WASHINGTON — The Pentagon could be poised to spend $176 billion over 10 years if it carries out plans informed by the Missile Defense Review published in 2019, which is roughly 40 percent higher than previous budget projections made by the agency that provides budget information to Congress.
The Congressional Budget Office released a report Jan. 14, as required by the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, that attempts to estimate the 10-year costs of implementing recommendations in the MDR.
The CBO forecast the costs from 2020 through 2029, using the FY20 budget submission — which likely contains elements found in the MDR — to formulate its estimate. The forecast is 40 percent higher (or $50 billion more) than the 2017 budget submission estimations covering 2017 through 2026.
CBO compared the two because 2017 was likely the last budget submission before the MDR influenced funding decisions and program plans, according to the report.
The agency cautions that its estimate comes “with substantial uncertainty because of uncertainty in some missile defense plans and in the future quantity and capabilities of adversaries’ missile fleets, which could affect those defense plans.”
Additionally, the MDR still left many unanswered questions requiring additional studies, some of which have not been disclosed or remain incomplete.
And while the Trump administration conducted the MDR, a new administration under President-elect Joe Biden, who will take office Jan. 20, is likely to take an entirely fresh look at a missile defense strategy.
To make formulating an estimate even more difficult, the FY20 budget did not contain some recommendations proposed in the MDR, so CBO estimated the costs of the recommendations even though there is not yet a budget for some elements.
Systems under review
The review identified two systems that should be expanded if threat conditions dictate investment: expanding the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system, or GMD, at Fort Greely, Alaska, to “as many as” 100 interceptors over the planned 60; and a new GMD site, possibly on the East Coast of the United States.
CBO estimated that adding 40 more silos at Fort Greely would cost $5 billion.
The agency did not include estimates of the cost of using Next Generation Interceptors, should they be chosen to fill additional silos. The NGI program has yet to choose two competitors to develop a new interceptor to replace what is currently in the ground (the program to redesign the kill vehicle on the current interceptor was canceled).
A second GMD site with 20 interceptor silos would cost $4 billion to build and $80 million a year to operate. The Missile Defense Agency has repeatedly said the GMD site in Alaska is sufficient to address current and emerging intercontinental ballistic missiles from North Korea and Iran.
The MDR also directed three studies for possible expansion of current systems, and CBO estimated the costs if those were also implemented. The MDR wanted to look at the possibility of increasing the number of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense batteries. The MDA has had a long-standing requirement of nine batteries, but up until the FY21 appropriations bill, only seven received funding. Lawmakers have now included funding to procure an eighth battery.
CBO estimated an additional battery would cost about $800 million to buy and $30 million per year to operate.
The review also directed a study to make all Aegis destroyers fully capable of providing ballistic missile defense.
“Provided that current shipyard capacity was adequate to install necessary upgrades,” CBO wrote, “all 94 Aegis ships available in 2029 could be BMD-capable without any additional cost beyond what is already included in CBO’s projection.”
But new costs could be added to that total if the Pentagon decides to buy more missile defense interceptors to outfit ships over the current plan, the report noted.
The review also wanted to take a look at a plan to make the Aegis Ashore test facility at the Pacific Missile Range Facility operational within 30 days if a directive was issued. CBO estimated that no investment costs would be required to make Aegis Ashore in Hawaii operational.
CBO also made cost estimates for new systems and capabilities that could come about if studies directed by the MDR conclude there’s a need.
The agency was unable to estimate the cost of incorporating F-35 fighter jet sensors into missile defense, developing a new satellite constellation to track ballistic and hypersonic missile threats, and developing defenses against hypersonic missiles because not enough information was available.
The Missile Defense Agency and the new Space Development Agency are researching missile-tracking capabilities using a constellation of small satellites in low Earth orbit. “Neither of those development programs is sufficiently detailed to allow CBO to estimate the costs,” the report stated.
But CBO was able to estimate the cost of possibly using interceptors on F-35 fighter aircraft for boost-phase missile defense and also the cost for space-based ballistic missile interceptors.
While CBO concluded that using F-35s for boost-phase missile defense in peacetime was likely impossible against large- or medium-sized countries, it said that could be possible against a smaller adversary like North Korea.
Regardless, the agency determined the cost would be roughly $15-20 billion to establish such capability by developing two types of airborne interceptors, producing 350 of each and integrating them onto the aircraft.
CBO concluded that maintaining peacetime defense using the F-35 for this purpose would require 30-60 aircraft on station at all times, and the cost to operate would be “substantial.”
The agency said to defend against North Korea would cost $25-40 billion, plus an additional $10-20 billion a year to operate.
Yet “costs would be lower if [the Department of Defense] did not have to purchase new F-35s for the mission and operating costs could be substantially lower if it used a less sophisticated, lower-cost aircraft for the mission,” CBO stated.
While space-based interceptors do not appear to be on the table as part of a future architecture, CBO estimated that, should the capability be pursued, it would cost roughly $50-400 billion over 20 years.
CBO used a study commissioned by the MDA in 2011 that looked at a constellation of 24 satellites that would provide limited capability and a constellation of 960 satellites that was considered more complete. MDA looked at something similar in 2004 as well.
Other considerations that might alter the estimate are potentially lower costs to build and launch satellites, which could bring the estimate down by 20-30 percent, CBO found.
Congress, in its FY21 spending bill last month, has already injected $1.3 billion into the Missile Defense Agency’s budget, citing a disconnect between the agency’s request and what it would need to meet National Defense Strategy goals.
The FY21 MDA budget request for $9.13 billion is a decrease of $1.27 billion over the previous year’s enacted top line. Meanwhile, the MDA submitted a list of unfunded requirements to Congress that totaled almost $1 billion.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for nearly a decade. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.