US Missile Defense Strategy

While visiting the Pentagon last week, President Donald Trump presented a new missile defense strategy meant to replace the 2010 document approved during the Obama presidency. Actually, the new strategy adds to and expands upon other US strategic planning documents adopted in the last two years, such as the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy, and the Nuclear Doctrine. 

The world is not enough

The new document is a response to the growing capabilities of a number of countries, such as North Korea, Iran, Russia and China, in the development and upgrades to ballistic missiles, including those with multiple and maneuvering reentry vehicles. While the objective of defending the US, its armed forces, its allies and overseas partners is certainly not new, the plans to place in orbit early warning sensors and prospectively space-based interceptor missiles mark a new stage in the efforts to develop the US missile defense system. The idea itself echoes Ronald Reagan’s 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative envisioning a space-based missile system, which proved to be just a political bluff. But even today, 36 years and generations of technological advances later, implementing this project seems a far from simple matter. 

The current state of and prospects for US missile defense

Currently, the US missile defense is sufficiently versatile and consists of four different systems:

1.     A ground-based missile defense system at a midcourse phase with ground-based interceptor missiles. Currently, 40 missiles of this class are deployed at Fort Greely, Alaska (under the Missile Defense Strategy, this number will be increased to 63 by 2023), and another 4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. These systems are the key element of the national missile defense system announced in the late 1990s.

2.     Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). Under the Missile Defense Strategy, the US has seven THAAD batteries, one of which is deployed on Guam and yet another in South Korea.

3.     The ship- and ground-based Aegis system with SM-3 and SM-6 interceptor missiles. A ground-based system of this type is deployed in Romania and another one is in the making in Poland. It is intended to be part of NATO’s anti-ballistic missile defense system conceived back in 2002.

4.     The Patriot missile system designed to defend position areas from mid- and high-altitude shorter-range or cruise missiles. 

Now it looks like this array will be expanded to include space-based missile defense elements such as early warning and satellite tracking components (the so-called space sensor layer) that prospectively could have interceptor missiles to tackle both ballistic missiles and anti-satellite munitions. At the meeting, Donald Trump promised to start funding the space-based missile defense system as early as in 2020.

From the international legal point of view, this project is quite feasible because the 1967 Outer Space Treaty only bars states party to the treaty from placing weapons of mass destruction in Earth orbit, installing them on the Moon or any other celestial body, or otherwise stationing them in outer space. ABM elements do not fall under these restrictions. 

Further moves and Russia’s likely response

If today’s US space-based missile defense system is any threat to strategic stability and nuclear containment, the threat is purely theoretical, since prospects for implementing it are still highly doubtful. It may well suffer the fate of SDI or the Grand Forks IBM positioning area that was never completed. In addition, it is unclear how much this system will cost; Trump has mentioned no – even approximate – figures. What is certain is that the price tag will be in the billions of dollars. Such huge expenses should be substantiated. The suggested plans, specifically those that involve combat laser technology, raise questions as well. The US military had an experimental Boeing YAL-1 prototype with a combat laser intended to destroy ballistic missiles at the boost stage of a launch. In 2011, the program was recognized as unfeasible and suspended because the laser was not powerful enough and because the aircraft had to be constantly present in the direct vicinity of missile launch sites, which was difficult to achieve. Also, strategic offensive arms are designed with consideration for existing and even prospective missile defense systems. For example, the hypersonic maneuvering combat vehicle of Russia’s Avangard system can travel at a record speed of Mach 27 (30,000 km/h), which is physically beyond the reach of any interceptor missile, at least at this point. A technological breakthrough will be needed for future missile systems, otherwise they will be totally useless. 

To be sure, protecting territory and orbital satellite clusters is tempting for any country seeking military superiority. More likely than not, the US will try to implement this plan. 

Militarily, Russia is already in possession of a number of advanced hypersonic offensive weapons (incidentally, the USSR began developing this technology in response to the SDI) that can penetrate any missile defense system. 

But politically, it’s not so simple. The US administration’s reluctance to dovetail the development of missile defense systems with strategic offensive arms reductions, as demonstrated back during the negotiations on the New START Treaty, will complicate (or even rule out) talks on an instrument to replace the New START Treaty. Given America’s announcement on the withdrawal from the INF Treaty and the far from obvious prospects for extending the New START Treaty until 2026, the chances are high that there will be no effective Russian-American strategic offensive arms agreements by February 2021. The collapse of the Soviet/Russian-American strategic offensive arms control system may lead both to the realization of the need to have a new – already multilateral – system of agreements and to the likely discarding of the entire non-proliferation system based on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, it looks like Washington is as yet unaware of the disastrous consequences of its actions.


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