It was 10 years ago that the U.S. security establishment was shocked into rethinking its entire strategy as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Within a couple of years, the U.S. was engaged in two major wars, costing billions of dollars per month, far surpassing the $8-10 billion spent annually (at least in the white world) on missile defense efforts. And these growing insurgency conflicts consumed much of the military brainpower of the U.S.
Despite the shift in national focus on terrorism and anti-insurgency, the U.S. missile defense program managed to skirt major reductions. One could even argue that a focus by prominent thinkers and media on the wars overseas allowed for the missile defense program to progress at a slow pace with less public scrutiny than in the past.
Over the past 10-15 years, even Democrats—many of whom rejected missile defense spending in favor of arms control work or because of questionable technology—started cooling their jets in criticizing the system. Make no mistake: detractors and skeptics, many of them highly educated—former chief Pentagon tester Philip Coyle (who now serves in the White House) and thinkers like Harvard’s Yousaff Butt—still questioned the system.
But missile defense seemed to be under the radar.
Now with annual Pentagon spending having doubled since 9/11, the markets volatile amid the downgrading of American credit by Standard & Poor's (owned by Aviation Week’s parent, The McGraw-Hill Companies), and a national discussion about fiscal austerities that is bound to get even messier than the recent debt-ceiling debate that paralyzed Washington, I’m curious to see if missile defense is able to emerge unscathed in the forthcoming Fiscal 2013-17 budget.
The February budget request will be Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s first since taking over from his predecessor, Robert Gates. Though Panetta has said the Pentagon can take cuts no further than those spearheaded by Gates, the DoD budget is likely too rich a target to remain intact.
So I think it is worth exploring what the Pentagon has accomplished in missile defense since the 9/11 attacks. The Pentagon has arguably taken America’s decades-old missile defense vision from PowerPoint to the field in the past decade, though not without substantial challenges and funds—and shortcomings.
Hear me out … I’ll get to the shortcomings.
The Aegis-equipped ship fleet has grown, as has the magazine of endo/exo SM-3 Block IA interceptors; these are the U.S. frontline defenses for regional attacks or those against ships. Likewise, the once nightmarish outlook for the Lockheed Martin-led Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system has begun to turn around with improved testing and deliveries—albeit late (this can be said of pretty much any missile defense program)—to units in the field.
The Boeing-led Ground-Based Missile Defense (GMD) system is at least intermittently "on alert" with Ground-Based Interceptors (GBIs) at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., and Ft. Greely Alaska. They are poised to protect against a North Korean launch, though they could be used in the event of a surprise attack from the Middle East.
Also, these programs have garnered international support and plenty of money for U.S. contractors. Several nations are eyeing Thaad, and support from Aegis-equipped nations continues. The U.S.-Japan relationship has evolved as Tokyo continues to equip its ships with SM-3s. The pair are also continuing work on the SM-3 IIA upgrade interceptor. And, most recently, France has begun to discuss a cooperative effort with the U.S. for an ICBM killer that could take the form of an SM-3 IIA-like deal. PAC-3 sales continue to be strong.
So, at the very least, the missile defense vision has been partially realized. Tests have proven that these systems can to some extent take on more complex targets, and the proliferation of fielded systems makes the architecture more robust.
But by no means does the missile “shield” exist that many Americans assume is protecting them every day. And even fledgling international efforts aren’t without major flaws. The U.S. decision in February to end its cooperative work with Germany and Italy on the Medium-Extended Air Defense System (Meads) came as a blow to some in Europe and effectively dismantled a flagship international cooperation program. Lockheed Martin, the primary U.S. company behind the project, continues to lobby hard to revive the effort (subscribers see our Jen DiMascio’s recent piece), but this is likely to fall on deaf ears in Washington.
The magazine of U.S. interceptors is scant by some accounts. This is a problem partly because of the proliferation of regional threat missiles, and a worry that an enemy or enemies could launch a “raid,” or near-simultaneous attacks intended to overwhelm defenses. And there are limited areas that can be protected. This was part of the rationale for turning to the PAA.
GMD continues to face technical problems. With the last successful flight test of GMD in December 2008, this program is by no means a jewel for Missile Defense Agency Director Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly. The latest test failure was likely the result of a problem with the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle made by Raytheon. Even with this latest problem, GMD is ahead of where it was a decade ago, though by no means where the Pentagon and White House wanted it to be.
The big picture is that the Obama administration opted to shelve plans to field GMD in Europe to protect America’s right flank and parts of the European landmass in favor of the Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA)—a less-than-optimal name for the Aegis/SM-3 based architecture eyed for incremental fielding there.
However, realization of the PAA architecture depends largely on some yet-to-be started and funded efforts. Any time bean counters in Washington are on the prowl for “savings,” or budget cuts, a target should be placed at the top of each PowerPoint slide outlining a vision for yet-to-be-started programs. They are often easy targets—not just for a kill, but the all-crippling year-to-year delay, or PowerPoint slide to the left, as well.
Some forthcoming efforts on MDA’s horizon, which are key pieces of the PAA architecture, are:
- ABIR—Airborne Infrared UAV-based detection of a ballistic missile launch early in flight (subscribers see Aviation Week’s 8/15 cover story ).
- PTSS—the Precision Tracking Space Sensor (PTSS) program eyed as a multi-ball constellation of satellites designed for the yet-to-be-realized requirement of midcourse ballistic missile tracking. O’Reilly has said that midcourse tracking is a much-needed gap to be plugged in the system.
O'Reilly said the following during an interview with Aviation Week published July 20, 2009: “We may track [a threat missile] for part of the flight and then lose it, track it again for another part of the flight, lose it, and then track it again under today’s system....What we want to do is ... track it continuously.”
- SM-3 IIB—a large-diameter ICBM killer designed for high- velocity kills as early in flight as feasible. This is hoped for around 2020 but in reality would likely field later.
- C2 improvements—the less sexy but just as necessary connective tissue for the architecture without which geographically disbursed sensors and interceptors are largely useless.
All told, these programs account for tens of billions of dollars worth of national treasure if you project 5-10 years into the future.
But industry contacts are saying that already MDA is facing a funding shortfall of roughly $4 billion in the 2013-17 budget. So the question is, what goes? And will MDA sacrifice, or be allowed to sacrifice, its own efforts to balance the books—or will a mandate come down from on high?
The challenge with discussions, at least public ones, on reducing missile defense spending is this: The program depends as much on appearances as it does on actual capabilities. This is one of those few programs that grew out of the Cold War that still behaves like a Cold War project. A perceived vulnerability is just as valid as an actual one.
And, I wonder, could this be the saving grace for missile defense during the budget scrub? A Democratic president would take a beating right before a re-election fight for proposing yet another major adjustment to missile defense in his first term, even if it were in the name of savings. What could be ahead is the start of a phase of incremental slips—a year here, a year there—to this program or that. And, if so, we are likely to hear about how this or that threat has abated, at least temporarily, to justify said cut.
I’m curious what our readers think … is missile defense in for a kill this season?