The U.S. Defense Department has approved the Next Generation Interceptor project to proceed. This is a welcome signal that the Biden administration intends to counter North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, strengthen U.S. alliances by increasing the credibility of our security commitments, and seek common ground with Republicans on controversial missile defense policy.
The NGI is a ground-based interceptor missile designed to protect the United States homeland from North Korean and potential Iranian long-range ballistic missiles, and represents an evolutionary upgrade from the ground-based interceptors initially deployed in 2004 in Alaska and California.
To address the emerging long-range missile threat from rogue nations, the Bush administration installed 30 Ground-Based Interceptors, or GBI, by the end of its second term. The Obama administration, reacting to the steadily maturing North Korean missile and nuclear threat, emplaced an additional 14 GBIs by 2017. The Trump administration then directed an additional 20 interceptors to be deployed by the mid- to late 2020s, bringing the total to 64.
Maintaining an “advantageous homeland defense posture against limited ballistic missile threats,” as noted by the 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review, has been the guiding principle of U.S. missile defense policy across Republican and Democratic administrations since the end of the Cold War. Protection of the homeland against limited ballistic missile attack by regional actors such as North Korea and Iran has been a goal shared by Congress as well.
To stay ahead of a North Korean threat to the homeland that was expected to grow in number and technological sophistication (as well as a potential intercontinental ballistic missile threat posed by Iran), the Obama administration sought to enhance the system performance of the GBI through the Redesigned Kill Vehicle program — essentially a modernized kill vehicle for the existing GBI that could reduce the number of shots taken against a given threat.
Building on the RKV program, and again taking into account the estimated threat, the Trump administration altered the acquisition approach to include a fully modernized interceptor: both rocket and kill vehicle.
After reviewing the NGI program for about a month, Defense Department officials seem to concur with the modernization approach recommended by the previous administration, clearing the way for the Missile Defense Agency to award two contracts and seek funding from Congress in the forthcoming presidential budget request for fiscal 2022.
The decision to proceed sends a strong message to potential adversaries, such as North Korea, that the United States will take additional steps to maintain an advantageous position against nuclear and ballistic missile threats — and that defending against the threat of limited ballistic missile attack remains a top priority.
Proceeding with NGI reinforces President Joe Biden’s “push to revitalize our ties with friends and partners,” as stated by the secretaries of defense and state upon their recent visit to Japan and South Korea. An important element of renewing alliances is convincing our allies that the United States is prepared to run risks on their behalf. Strengthening U.S. homeland missile defenses provides that confidence by reducing our own vulnerability to North Korean reprisals. After all, why would our allies expect us to come to their defense if we are not first willing to provide for our own defense?
China and Russia are likely to make a fuss, as they always do, but this belies ongoing Russian and Chinese missile defense programs. Russia deploys 68 nuclear-tipped ground-based interceptors compared to our own 44 non-nuclear GBIs. President Vladimir Putin, too, has said that U.S. missile defenses won’t be able to stop Russian missiles.
Russia will also claim that U.S. missile defense modernization is an obstacle to nuclear arms control. But history suggests otherwise. Even though the United States has been pursuing missile defenses for decades, and withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (which curtailed deployment of homeland missile defenses) in 2002, Russia and the United States have together drawn down their nuclear forces from 6,000 deployed warheads allowed in the 1991 START pact to 1,550 allowed under the 2010 New START agreement. Missile defense and arms control are not incompatible.
Homeland missile defense has been a divisive issue in Congress, stretching back to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and amplified by President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative. Yet today, Republicans and Democrats agree on protection for the homeland against nuclear missile threats from North Korea and potentially Iran, even while relying on our nuclear forces to deter much larger Russian and Chinese nuclear threats.
Ensuring that we remain ahead of rogue adversary missile threats to the homeland has been the shared goal and priority of Republican and Democratic administrations since the end of the Cold War. Moving forward with NGI signals that the Biden administration endorses this goal and seeks common ground with Congress on missile defense policy.
Robert Soofer is a nonresident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy at the Pentagon from 2017 to 2021.