March 1, 2009  

Failure to launch

The first causality in the fiscal 2010 budget could be the U.S. missile defense program. Before shutting the door on missile defense funding, the new administration needs to consider three important mandates.

Ballistic missile defense is a much-discussed, yet largely misunderstood military asset and strategy. While critics question the feasibility of the technology and whether the U.S. needs a ballistic missile defense system (BMDS), the fact of the matter is that security of the U.S. and its allies without a BMDS is unthinkable. Its far-reaching defense and deterrence possibilities make it an unprecedented and irreplaceable force in the U.S. arsenal.

During the Cold War, we voluntarily made ourselves vulnerable to ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads in the name of mutually assured destruction. The idea that no rational decision-maker would launch a nuclear strike if they knew they would be destroyed in response was widely accepted. It was a powerful deterrent strategy that resonated well with the American people and our adversary the Soviet Union, albeit in a very somber way.

As we face the second decade of the post-Cold War era, we have to face the prospect that some of our new adversaries, such as North Korea and Iran, do not see nuclear war as unthinkable and for whom the prospect of massive retaliation and destruction is not likely to be a sufficient deterrent. Under these conditions, we have to consider a more flexible strategy that now includes an active defense against nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. We need to reintroduce and celebrate a strategic active defense into our military and national cultures. We have taken the vital first steps in that direction via the systems we have deployed today and those planned for the coming years. The question is, will they be there in the future?

Despite the onslaught of defense challenges facing the new administration, the nation cannot afford to let missile defense atrophy during the fiscal 2010 budget negotiations.

President Barack Obama and the Defense Department should consider these three structural mandates for the future of missile defense:

Predictable, steady funding. The funding for missile defense needs to be set at a steady $10 billion per year. This level of funding will assure continued progress in developing our missile defense capabilities at a pace that would take advantage of our rapid progress in key technologies. Declaring victory and cutting the budget will introduce a huge risk into our security posture worldwide. Underfunding the program would only serve to make us more vulnerable to our most aggressive adversaries.

There are still several core capabilities that need to be further developed and tested. This funding level also ensures BMDS continues with the maintenance and sustainment of current capabilities; the closing of security gaps; and the implementation of new technologies to avoid technological gaps that could imperil security.

A separate, effective acquisition system. The Missile Defense Agency does not use a traditional acquisition system similar to other weapons systems; nor should it. Rather than take the advice of the bureaucracy and put the MDA back into the department’s normal acquisition system in the name of “good governance,” as many in Congress have suggested, the new administration should celebrate the success the MDA has had using its current authorities and take action to make it even more successful outside the traditional bureaucracy. The flexibility of its acquisition system has resulted in the unprecedented and rapid deployment of a stream of technologies. Reorganizing it back into the traditional system would result in delays, cost overruns and a general lack of innovation because of contracting constraints. Our new leaders should ask a fundamental question — just what program or governance process in the department’s “normal” acquisition system should MDA emulate as a model for success? In reading the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports, they’d be hard-pressed to find a program or governance process as successful as MDA.

Expansion into space. Finally, the missile defense program needs to be expanded into space. In addition to critical space-based sensors, we need now to develop “hit to kill” space interceptors to expand our capability to layer our defenses on a global scale. Global defense cannot be assured without the ability to use space as an arsenal of nonexplosive, non-nuclear defensive interceptors that would complicate our adversaries’ ability to launch a successful attack. If the new administration decides that our deployment of interceptors and radars to Poland and the Czech Republic after long and tortuous negotiations is not useful, then we have to turn to space in a unilateral way to assure we can get the job done.

We have proven our “hit to kill” technology terrestrially. Now is the time to build on that with orbit capability and by building a test bed that can be experimented with over the next few years. Space is the new technological frontier for missile defense, and the sooner we get there, the better. Most assuredly, there will be a huge outcry by the critics — weaponizing space will be the charge. But our adversaries have already weaponized space by using ballistic missiles in this medium and threatening to use offensive nuclear weapons on those missiles to threaten us. A non-nuclear, nonexplosive space-based defense is an appropriate and proportional response to this threat.

Tough responses to threats

Ballistic missile defense funding needs to continue at a predictable, steady state of $10 billion per year. A cut in the budget would be the equivalent of the U.S. and its allies ceding our vulnerability to threats of North Korea and Iran. An underfunded program bleakly limits our ability to deter and defeat direct ballistic missile attacks from hostile enemies, bringing the threat to our shores and opening the door for aggressive action against our allies. It also hinders the research and development of new and better technologies, allowing our adversaries to outpace our efforts.

To gain a better understanding on the negative implications of limited funding, it’s important to take note of what funding has meant to this program historically.

Before 2002, the missile defense program had been severely underfunded. The budget directly following the first Persian Gulf War marked a decline in spending that continued throughout the presidency of Bill Clinton. Political wrangling with Russia around the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty, combined with questions around the feasibility of missile defense technology — a skepticism that was largely the product of an insufficient budget to develop and test the technology — meant that missile defense was seen more as a “nice-to-have” than a “must-have.”

Fast forward to today. Steady and increased funding have yielded unmatched results. As the world watched in trepidation, a Navy warship at sea successfully shot down a falling satellite in February 2008, a feat impossible 10 years ago. This achievement, akin to shooting a bullet with a bullet, is one of many successes for the MDA because of the steady stream of funding to develop the technology. Although not designed for this task, the feat shows how rapidly we could adapt the technology to a similar problem, and that the technology works despite the critics’ charge that the system is untested and the technology unreliable.

Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, director of MDA, noted during his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, “Since February 2007, MDA and the military services have executed a successful long-range ground-based intercept, six sea-based intercepts of separating and unitary targets, and two THAAD [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense] intercepts on unitary targets.”

The world responds

U.S. achievements haven’t gone unnoticed, and the meaning behind the program’s monumental jumps is reflected in the hard-line stance of the only nation that still harbors visions of the Cold War — Russia.

In a situation parallel to what Clinton faced in the 1990s, Russia has jumped to the forefront of vocal opponents to the U.S.’s missile defense plans to site interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia’s heated public rhetoric and aggressive behavior toward its neighbors who work with the U.S. is puzzling, but must be taken in stride with the best interests of the U.S.

The “chicken or egg” debate on whether the military’s plans for a ballistic missile defense shield causes countries to develop ballistic missiles or vice versa is outdated. This cause-and-effect argument is severely degraded by the facts — our adversaries are pursuing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons despite our actions, not because of them. It is the only way they believe they can deter us. If we stop, we become more vulnerable, encouraging even more proliferation of these dangerous weapons.

Despite our best efforts to stop them, countries that are at odds with the U.S. government and its allies have developed ballistic missiles and continue to improve upon their programs. North Korea and Iran have deployable short- and medium-range missiles, and it is speculated that they have plans to develop more long-range versions of these missiles.

“In fact, there were over 120 foreign ballistic missiles launches in 2007, significantly exceeding what we observed in previous years,” Obering said during his Senate testimony. “This comes on the heels of a very active 2006, during which time both North Korea and Iran demonstrated an ability to orchestrate campaigns involving multiple and simultaneous launches using missiles of different ranges.”

The U.S. cannot afford to fall behind our adversaries in missile defense.

Countries currently developing ballistic missiles are not going to end their programs. A ballistic missile program is a building block of a country’s deterrence and defense strategy. Unpredictable and nominal funding would directly impact the program’s research, development and test abilities, and could put the nation at risk of a ballistic missile strike.

More importantly, if we scale back or stop our effort in missile defense, we will limit our president’s options to retaliation or to pre-emption — missile defense increases our leadership’s strategic flexibility in an unprecedented way.

Acquiring the future

Unlike most other weapons systems programs, MDA uses a very effective acquisition strategy, called capability-based acquisition and “knowledge points,” which enables the agency to simultaneously operate and develop new technologies. Based on the successes of programs over the last eight years, MDA must be allowed to continue the course with this acquisition strategy and should not be reorganized back into the traditional system used by other weapons procurements.

Since January 2002, the capability-based acquisition strategy has provided the agency with the flexibility to rapidly deliver technologies to the warfighter by focusing on a wide range of capabilities, not just a platform.

The transparency of this approach has been debated by Congress mainly because of the flexibility of the strategy — it makes oversight and accountability difficult to determine program outcomes and cost, as cited in a February 2008 GAO report. However, the traditional acquisition system is not designed to handle unprecedented technology development and has been roundly criticized as ineffective. Putting MDA back into this system will only destroy the progress we have made. It is tantamount to making a deliberate decision to gut the program.

The integrated architecture framework of BMDS allows for the improvement of capabilities incrementally as funding and requirements change, helping the technologies evolve along with the environment. Rather than create a weapons system for a specific threat, which can change during the long, drawn-out acquisition process, the approach factors in technological and warfighter needs balanced with current and emerging threats.

The ability to innovate in real time flies in the face of the traditional acquisition system, where changes to program requirements can cause lengthy delays in getting the right technology to the battlefield.

A reorganization of MDA back into the broken acquisition system would cripple the missile defense program and doom us to being vulnerable to dangerous regimes pursing the only capability we have decided not to defend ourselves against — nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. It leaves us only two options: massive retaliation after the fact or pre-emption. The national debate should be about the alternatives, not about decimating missile defense based on the notion that it isn’t tested sufficiently or that it is the wrong solution because of an outdated notion of deterrence.

Until the Defense Department standard acquisition system is updated for programs whose success is based on incorporating rapidly developing technology, the MDA must continue using the current capability-based acquisition system.

Space mode

A layered BMDS that incorporates space-based interceptors would greatly enhance our global defenses. Now that we have proven the hit to kill technology terrestrially, we can develop the capability in the space-based mode.

While today’s BMDS uses ground- and sea-based assets, without the addition of a space-based detection and tracking system and intercept capability, global layered defense is not as effective as it could be. A space-based system would provide the persistent global identification and tracking capacity needed for early warning detection of missile launches and a real alternative to massive retaliation or preemption.

MDA is testing such a program with the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS), a series of low-orbiting infrared satellites to detect, identify and track ballistic missiles from launch to landing, but without the predictable funding stream and support of the new administration, this security capacity will never be realized.

In turn, the U.S. needs to be able to take action against a ballistic missile once a launch is detected. Current systems being fielded and developed, such as THAAD, Patriot-3 and Aegis, focus on two of the three phases of flight, the midcourse and terminal stages, but it is during the boost stage in which complex and deadly attack systems are dispersed.

Boost stage termination eliminates multiple re-entry vehicles carrying weapons, countermeasures and submunitions. Detection and elimination at that early stage is the most daunting stage to acquire successfully because the curvature of the earth poses termination challenges. A tracking system like STSS eliminates the challenges posed by the earth’s curvature, making a direct hit more probable. Interceptors based in space gives us great flexibility and control as another key element of a layered, global defense systems.

As we mark the anniversary of President Reagan’s infamous “Star Wars” speech advocating the creation of a defensive ballistic missile program, it is important that we continue forward with his main intent: to protect the U.S. against ballistic missile attacks.

Unfortunately, many critics still see this as a partisan issue of the Cold War era. The truth is that the new administration must see ballistic missile defense as an essential element of U.S. security in the environment of the new century, and it needs to pursue the three key mandates: funding missile defense at a steady state of $10 billion per year; maintaining a separate acquisition system for missile defense; and expanding BMDS into space.

We need to accelerate our missile defense capabilities, not diminish them. This approach will provide a new strategic framework for the security environment we face. If the critics and ideologues succeed we will be left with only two options: massive retaliation and its consequences against adversaries such as North Korea and Iran, or pre-emption with massive force. If the new administration didn’t like the world reaction to our posture after Sept. 11, massive retaliation or pre-emption against North Korea or Iran would evoke criticism on a wholly different level. Missile defense gives us more options because it is a viable defensive strategy that augments our other strategic advantages. AFJ

Ronald T. Kadish is a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, specializing in the company’s work for the Air Force, Defense Department and industrial clients. He was director of the Missile Defense Agency from 2000 to 2005.