Rogue states are taking advantage of the American preoccupation with the COVID-19 pandemic.

North Korea may test another long-range missile according to the head of U.S. Northern Command, Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy. He warned Congress in March that the North Korean regime is still a serious threat and is improving its missile program. And last week, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard successfully launched a satellite into space. This was the first for the terrorist paramilitary group, though not the first for the regime.

The pandemic is likely to prompt Congress to reassess, cut and redirect spending, but safeguarding the American people from missile attack is an essential service the government cannot afford to scale back.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Rob Soofer said at a recent Hudson Institute event: “[T]oday we are in an advantageous position vis-a-vis North Korea. Forty-four ground-based interceptors. Gen. O’Shaughnessy has complete confidence that the system will work and we can address the threat. Then the question is: Can we wait until 2028?”

The Trump administration intends to deploy in 2028 the Next Generation Interceptor, or NGI, meant to handle far more complicated missile threats than what the Ground-based Midcourse Defense, or GMD, system was initially designed to do.

The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense air defense system is a natural candidate for the underlay, according to this commentary's author. (Leah Garton/U.S. Missile Defense Agency)
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense air defense system is a natural candidate for the underlay, according to this commentary's author. (Leah Garton/U.S. Missile Defense Agency)

Still, as Dr. Soofer explained, threats develop at an unpredictable pace, and so the Pentagon is pushing for initiatives to bolster defense in the meantime. Those initiatives will require serious bipartisan cooperation while concurrently developing the NGI and pursuing other advanced capabilities meant to dramatically increase the ability of the missile defense architecture. It’s a tall order, but critical, nonetheless.

First, and to be clear, the Pentagon has not yet embraced this step due to its determination to focus on NGI. But Congress should invest in more than just sustaining the current GMD system; it should improve it by adding 20 GBIs to the already fielded 44. The silos will be prepared for the additional numbers since, in 2017, President Donald Trump called for adding more deployed GBIs considering the heightened North Korea missile threat. The Pentagon began work on preparing for their delivery but never emplaced GBIs into those silos because Pentagon officials canceled the Redesigned Kill Vehicle.

The Pentagon had anticipated the Redesigned Kill Vehicle for the nation’s new GBIs. After evaluating the resources and time it would take to restart the production line of the Capability Enhancement II interceptors or to rapidly develop an improved kill vehicle that leverages new technology, the Pentagon should choose the most cost-effective solution.

Recall, the Capability Enhancement II was the kill vehicle that performed well in the last complex flight test, which was the first salvo engagement of a threat-representative intercontinental ballistic missile target by GBIs.

Regardless of the option the Pentagon would choose, the result would be a near-term enhanced capability by either increased capacity at a minimum, or an increased capacity with improved kill vehicles on 20 of the 64 at best. Either would be a much better scenario than keeping the backbone of homeland defenses stagnant while we anticipate the NGI in 2028.

But that is not all the country should do. It should also move forward with steps the Pentagon has embraced. Those steps include improving the discrimination radar capability in the next few years so GMD can better detect and characterize the evolving threat, and deploying other existing systems to bolster GMD. Utilizing current systems with impressive testing records against missiles shorter than ICBM range as part of a layered homeland defense is called the “underlay.”

As a key component of the underlay, Congress has directed the Pentagon to test the Aegis SM-3 IIA interceptor against an ICBM target. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, the Missile Defense Agency’s planned flight tests will be delayed, including for the SM-3 IIA. The threats facing the country will not wait for the end of the pandemic, and the Pentagon should reconsider that delay. As soon as the country can test the system, and if it is a success, it would be wise to prepare to deploy Aegis SM-3 IIA as the threat requires.

If there is an ICBM attack against the U.S. homeland, a GBI would have the first shot at the incoming missile while it’s in its midcourse phase of flight; and if an enemy missile gets through, and the Aegis SM-3 IIA is positioned correctly, it could have another shot at the missile as it begins its descent.

There has been some concern about whether Russia or China have legitimate claims that bolstering homeland defense in this way is destabilizing. But no evidence supports these claims, and, as Dr. Jim Miller, an Obama-era undersecretary of defense for policy, said at a recent Hudson event: “We cannot and must not give Russia or China a veto over the United States’ ability to defend ourselves from North Korea and Iran. That is an absolute no-go for any administration.”

Another system that is a natural candidate for the underlay is the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense air defense system. Embracing that concept as well, Dr. Miller said: “It makes sense for certain contexts. And if you’re looking at a shorter-range missile and a relatively small footprint of coverage, THAAD has a real chance to contribute in that. To me, that’s certainly the case for Guam and Hawaii.”

But what about cost? That’s the $10 billion question — a question that happens to be valued at more than the current president’s budget requires for the Missile Defense Agency. The budget request that Congress is currently considering for the MDA is roughly $9.2 billion, noticeably less than previous years, even as the role of missile defense is supposed to be expanding in the country’s National Security Strategy.

There is no margin for cutting the budget. Congress should rally around this mission and budget, and it should increase funding to sufficiently make these necessary improvements in the near term without paying for them by sacrificing investments like NGI for the not-so-distant future. It can do that without tipping the scale much more than $10 billion this year. That is eminently reasonable given the pressure every government department will feel after the sudden spending splurge due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rebeccah L. Heinrichs is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute where she specializes in nuclear deterrence and missile defense.