News broke last week that as part of a reorganization within the Department of Defense, the position of deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy was eliminated. The timing of the move is curious.
That’s because currently underway in Washington, DC, is a singularly critical governmental review of the United States’ ability to protect its territory and people from attack by a wide array of missiles. Dubbed the Missile Defense Review, this multi-faceted analysis is essentially a periodic review of the various missile threats to the nation, identification of necessary missile defense counter-capabilities, and then the development of a detailed plan to acquire the required systems to defeat those threats.
The last review was completed in 2017 so the current effort is as timely as it is important. Changes in the threat environment and the emergence of new technology and associated systems require the Defense Department to reevaluate and update its planning. And things have changed dramatically.
Missile Defense Reviews historically have focused on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles launched from rogue nations like North Korea and Iran. However, the threat environment in recent years has exploded with adversary capabilities. These include longer-range rocket boosters and highly sophisticated reentry vehicles on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, very long range, highly accurate stealth cruise missiles, and very recently, Russian and Chinese hypersonic missiles, against which we currently have no defense.
To address the “whole threat space” challenge Missile Defense Agency Director Vice Adm. Jon Hill has outlined, this Missile Defense Review must conduct a clear-headed, dispassionate, holistic analysis of all the current and emerging threats we face. The review must also identify those current technologies and programs of record available to defeat those threats and determine what additional technologies and capabilities are necessary to close any current or near-term gaps in our defenses.
One of those necessary additional capabilities that both the Defense Department and Missile Defense Agency have already clearly articulated is the Next Generation Interceptor program, a substantial upgrade to the country’s ballistic missile defense, and one that enjoys significant support both within the Defense Department and on the Hill.
United States Northern Command commander Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck has stated the Next Generation Interceptor “will continue to keep us on a successful path to maintain capacity to address the threat and also the capability. As [adversaries] develop capabilities such as decoys or balloons that may be challenging the system, the Next Generation Interceptor will give us that capability. I’m concerned that we must develop it and field it on time.”
Presumably to keep the program on budget, on time, and to limit technical risk, the House Armed Services Committee this month rightly encouraged the Defense Department to maintain competition for the program through, at a minimum, the critical design reviews and to uphold “fly before you buy” principles. These firm and necessary statements indicate near unanimity within the government regarding not just homeland missile defense, but the wider Missile Defense Review. Admiral Hill has declared that this year’s review “will be firmly based on defending against emerging threats,” as well it should be.
However, an emerging threat that must be squarely upon Admiral Hill’s radar is that of purely partisan, preconceived policy agendas, that have no basis in reality. This maneuvering simply serves to assuage one political constituency or adhere to one political catechism, attempting to determine the outcome of the review. It is, therefore, a potentially unwelcome development that the deputy assistant secretary of defense previously charged with leading the Missile Defense Review finds her position eliminated. While the motivation for such a reorganization remains unclear, one must hope that the Biden Administration is installing an appointee to manage the Missile Defense Review who fully understands the criticality of the homeland defense mission.
Some have suggested that missile defense for the nation be traded away to Russia or China in exchange for something, real or imagined. The defense of the American homeland is not a bargaining chip to be wagered in negotiations with our strategic adversaries. It is, instead, a sacred duty to the American people, entrusted to the federal government by our constitution.
There is currently widespread bipartisan support within the congress for a purposeful and effective Missile Defense Review. The appropriate congressional oversight committees should, therefore, ensure that partisan politics do not derail the review from accomplishing its mission and guarantee the final document delivers a fact-based and threat-based conclusion, free of long-held political bias.
Retired Maj. Gen. Howard “Dallas” Thompson is a former chief of staff for NORAD/NORTHCOM and a former Air Force fighter pilot.