Commentary

It’s time to get homeland missile defense right

Restoring our eroding edge when it comes to military technology won’t be easy or cheap. As Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has emphasized, the United States must invest in “innovative concept development, advanced technology and new capabilities.”

One smart investment that meets these criteria within the missile defense arena is the Next Generation Interceptor, or NGI, for which the Pentagon intends to award first contracts in the next few months.

The stringent briefing and notification requirements for NGI included in the language of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act reflect the importance that Congress ascribes to this program. NGI makes a distinct break with past efforts on homeland missile defense by favoring long-term engineering rigor over short-term, off-the-shelf solutions. It also prioritizes capability over capacity to develop a truly advanced interceptor.

When the United States first deployed our current Ground-based Interceptors, or GBI, they were developed in haste. The rogue nuclear missile threat had become apparent, prompting President George W. Bush in 2002 to order the development of a homeland defense system “at the earliest possible date.” They were fielded by 2004.

Building interceptors so quickly required resourcefulness. The resulting interceptor included commercial off-the-shelf rocket stages and a separately manufactured kill vehicle. This Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, or EKV, was developed from a model originally tested in the 1990s. No wonder it resembled more an advanced prototype than a finely engineered product.

Instead of making capability improvements to our interceptors over time, the Pentagon has repeatedly opted to just buy more of the same — growing from only eight GBIs in 2004 to 44 at present.

For example, in 2009, the Obama administration canceled the Multiple Kill Vehicle program designed to make our interceptors more lethal. When faced with unexpected threat developments in 2013, the Obama administration then had to act quickly to activate its “hedge,” fielding 14 additional GBIs.

The Pentagon in 2016 initiated the Redesigned Kill Vehicle, or RKV, program to replace the existing kill vehicles — which face issues from aging — with a more reliable, manufacturable and cheaper kill vehicle. These new kill vehicles would have been put aboard the 20 new GBIs planned by the Trump administration in 2017, which would have grown the fleet to 64 interceptors.

These plans were upset, however, by the cancellation of the RKV in 2019 due to technical concerns. As a result, the United States is left without an easy way to build new interceptors to add capacity to the system or to replace aging EKVs.

Meanwhile, the threat from North Korea has become significantly more advanced. The rogue nation already had long-range missiles that can reach the entirety of the United States, but the missiles displayed at a Pyongyang parade earlier this fall indicated even further advanced capabilities. One particularly large missile appeared capable of carrying three or four warheads or decoys to defeat our missile defenses.

North Korea unveils new weapons at parade

Given these trends, today’s GBIs will eventually no longer suffice against the challenges posed by North Korea’s increasingly sophisticated missiles. It’s time for a new approach, one that takes seriously the need for dramatic capability improvement.

Developing a next-generation capability will cost about $5 billion over five years — and will not be fielded until 2028. Nevertheless, given the expected payoff from the added capability we expect to get from NGI against the rising North Korean threat, it will be worth it.

While few of its requirements are public, NGI would reportedly include multiple kill vehicles, meaning that a single NGI can intercept multiple warheads. NGI is also being designed as a single system, an “all-up round” specifically tailored to the missile defense mission, rather than one that employs parts originally designed for other missions, as was done to build today’s GBIs.

Rigorous engineering and a careful acquisition strategy will be critical here. To achieve the greatest capability and value, the Missile Defense Agency plans to fund two alternative designs through preliminary design review and possibly through critical design review. In contrast with the swift effort to build the initial GBIs, this method will help drive down technical risks.

NGI represents a big undertaking; it will require patience. But unlike the situation facing the Bush and Obama administrations in 2002 and 2013, respectively, several developments allow us to safely pursue this longer-term path.

First, a different “hedge” has emerged. Last month’s successful intercept by the Standard Missile-3 Block IIA interceptor against a long-range target opens the possibility of using it as a second layer of homeland defense. In particular, the Navy can deploy ships armed with these interceptors in the event of brewing North Korean tensions as additional protection.

Another way to buy time is the ongoing effort to improve and extend the service lives of the current GBIs, some of which were first fielded 16 years ago. Last year, Congress appropriated $485 million to sustain and improve the reliability of the current fleet. The Senate Appropriations Committee recently recommended an additional $250 million for these efforts for 2021. These critical upgrades will enable the current fleet to continue its mission until it can be replaced by NGI.

Finally, the United States continues to invest in sophisticated ways to defeat missiles even prior to launch. Should North Korea decide to attack the United States, active missile defense is not our only means to contend with the threat.

The path toward NGI breaks sharply with the incremental and capacity-based approaches of the past. With new hedges in place, however, this break is warranted. It’s time to push forward with an interceptor that not merely paces but overtakes the advancing ballistic missile threat from rogue states. To realize a new generation of missile defense capabilities, this is a bet worth making.

Patty-Jane Geller is a policy analyst specializing in nuclear deterrence and missile defense at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. The Heritage Foundation takes no funding from any government. It does take donations from corporate entities, which average about 4 percent of their total funding in any given year. The think tank reports it does not take a position based on donations, nor do donors have editorial input.

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