WASHINGTON — When the Missile Defense Review was rolled out Jan. 17, it represented the culmination of almost two years’ worth of work.

So some experts were left scratching their head when they opened up the document and found a significant number of items that still need reviewed or hashed out, the majority of which involve a six-month study period.

“I was surprised that the MDR was not more decisive on some of these issues considering how long they worked on it and that Congress asked specifically for this document to address them,” said Laura Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “I would have expected the Pentagon to do this analysis first and use it to inform U.S. strategy and prioritize these different missions.”

All told, the review — expected by some to be a definitive layout of America’s direction in missile defense — calls for 11 different follow-ups to be completed within six months. They are:

  • Designating a service or defense agency with acquisition authority — by using the existing requirements-generation process — to find ways to defend the homeland against offensive cruise missiles.
  • The Army, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Missile Defense Agency will prepare a report that assesses the number of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery requirements needed to support worldwide deployments.
  • The Navy and MDA must deliver a report on how the entire fleet of Aegis destroyers can be converted to become fully capable against incoming missiles, including ballistic missiles, within 10 years. 
  • MDA and Northern Command must prepare a plan to “accelerate efforts to enhance missile defense tracking and discrimination sensors, to include addressing advanced missile threats,” particularly focused on the homeland.
  • The Air Force and MDA are on the hook for a joint report on how best to integrate the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, including its sensor suite, into America’s missile defense networks for both regional and homeland defense. The MDR posits that the F-35 could eventually be used to take out ballistic missiles during their boost phase, which experts have said is unlikely to be technically feasible
  • The Department of Defense is looking at the potential to operationalize the Aegis Ashore Missile Defense Test Center location in Hawaii into a full-up missile defense site to counter potential missile launches from North Korea. MDA and the Navy will evaluate the option and develop a plan that could operationalize the location within 30 days, if needed. 
  • MDA will study development and fielding of a space-based missile intercept layer capable of boost-phase defense, including the most promising technologies, estimated schedules, cost and personnel requirements.
  • A big point of emphasis from officials talking about the MDR is that they believe the acquisition and development of new technologies can and will go faster. To that end, the review calls for reviews of the current Warfighter Involvement Process, which determines missile defense requirements, in order to make sure commanders who will use the systems are involved early in the process of developing the systems and requirements. 
  • While the Pentagon divides the world into regional areas of responsibility, the nations capable of threatening American assets or allies with missiles do not necessarily. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs as well as the head of U.S. Strategic Command are therefore ordered to come up with a plan for “optimal roles, responsibilities, and authorities for achieving greater transregional missile defense integration.”
  • Another requirement from the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act is for the designation of an office with acquisition authority specific to pre-launch attack operations — that is, someone who leads procurement of new technologies designed to destroy an enemy missile before it can take off. That agency must be identified within six months; after that happens, a larger review will begin to examine roles and responsibilities for updating operational doctrine in terms of left-of-launch strikes. 
  • And for a change of pace, the Pentagon will have nine months to research improvements for timely warnings on hypersonic and advanced cruise missiles launched at the U.S. homeland. At the completion of the study, the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation will initiate an analysis of alternatives for materiel solutions to provide early warning and attack assessment against these advanced threats, and their integration into the nuclear command-and-control architecture.

Asked why the six-month studies were necessary after the length of the review, John Rood, undersecretary of defense for policy, said the issue isn’t seeing if the technology is viable, but rather “the application of that technology to a specific mission, consistent with the vision put forward from the Missile Defense Review.”

“When you’re dealing with large organizations that are composed of a series of other large organizations, coordinating the efforts of the team, if you will, around objectives, and getting them to work together to do those examinations is a substantial part of” the challenge, he added.

Delays on decisions

The decision to insert these reviews into a document that spent this long in the oven may be a sign there are internal disagreements within the building, but that planners did not want to hold up the document any longer, said Tom Karako, a missile defense expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Kingston Reif, an expert with the Arms Control Association, agrees the additional requirements are likely a sign of disagreement within the building. He pointed to the Nuclear Posture Review, which called for two new nuclear weapon designs, as a comparison.

“One would think that the review process could have led to a determination on the required number of THAAD batteries. And MDA and the Navy have been talking about operationalizing the Aegis Ashore test site for at least a couple years, and I believe Congress mandated a study of doing so,” Reif noted. “That this Pentagon is punting on space-based interceptors goes to show how rightly controversial they are. DoD had a year to study this and couldn’t come to an agreement on whether to proceed.”

Both Reif and Grego consider the call for six months more of studies on space-based interceptors as odd, given the decades of studies that have gone into that particular technology. Grego cited a National Academies study from 2012 that concluded such a technology would require hundreds of billions of dollars.

“While space launch might get a little cheaper and some components get a little lighter, it doesn’t change the basic fact that space-based missile defense would be enormously expensive and wouldn’t provide an effective defense,” Grego said. “Another study is not going to change that reality. It’s really time to close the door on that idea and move on.”

Rebeccah Heinrichs, an analyst with the Hudson Institute, also downplayed the chances of new findings in these studies, but for a different reason.

“The MDR and the budget are going to be more significant than any of the other reports that come out, and a lot of this information exists already — it’s just a matter of getting it in the right format and getting it cleared and up to Congress,” she said. “It’s not like they need to sit down and figure out how many THAAD batteries they need. Someone already knows the answer to that question.”

Still, Karako argues that the need for more studies “raises the question to what extent any of these things will have programming in the 2020 budget,” which could be a problem down the road.

“This will be the Trump administration’s third budget. For those things that are most pressing, like the space sensor layer or counter-hypersonic capabilities, we better hope that they appear in the ‘20 budget,” he said. “Because ‘21 is an eternity away in terms of politics and everything else.”

That reality appears to have set in for the men in charge of guiding the MDR forward. Michael Griffin, the Pentagon’s undersecretary for research and engineering, put it bluntly while rolling out the review:

“Those of us at a high level in the department are really here only for a limited period of time, and we want to see some action. So stay tuned.”

Updated 1/28/19 to clarify Karako’s comment on the number of Trump administration budgets.

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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