09 February 2019

The American Missile Defence Review- a hasty reaction?

Mircea Mocanu

Image source: Mediafax

On 17th of January 2019, Trump’s Administration published the Missile Defense Review (MDR). Regarding this document, long awaited and delayed, yet forcefully promoted by President Donald Trump when launched, Washington Examiner analysts highlight nine aspects of interest, listed below. How are these changing the global security realities?

  1. D. Trump’s rhetoric swells beyond the content of the new strategy. Meanwhile the President enthusiastically presented the new strategy as a miracle of the modern warfare, the document itself is just realistic in estimating the threat and the new technologies development calendar.

The chief of the American executive stated that “Our goal is simple: to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States anywhere, anytime, anyplace… We will terminate any missile launches from hostile powers, or even from powers that make a mistake. It won't happen, regardless of the missile type or geographic origins of the attack.”.  Regarding threats, MDR shows that “there are more than twenty countries having ballistic capacities”, meanwhile the critics of the document argue that only three of them matter, Russia, China and North Korea. However, President Trump stated that “We are committed to establishing a missile defense program that can shield every city in the United States. And we will never negotiate away our right to do this.”

Precisely, Donald Trump promised that the US will “detect and destroy any type of missile attack against any American target, whether before or after launch”, which means that any country could be the target of a preemptive strike. However, the document says clearly that “the United State relies on deterrence to protect against large and technically sophisticated Russian and Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles threats”. Therewith, it is estimated that, strictly regarding the quantity, Russia, as well as China, have enough intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) to overwhelm the American anti-missile defense.

  1. Sensors will be placed in space, not lasers. On this topic as well, the presidential rhetoric soars the ambition level assumed in the written document: according to D. Trump, “we will make sure that the enemy missiles find no sanctuary on Earth or in the skies above”, which could mean that the option of placing weapons in space, which goes against the Outer Space Treaty, and would increase enemies’ temptation to commit in the nuclear arms race to counter Washington’s intentions.

Although the review-report includes also the idea of US contemplating interceptors/capacities placed in space to destroy enemy missiles, Pentagon officials clearly stated that there is not even an initial concept for that yet. Hence, on 17th of January 2019, the Undersecretary of Defence for research and engineering, Michael Griffin, stated, for the journalists authorized by the US Defence Department, that this idea is “different than anything we have now or have on the books. But we’re going to take another look at it”.

According to the American official, what the Missile Defence Review envisages is a layer of satellite sensors: “we think that the best approach is a network of satellites in low orbit. How many, what orbit, all to be determined. We are getting started on that this year”. LT GEN Sam Greaves, director of the Missile Defence Agency, also made some specifications, saying that the space sensors are necessary in order to ensure “the birth-to-death tracking” of the new hypersonic missiles: “We need to know where it originated, where it’s going, what maneuvers it’s making, so that we can position out intercept capability to interdict the target and defeat it”.  On his turn, the interim secretary of defence, Pat Shanahan, added that “our new space-based sensor layer will give us persistent, timely global awareness... These capabilities will eliminate adversaries’ ability to coerce us or our allies and partners”.

  1. Much of the necessary equipment has not been invented yet. Although president Trump is talking about the new capabilities as great accomplishments and promises an almost perfect anti-missile shield, MDR does not include concrete plans for advanced technologies’ funding or experimenting; in fact, almost no significant information, not even advisory. The research and development activities which can actually conclude what is feasible and what’s not might be initiated, but only after the next presidential elections.

To that end, the Undersecretary of Defence for Defence Policy, John Rood, stated that “we are not talking about going straight from the Defense Missile Review report to an objective system… You will start to see some of these experiments being implemented in the following years”. Precisely, “you’ll start to see some of those experiments materialize… in 2021, 2022, on-orbit experiments with I'll say highly developed metal systems … not objective systems… I think you'll see operational systems in the mid- and latter part of the 2020s”.

  1. The new strategy assumes that the Pyongyang regime remains a threat. President Donald Trump suggests that North Korea’s ballistic threat has been reduced and could be eliminated through a possible agreement during this first term. But the MDR is not building the strategy following this assumption, but based on the careful approach, which depends on US’s ability to be ahead of North Korea’s capacity to produce new long-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs). According to John Rood, “The sizing constructs for the size of our missile defense force will be sufficient to outpace the scale of the North Korean threat because we don't want to be in a situation where North Korea can credibly hold at risk American cities”. The idea was supported by the interim Secretary Shanahan “We are not interested in keeping pace with the emergent threats, we want to outpace them”.
  2. A good fence makes a good neighbor. The MDR strategy aims to ensure maneuver time and space for diplomacy when a crisis emerges and to offer the enemy a “breathing space”, and US’s president time to make a decision. To that end, John Rood stated that “missile defenses play a very stabilizing role. They give you alternatives, allow time to avoid a crisis of you need to”, and offered a relevant example: when North Korea wanted to start a crisis, missile defense systems’ operationalization offered the opportunity to look for a diplomatic alternative.
  3. The critics will always criticize. Publishing the MDR report has raised a lot of critics from the civic groups opposing the arms race and other traditional critics of missile defense (MD). The MDR critics continue to say that these systems are too expensive, ineffective and destabilizing.  Hence, the Washington-based Cato Institute, known for their Democrat visions, through analyst Eric Gomez, has expressed idea that “MDR is a wholesale expansion of US’s missile defense capabilities that will do more to upset nuclear stability than make America safer”. E. Gomez added that “The review’s call for space-based missile defense sensors, ‘left of launch’ capabilities, and improvements to existing midcourse defense systems represent a significant increase to the current missile defense architecture”. 

Of course, Democrats’ leaders have reacted immediately as well, across the committees for armed forces of both legislative chambers, urging the president to avoid policies that might restart the Cold War and waste important resources. The Democrats think that the elaboration and publication of MDR was pushed overnight, as well as the will to “buy and develop unverified missile defense systems”, after spending $300 billion for MD, starting with 1983. But what does the opposition have to say about this? Congressman Adam Smith, the president of the House of Representatives armed forces committee, detailed alternative actions instead of the MDR program launched by the Trump Administration:

  • “ First, it is essential that we ensure we are spending money on programs that are reliable and rigorously tested before they are deployed”;
  • “Second, we must avoid missile defense policies that will fuel a nuclear arms race”;
  • A. Smith supports the verified missile defense systems, but he does not think that placing interceptors in the outer space is a solution, like bellow mentioned studies have showed;
  • Finally, the democrat congressman thinks that the US must develop the arms control and international treaties as deterrence elements, not to withdraw from the INF treaty. A. Smith underlined that he is concerned with president’s intentions to “withdraw us from international arms control agreements, dismiss allies, and to expand the role of nuclear weapons in US defense policy, which could further siphon funding from much-needed budget priorities and exacerbate a new nuclear arms race”.

Of course, in the Washington bureaucracy environment, we have bureaucratic measures as well: closing the Missile Defense Agency, a new missile threat assessment, independent studies to enlighten the Congress, streamlining the procurement procedures and so on.

  1. The new review does not estimate the cost of the new systems. The price-tag for the new strategy are not mentioned in the MDR report and these costs were not specified for the reporters present on January 17th at the Pentagon either. John Rood announced: “wait for it when the budget comes out next month… the budget that will be rolled out is consistent with the Missile Defense Review and will carry it forward”. Obviously, the future missile defense program will cost a lot and will take years, “The time horizon for those activities will exceed that of our budget submission, which is a one-year submission with a five-year projection that will go to the Congress” (added John Rood). However, there are estimations presented by the National Interest, showing that a 2012 study of the National Academies estimated that a space-based missile defense system, even an “austere and limited-capability” would require the operationalization of 650 new satellites, worth of $300 billion, dedicated to a handful of North-Korean missiles. Similarly, at a global level, a 2013 study published by the American Physical Society estimated the necessity of a 1600 satellite constellation (!) to ensure a standing interceptor for each launching site on Earth. Even worse, according to Ploughshares Fund analysts’ conclusions, this colossal system could be simply overwhelmed by simultaneous launches of multiple cheap missiles.

It is common knowledge that it is easier to harm, since the early nuclear era (and following the terrorism logic): in 1953, president Dwight Eisenhower warned the ones who were ready to spend lavishly on defenses that “The awful arithmetic of the atomic bomb doesn't permit of any such easy solution. Even against the most powerful defense, an aggressor in possession of the effective minimum number of atomic bombs for a surprise attack could probably place a sufficient number of his bombs on the chosen targets to cause hideous damage...”

  1. President Trump stated that America’s allies will pay for the protection offered by the upgraded missile defense shield: “We protect all of these wealthy countries, which I'm very honored to do, but many of them are so wealthy, they can easily pay us the cost of this protection. So, you'll see big changes taking place… So wealthy, wealthy countries that we're protecting are all under notice … We cannot be the fools for others; we cannot be”. In fact, President Donald Trump showed his 100% attachment to the North-Atlantic Alliance and highlighted that the MDR is asking Pentagon to “prioritize the sale of American missile defense and technologies to our partners. We will also leverage our networks to share early warning and tracking information”. It is worth mentioning that it is the first statement to support NATO, 70 years since its foundation, after the New York Times paper drawing attention on US’s possible withdrawal from the Alliance, which would practically mean its end – the Kremlin’s dream.  
  2. The Defence Departments will completely be committed to this program, as President Trump has showed that he would not take a No from governmental officials, and the interim secretary of defence, Pat Shanahan is known for being a yes-man. This is something showed at the press conference, where he stated: “Mr. President, we are ready for this task. This is Department of Get Stuff Done… from the Missile Defense Agency from Space Force and the Joint Force…”

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At odds with President Trump’s optimism there is a lot of criticism about the new US programmatic document, especially when it comes to the previous experience, which includes many statements from Pentagon representatives promising in the Congress, early in the 80s, the precise technological achievements that President Trump is claiming now. Actually, as the National Interest highlighted, “president Reagan began this tradition with his launch of the famous “Star Wars” program, on March 23, 1983. Ten years later, after spending tens of billions of dollars on X-ray lasers, directed energy weapons, particle-beam weapons, space-based kinetic interceptors and “brilliant pebbles”, the Pentagon was forced to conclude that none of these fanciful concepts would work”. This approach is still negativist and does not see the great advantage of the Strategic Defence Initiative, which is that it really worked! Yes, the positive consequence was not actually creating those technologies, but forcing the Soviet Union into a race which, historically speaking, was deadly. Why? Because Moscow did not have the necessary money for supporting the technological and military effort to keep up with the SDI, but nevertheless they have tried, and the empire collapsed, this being just one of the consequences.

Washington critics also argue that the MDR ignores the option of upgrading the current limited system, conceived to counter threats from countries with ballistic capabilities; instead, it opened the expensive perspective of building an illusory global system. Hence, D. Trump is promising, as forthcoming objectives, one hundred times what the real systems do not deliver now. As for the challenge of a new nuclear arms race, National Interest analysts remind about Pentagon’s reaction when Russia installed 60 interceptors capable of nuclear weapons around Moscow, precisely for missile defense.

What did the US Joint Chiefs of Staff do? Simple: they have increased the number of ballistic missiles directed against targets around Moscow. Why would America’s enemies act differently? In fact, they have already started, and they have even stated that. Precisely, in 2018, President Vladimir Putin has announced the launch, in five years, of the program for a new nuclear weapon (including gliders / hypersonic warheads for atmosphere reentry, long-range cruise missiles and, according to sources, long-range cruise torpedoes!). Hence, the Kremlin leader stated that this measure aims to counter the US missile defense efforts. Also, in 2004, Russia has warned that it was going to respond to Anti-Ballistic Treaty’s cancellation in 2002, which removed all restraints for American missile defense endeavors. What would stop China from doing the same?

Definitely, MDR’s content deserves a lot more attention and time for a detailed analysis, but its main weakness, meaning its vague character, is offering, at the same time, an advantage: MDR’s implementation can gain concrete and realistic forms, especially since all specific programs will be subjected to Congress / Democrats’ attention. However, since the perception that Russia has now a strategic advantage, through missiles which have already breached the INF provisions, and through the new acclaimed super-weapons (unconfirmed yet), America had to do something in response. If MDR is seen as the response to a macro level, everyone expects punctual short-term measures. We are waiting, in the Carpathian-Danubian-Pontic region, for positive developments, and we are probably ready to ease the strategic balance to a new advantageous situation.

All in all, until 2021, it seems that Russia and the US will be facing each other with no constraints on the offensive nuclear forces, for the first time after 1972. This is how the “new world order” would look like in the strategic field.

For a philosophical ending, we can notice again the difference between the authoritarian regimes and the Western democracy at strategic level: the authoritarian regimes / dictatorships can strategically upkeep a strategic effort on long term (year by year, more or less provided with resources), yet persistent in aggressivity and aloof to developments in the West (succession of presidents, prime-ministers and the Western solutions subjected to the democratic pace and game). On the other hand, the Western democracy is mostly reactive and responds to threats in leaps, following electoral cycles and democracy rules.

For example, in the US, usually the Republican administrations are increasing the arms investments after Democrats’ slack, like the Bush Administration situation, and now Trump Administration as well, after the lessened interest in warfare during the Obama Administration. In foreign issues, after September 11, Washington was pleased with Moscow joining the Global War on Terror, thinking that Russia could actually be a partner. But the whole picture also includes the technology and resources differences, which reverse the tilt to even. Anyway, what will happen when the development curve plateaus, and the technological and financial resource differences diminish, while the antagonism between totalitarianism and democracy remains the same? Let’s go back in 1453, when the Byzantines were still debating the gender of the angels, while Mohammed the Second’s troops were nearing closer and closer to Constantinople.