The Trump administration is in the final leg of its missile defense review which will be soon be forthcoming. In anticipation of that report, General Trey Obering, a former Director of the Missile Defense Agency, recently gave a "look into the future" and how he saw what he termed the coming "revolution in missile defense".
Up to this past year, the legal guidance for our missile defenses has been that they would be limited and designed to stop only rogue state missile threats. However, the 1999 Missile Defense Act was amended in 2017 to eliminate the term "limited".
This will now allow the United States to build stronger defenses that are needed, rather than those arbitrarily circumscribed by critics of missile defense, who were insistent when the bill passed the U.S. Congress in 1999 that any defenses be strictly "limited". Their support was necessary to pass the legislation in the Senate, so at that time, the restriction was accepted.
Obering stated that the Constitution does not say provide a "limited defense" of the people. The only reason the U.S. provided a limited missile defense initially was: "that's all the country could technologically and politically do". Moreover, apparently Congress in 1999 accepted such limits up front in the hope that eventually the law's restrictions could be removed.
We have now reached "eventually". The new 2018 national strategy of the United States requires the development of an effective, robust layered missile defense, including an architecture for a hypersonic missile defense capability. The strategy also includes a plan for developing a space-based missile defense intercept capability, which is indeed revolutionary.
As Obering explained:
"When you put this in the context of our national security strategy, the United States needs to develop the capability and the capacity to deal with everything that could be thrown at us by an Iran or North Korea and to blunt any initial missile salvo from China and Russia."
In other words, the U.S. should develop an upgraded qualitative and quantitative defense against both Iran and North Korea and their missile threats. This means, over time, dealing with complex threats such as multiple warheads and counter-measures coming at the U.S. from just one missile, while also countering multiple missiles with more advanced technology.
A key reason for this need for enhanced missile defenses is that the administration strategy has identified not just rogue states as threats but also countries termed "peers and near peers", such as Russia and China, whose missile arsenals are not measured in the dozens but the hundreds.
That will require a "revolution" in missile defense technology adequately to deal with such threats, even if all the U.S. is trying to defeat is an initial salvo of missile attacks from Russia and China as part of the leading edge of aggression against the United States or its allies.
The House Armed Services Committee approved a defense bill May 10 by a vote of 60-1 that funds some of the required new missile defense technology. Obering said he was pleased the Committee called for a global "birth-to-death" tracking and discrimination capability, to maximize interceptor effectiveness against both ballistic and maneuvering missile threats.
That capability would give the United States enhanced regional and homeland defenses, especially with the ground-based interceptors now in silos in Alaska and California, and find further ways to protect the American homeland from an ICBM or long-range missile.
Better sensors would bolster effectiveness, in addition to U.S. and allied defenses such as THAAD, Aegis, and PAC-3, especially in the Middle East and Northwest Asia.
A Standard Missile - 3 is launched from the USS Hopper in the latest Missile Defense Agency (MDA) test, in conjunction with the U.S. Navy, as part of the MDA's Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense Program. (Photo: MDA and U.S. Navy)
What about being able to intercept a missile early in its flight? It is true that recent intercepts by Israel of Iranian rockets launched from Syria, and Saudi intercepts of Houthi rebel missiles launched from Yemen, were successful because the attacking missiles were short-range and did not have warheads that separate from the missiles.
However, shooting down long range, ICBM types of missiles in the boost phase -- if they are launched from North Korea or Iran and aimed at the United States -- is a much tougher task. There is only a short window of 3-5 minutes to find the missile as it is rising above the ground and cloud cover and before the warhead separates from the booster.
Obering emphasized such a boost-phase intercept technology is a great defense because "you can intercept the missile before the complex countermeasures and decoys are deployed."
How might the United States achieve a near-term solution for boost phase? One idea is an air-launched missile interceptor. The Missile Defense Agency has tested both a modified Patriot or PAC-3 missile interceptor, which was launched from an F-15C fighter jet and a modified AMRAAM missile.
The key is to develop an interceptor with the right range to get to the target fast. For example, the Scud missile that killed 28 National Guardsmen from Pennsylvania in Desert Storm was seen by an American F-15 Strike Eagle pilot, as Obering explained.
The plane, however, did not have any missile capable of shooting down the Scud missile. Developing such new technology now would enable the United States and its allies fully to integrate the offense with the defense, and be better able to defeat missile attacks such as those from Iran, Houthi terrorists, Hezbollah, and North Korea.
To critics, a missile shield allows the United States to be a "bully, to effectively use the offensive sword and do so with impunity by hiding behind a defensive shield." But that is nonsense, says Obering. He explained a defensive shield cannot withstand everything that anyone can throw at the United States, and the U.S. and its allies cannot just sit back and take hit after hit.
Obering emphasized that with the limiting language of the 1999 missile defense law no longer prescribing what the U.S. can build, the country can now adequately defend itself.
"The U.S. has the best technology. I would never bet against U.S. technology, U.S. engineering and U.S. manufacturing, ever. When we put our mind to it we can do it, and it's time that we do that. Just think of the advances that have occurred in sensing, processing, artificial intelligence, propulsion, material science, and manufacturing."
One great area of promise, said Obering, are lasers. The benefit is that with a single laser beam, one can shoot down multiple threats, thereby making lasers extremely cost-effective. The General explained that when he was director of the Missile Defense Agency the experimental Air Borne Laser (ABL) achieved the first flight of the plane and in 2010 engaged in the first shoot-down of a missile.
The ABL airplane operates at 35,000 feet and the laser beam must penetrate through heavy atmosphere and thus must have a lot of power. But Secretary of Defense Mattis wants to move to 60,000 feet with Unmanned Air Vehicles or Remotely Piloted Vehicles (UAV or RPV), where the thin atmosphere "gives you a lethal kill with far less power," said the General.
General Obering also explained that while the U.S. does not now have a space-based defensive shield, as President Reagan initially envisioned, politics and not technology got in the way. "I went to Camp David in the summer of 2007, invited by then President George W. Bush. Over a four-hour discussion, I urged the President to start a space-based test-bed and then move quickly to building such a defense."
Unfortunately, while the President told Obering "I'd love to do this", he also noted he did not have the votes in Congress or the political capital to get the needed votes.
General Obering warned there remains a lot of misperceptions about missile defenses in space. "People think that it is outlawed. It is not outlawed. The only thing that is outlawed in space is a weapon of mass destruction, and missile defense is not that."
What would be the effect of even a small constellation of space-based interceptors? Obering noted such technology would dramatically complement the United States based Ground Based Interceptors, and most importantly, create ambiguity in the mind of an attacker whether such an attack would work.
Even better, the United States and its allies, with lasers, would be able to get boost-phase defenses over a much wider region than one could with, for example, a UAV.
Two key remaining issues that often get in the way of a consensus that the United States and its allies should build a robust missile defense are: isn't missile defense too expensive and won't it upset the Russians?
Obering explained the building damage alone to New York City from the 9/11 attacks was $100 billion; and the full economic costs to New York and the country have been calculated at $3.3 trillion.
Now what if the attack was not with an airplane but a missile with a 20-kiloton warhead? One study of the impact of such a warhead detonating in the middle of Manhattan was that 200,000 New Yorkers would die immediately and the immediate economic cost would be $2 trillion.
Since 1983, the U.S. has spent roughly $200 billion on the missile defense program going back to President Reagan. "I don't compare the cost of an interceptor to the cost of an inbound missile. I compare the cost of the interceptor to the value of an American city," Obering said.
The current missile defense budget is $12 billion a year, says the General. "If you look at it in that regard, it's a very, very affordable program."
Finally, is missile defense destabilizing, especially with respect to Russia and China? It is true, Obering observed, that the missile defenses that the U.S. built in 2003-2018 against the emerging North Korean and Iranian threats had no effective operational capability against Russia or China. And the Russians and Chinese knew that."
If you do not have missile defenses, Obering warned, you either have to attack a potential aggressor pre-emptively or retaliate after an attack -- possibly leaving hundreds of thousands of Americans or its allies dead. Would not it be better to have missile defense as "a very humane option"? It is what President Ronald Reagan argued for: "Wouldn't it be better to save lives than to avenge them?" But if you do not have missile defenses, you do not have that option.
Dr. Peter Huessy is President of GeoStrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm he founded in 1981, as well as Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.