America is facing a decision point with regard to our national ballistic missile defense capability. Do we chose protection today, protection tomorrow, or try to cover both? We cannot afford to forget the future, nor can we go naked into the briar patch today. We have to adequately protect both. In this threat environment, we cannot have a gap in our defenses.
The Pentagon recently made a prudent decision to invest in our future protection. This decision can be seen as placing our proverbial missile defense eggs in one basket we called Next Generation Interceptor, or NGI. That project is on target to be combat-ready at the earliest by the year 2030. Alone, however, it is not sufficient.
The threats Americans face on the global stage are real and constantly changing, but one thing remains constant: The most likely threat to our assets abroad and in the homeland will depend on the use of short- and longer-range ballistic missiles.
Traditional foes like Russia and China are investing heavily in hypersonic weaponry. North Korea is just as volatile as it has ever been, and an evermore aggressive Iran keeps us all aware of just how precarious the situation is in the Middle East. The hatred motivating Iran and its numerous proxies led to them recently launching over a dozen missiles at bases in the Middle East.
No Americans were killed in the launch; however, many service members have been diagnosed with brain injuries. Analysis of the attacks show that Iran may not have been as “off” with its targeting as the low casualty count would indicate. Perhaps by providing advanced warning, Iran’s intention was not to kill Americans after all. We may have just been fortunate that they did not want to further provoke our ire. Regardless, the bottom line was that we lacked the missile defense to combat the Iranians and protect our assets.
America often takes inventory of what offensive capabilities our military has when tension rises across the globe. We proudly highlight the strength of our naval forces, the newest technology that can “reach out and touch” our adversaries, and have boots on the ground in anywhere in a moment’s notice. However, it is that reliance on offensive prowess that often causes us to gloss over defense assets we should have to truly protect the homeland.
Ballistic missile defense is a much-debated concept. Over the last 20 years, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency has invested significant financial, technological and infrastructure resources in developing the most sophisticated, layered and successful ballistic missile defense capability on the planet today. The U.S. homeland is defended by 44 Ground-Based Interceptors, which are based in Alaska and California. The West Coast is protected, but we do not have any GBI systems in place on our Eastern Seaboard, leaving major populations and major cities unprotected. This is a standing gap in our defenses.
The NGI leapfrogs warhead redesign programs that were killed by the Obama administration in 2009 and again by the Trump administration in 2019, favoring an entirely new system to an evolutionary update. In short, they gapped today to bet on the future.
This bet seems to be predicated on a threat environment that is dissociated from the real one discussed earlier. The defense community certainly hopes that the NGI is the answer we are looking for in the missile defense space, but a decade (to implement it) is a lifetime in the defense space.
That time lag for the NGI may be within research tolerance, but 10 years or more of homeland vulnerability is simply not acceptable. The Pentagon must continue to strengthen our current missile defense programs, equip the East Coast with the GBI technology, deploy more Aegis Ashore and arm them with proven missiles like the SM-3, and invest in other current technologies that keep us protected.
The race for better, faster and more deadly intercontinental ballistic missiles is our reality. It is due time that we invest that same vision and strength into our missile defense programs that protect us from the rising possibility of conflict targeting our homeland. That means betting on the future (NGI), and protecting the present with upgrades to GBI and East Coast coverage.
Steven P. Bucci is a visiting research fellow at The Heritage Foundation. He previously served as a U.S. Army Special Forces officer and is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense.