annual report on China.
For China and the Asia Pacific, the NDAA emphasizes the importance of the rebalance and the importance of reassuring regional allies and partners. Whereas some room was left open for Russia and NATO, the bill prohibits any integration of U.S. missile defenses with the emerging missile defenses of China. Congress also requires DoD to study the prospects for increased missile defense cooperation (and improved short-range offensive capabilities) in Northeast Asia, especially between and among the US, Japan, and the Republic of Korea, and also a broader report on regional missile defense efforts.
For U.S. homeland missile defense, the bill requires DoD to produce a rigorous plan for the much-needed redesigned kill vehicle to put atop the ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California which currently comprise the only defenses for the homeland, and also to assess the adequacy of the program's testing regime. The bill accompanies significant increased funding for Iron Dome and other cooperative missile defense programs with Israel, but these funds comes with strings attached, including a requirement for US coproduction. So long as American taxpayers are footing the bill to help secure Israel, it makes financial and strategic sense for the U.S. to be involved.
In the nuclear realm, the bill establishes a Sea-Based Deterrent Fund to steward the essential but highly expensive undertaking to build the next generation nuclear submarine (SSBN), the Ohio-class replacement. Congress reaffirms the importance of the triad of nuclear delivery systems, and a new report on command and control addresses strong concerns about needed improvements to STRATCOM’s systems. All 450 ICBM silos must also be kept “warm,” even if some missiles are removed for NEW START. Besides serving as a hedge for possible future operational status, this low cost requirement strengthens deterrence by creating targeting uncertainty in the mind of a potential adversary about just which silos are empty. Finally, the bill reaffirms the important capability of today’s air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), expected to be retired in 2030, and advances its replacement, the long range standoff missile (LRSO).
In sum, the 2015 NDAA takes some important steps toward sustaining nuclear and missile defense modernization efforts, and signals to both allies and strategic competitors alike that our commitment to deterrence and defense will be robust.
Thomas Karako is a visiting fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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