Analysis / Forces, Strategy

The Forthcoming Missile Defense Review

Defense Outlook Series

Later this spring, the Trump administration will release its 2018 Missile Defense Review (MDR), which is expected to better align U.S. missile defense policy with the present security environment. President Barack Obama’s 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR) reflected the security environment of the time and the aspirations of the Obama administration. In particular, technological advances by U.S. adversaries and a renewed focus on long-term competition with Russia and China drive the need for a new review.

New Era, New Policy

The new MDR will need to address at least two major trends that have emerged over the past several years: the significant advances made by U.S. adversaries in nuclear and missile technology, and the shift to a more competitive footing with near-peer states like Russia and China as noted in the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy.

The qualitative progress that U.S. adversaries have made in missile and nuclear development has been considerable. In just the last two years, North Korea has tested six new ballistic missile variants, including two versions of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching U.S. territory. It has also made unexpected progress toward a solid-fuel submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and has tested new, more advanced antiship missiles and air defenses.

Iran has continued to invest in the quality and quantity of its missile forces despite the 2015 nuclear deal, and it has fiercely resisted any externally imposed limits on further development. Iran furthermore continues to export missiles to its allies and proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria, contributing to the region’s instability, and appears to be testing its missile wares against its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rivals in the Yemen missile war.

But more worrisome are the increasingly uncertain and complex U.S. relationships with China and Russia. In the 2010 BMDR, the Obama administration expressed great optimism about the future of U.S. relations with these countries, disavowing the necessity to pursue missile defenses against either. The 2010 BMDR stated that there were “no significant prospects of war” with Russia or China and that the United States “looks forward to a peaceful and prosperous Russia that makes contributions to international peace and security as a global partner.”

This optimistic vision did not pan out. Even as the United States has sought to integrate China and Russia into the liberal world order, Moscow and Beijing have been fletching their arrows.

Russia has emerged as perhaps the greatest disruptor of the international order, adopting an openly hostile disposition toward the United States and other Western democracies. Besides its annexation of neighboring territory, atrocities in Syria, meddling with democratic institutions across the globe, misinformation campaigns, and instigation of gray zone conflict, the Vladimir Putin regime is also developing a plethora of next-generation missile systems.

Some of these weapons, including a nuclear-powered cruise missile with supposedly “unlimited range,” sound more like devices crafted by a James Bond villain than by a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council. Others are more familiar, such as long-range land attack cruise missiles and maneuvering, ballistic missiles launched from various platforms and domains. Notably, Russia’s stated rationale for developing some of these new weapons is to counter U.S. missile defense, despite the 2010 BMDR’s deference to Russia in preserving the viability of its strategic nuclear forces. Standing next to George W. Bush in 2001 at the announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, Putin himself had noted that the U.S. missile defense plans posed no threat to Russia or to strategic stability.

Chinese military development has also become a growing concern, with many of its most alarming advances also in its ballistic and cruise missile forces. Beijing has invested considerably in offensive and defensive missile systems, moving toward a capability to clamp down control of the western Pacific by denying freedom of navigation to the United States and other Pacific nations.

These trends are aptly reflected in the president’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy. These documents recognized that U.S. security can no longer be served by solely focusing on the so-called rogue states such as North Korea and Iran. As the defense strategy notes, “These competitions require the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades.” One may reasonably expect the Missile Defense Review to continue this new focus and apply it to the missile threats. But what might this mean in terms of changes to current missile defense policy?

Dropping the B-Word

Since the United States withdrew from the ABM Treaty, U.S. missile defense architectures have been tailored to ballistic missile threats from small states like North Korea and Iran. The United States has furthermore maintained a consistent policy of maintaining mutual vulnerability with Russia and China. This could change with the new MDR. It seems unlikely that the United States will pursue an impenetrable shield to fend off an onslaught of Russian ICBMs. There are, however, other ways that missile defense could contribute to improving deterrence with major powers, namely by countering so-called regional or nonstrategic missile threats to U.S. forces and our allies, thereby raising the threshold for even conventional escalation.

One possible approach may be to tackle a broader spectrum of global missile threats, irrespective of their flight profile or national origin. The fact that the administration has dropped “Ballistic” from the review’s title indicates the document will probably employ a wider lens. This could include a robust effort to better defend against Russian and Chinese cruise missiles, other maneuvering endo-atmospheric threats like hypersonic boost-glide vehicles (HGVs), and advanced short-range ballistic missiles.

These nonnuclear and dual-purpose weapons could have strategic effects even if not armed with nuclear warheads. Potential targets include forward deployed U.S. forces and key installations in the United States. For decades, forward U.S. deployments have acted as a powerful deterrent against regional aggression by any would-be adversary. Yet their growing vulnerability to air and missile attack undermines that deterrent power. Such vulnerability could prove provocative in a crisis.

Yet with any effort to strengthen defenses against lower-tier, atmospheric threats from near peers, we also must not lose sight of the higher-tier long-range ballistic threats from North Korea and Iran. Striking this balance means pivoting away from a ballistic-focused architecture toward an integrated air and missile defense approach. To be sure, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and HGVs all have distinct characteristics requiring somewhat different defense solution sets, but there would be efficiencies gained by addressing them in a more comprehensive and integrated way.

Fielding a space-based sensor architecture for birth-to-death tracking and discrimination would probably be the single most significant change that the MDR might endorse, because it provides improved capability across the missile threat spectrum. Another way to meet the broader challenge is to have all new ground-based radars built with 360-degree rather than a sectored capability. This would make them useful against both ballistic threats, which (often) come from a predictable direction, and aerial threats like cruise missiles, which can come from anywhere. A return to a persistent, elevated sensor would be necessary against low-flying air breathing threats.

As the United States rebalances its missile defense to reemphasize homeland defense, it should also consider more flexible approaches that can be adapted for both upper and lower tier threats. U.S. missile defense policy statements have always placed the protection of the U.S. homeland as the number one priority. This has not always borne out in practice. Beginning around 2010, U.S. spending on missile defense shifted markedly toward forward-based regional missile defenses.

The most recent budget cycle already shows a rebalance toward homeland defense. The Missile Defense Agency has also been tasked to deploy 20 more Ground-based Interceptors to Alaska and accelerate development of the new Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV). Such movements suggest the MDR will also emphasize new and reinvigorated homeland defense efforts.

This pivot to homeland defense could involve an increased emphasis on layered defense. Recent testimony by the MDA director, Lieutenant General Samuel Greaves, suggests that the United States is looking at a possible underlay of shorter-range interceptors to provide another layer to the homeland defense architecture. If done right, such a layer could also provide the groundwork for a homeland air defense architecture to defend key command and control centers and military forces from conventional cruise missile attack. This might consist of several Aegis Ashore sites to protect U.S. territory. These could be equipped with both exo- and endo-atmospheric interceptors and integrated into a sensor architecture composed of ground, air, and space-based sensors, thereby contributing to a full spectrum defense against a wider threat set than just North Korean ballistic missiles. Such Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD) structures are also needed at the regional levels as well, particularly in Europe and the Asia Pacific, where the threat sets are most complex.

Wait and See

Until the MDR is released, one can only speculate on what its specific conclusions and recommendations will be. The great power competition in the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy would seem to strongly suggest the need for focusing on missile threats from the great powers, namely Russia and China. If it does, some may accuse the administration of trying to disrupt the strategic stability. But the details here will matter tremendously. Defensive counters against lower-tier, conventionally armed air and missile threats could, in fact, enhance and strengthen deterrence by raising the threshold for attack.

Commentary 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).

© 2018 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Photo: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images

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Tom Karako and Ian Williams, "The Forthcoming Missile Defense Review," Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 6, 2018, last modified April 6, 2018,