Over the past five years, missile threats have evolved far more rapidly than conventional wisdom had predicted. Best known is North Korea’s accelerated development and testing of sophisticated, road-mobile ballistic missiles. But the U.S. National Defense Strategy requires renewed focus on greater powers. China has adopted an anti-access strategy consisting of new offensive missiles, operational tactics and fortifications in the South China Sea. Russia, too, has developed highly maneuverable hypersonic missiles specifically designed to defeat today’s defenses.
Grappling with these sobering realities demands change. The 2019 Missile Defense Review called for a comprehensive approach to countering regional missiles of all kinds and from whatever source, as well as the increasingly complex intercontinental ballistic missiles from rogue states. But programs and budgets have not yet aligned with the policy. The upcoming defense budget submission presents an important opportunity to address these new and complex challenges.
The Missile Defense Agency’s current top three goals are sustaining the existing force, increasing capacity and capability, and addressing more advanced threats. The first two are necessary but insufficient. The third goal must be elevated to adapt U.S. missile defense efforts to the geopolitical and technological realities of our time.
For the last decade, less than 2 percent of MDA’s annual funding has been dedicated to developing advanced technology, during which time our adversaries have begun outpacing us. As President Donald Trump said last January, we “cannot simply build more of the same, or make incremental improvements.”
Adapting our missile defense architecture will require rebalance, discipline and difficult choices. Realigning resources to develop advanced technologies and operational concepts means investing less in single-purpose systems incapable against the broader threat. It also requires we accept and manage new kinds of risk. Indeed, meeting the advanced threat may, in the short term, require accepting some strategic risk with North Korea.
The beginning of this rebalance requires more distributed, elevated and survivable sensors capable of tracking advanced threats. The most important component here is a proliferated, globally persistent space layer in low-Earth orbit consisting of both passive and active sensors. MDA may be the missile defense-centric organization best suited to developing and integrating this capability into the architecture, but there is considerable opportunity for partnering with others to move out smartly, as recently urged by Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten. Partnerships with the Space Development Agency and the Air Force can be supplemented by collaborative efforts with commercial space companies.
We need not do this all at once. Space assets could be fielded in phases, with numbers, capability (sensors, interceptors, lasers), missions, and orbits evolving over time. MDA demonstrated a similar paradigm with the Delta experiments, Miniature Sensor Technology Integration series and the Near Field Infrared Experiment in the past.
Meanwhile, other sensors could alleviate the cost of building new, billion-dollar radar on islands in the Pacific Ocean — efforts which continue to suffer delay. Adding infrared tracking sensors to high-altitude drones, for instance, has already been demonstrated experimentally in the Indo-Pacific theater with modified Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles. These need not be dedicated assets. Sensor pod kits could be stored in theater to be deployed aboard Reapers or other platforms during heightened tensions.
We must revisit boost-phase defenses and directed energy. In 2010, the Airborne Laser program demonstrated that lasers could destroy missiles in the boost phase, but deploying toxic chemical lasers aboard large commercial aircraft was fiscally and operationally untenable. Fortunately, considerable operational promise exists with recently developed solid-state lasers (the cost of which is around $2 of electricity per shot). We must move these systems out of the laboratory and build and test operational prototypes.
Near-term actions to better manage risk against the rogue-state ballistic missile threat must not overtake the pursuit of these larger goals. Although the Pentagon is currently considering a 10-year, $12 billion program for a next-generation interceptor, nearer-term, cheaper options are available. Replacing each existing kill vehicle on the Ground-Based Interceptors with several smaller kill vehicles would multiply each interceptor’s effectiveness dramatically. The U.S. has been developing this technology since 2006, including a “hover” flight test in 2009. Affordable solutions like this must be found.
Missile defense cannot do it all. Denying, degrading and destroying enemy missile systems prior to launch must be part of the mix. But left-of-launch activities can be expensive and difficult, and reliance on a cyber magic wand carries risk, too. We need to broaden our approach to attack all parts of our adversary’s kill chain.
The National Defense Strategy urges that we contend with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be — or as it previously was. To meet the threats of today and tomorrow, we must radically transform our U.S. missile defenses. It falls to the 2021 budget to do so.
Richard Matlock is the owner and principal of Matlock Strategies for Technology Innovation. He recently retired from the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, where he served as the program executive for advanced technology. He’s also held positions within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Office of the Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Naval Sea Systems Command, the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, and the Air Force.