Escalating ballistic missile threats remind us that homeland missile defense is now more important than ever. Iran’s recent attack against our forces deployed in Iraq is testimony to that reality.
As a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former deputy assistant secretary of Defense, I have seen first-hand over the last 20 years the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) developing the most sophisticated layered and successful ballistic missile defense capability in existence.
A critical component of the system’s Ground-Based Interceptors (GBI) is the kill vehicle — the bullet that hits the incoming threat. Yet the United States has just 44 GBIs, and only deployed along the West Coast in Alaska and California.
But what about the East Coast? Or the Gulf Coast? With threats growing globally, both in technology and hostile intent from more than a westerly or northern direction, much of our homeland remains vulnerable. The current arrangement with all our aging GBIs at Fort Greely and Vandenberg Air Force Base, respectively, is no longer sufficient and requires near-term solutions.
Recognizing the need for modernization, in 2016, MDA worked to develop a new warhead for the GBI. The Replacement Kill Vehicle (RKV) was designed to be more reliable, cost-effective, easier to produce and was projected to reach initial capability by 2020. Yet budget cuts, fewer test opportunities and long delays led to the project being killed in August 2019. Instead, the Pentagon recently committed to developing the Next Generation Interceptor (NGI).
The good news is that NGI is evolving with both enemy and American technologies, and will better defend the country from missile attack. The bad news is NGI will not be an active defense system for the United States at least until 2026, or possibly even worse at 12 years from now. Though it’s positive the Trump Administration intends to add 20 more GBIs to the inventory, waiting years is a long time. Too long.
But there is a near-term solution.
Current mid-course missile defenses systems, such as the Standard Missile — 3 (SM-3) and Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense are ready now and can fill the much-needed gap in defense while the NGI is being fielded. The SM-3 Block Interceptor, which defeats short-to-intermediate range, has dozens of successful intercepts. The Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System enables American warships to serve as mobile transport interceptors. During my Navy days, I commanded a Destroyer Squadron and am still so proud of what our sailors and ships can do.
Given the breadth of U.S. current capabilities and assets, a small investment in and commitment to expanding and repurposing what we already know works — Aegis Ashore, SM-3 IIA, Spy-6 and more — and in more vulnerable places like the East Coast and Gulf Coast will provide the layered defense our country needs today. The United States must be cost-effective and take advantage of the technology we already have as we wait for far-off development years from now.
Russia and China continue to make significant investments in their missile technologies, making it even more imperative that our defenses remain strong. China is determined to outpace the United States in terms of technical and defense capabilities, and the Council on Foreign Relations rightly deemed the country one of our most significant emerging rivals. Russia is not slowing down its missile capability either, making our defenses that much more critical.
While rogue leaders in North Korea and Iran are clearly not operating with the same level of advanced technologies or large budgets as in China or Russia, they are considerably more anti-American and arguably prone to desperate measures if and when faced with regime collapse. As aggressive dictators in Iran and North Korea step closer to technologies that broadly threaten our homeland, we must invest in technologies that we know can combat their emerging threats.
There is simply no excuse for another Pearl Harbor or Sept. 11 in America’s future. We know the threats and where they might originate, therefore must act to mitigate them.
As NGI remains many years away, Americans across the entire country must remain safe from the prospect of ballistic missile attack.
Innovation and advancement should not overshadow immediate and interim safety. While we wait for the NGI to finish testing and development, Congress and the administration must ensure that all of our defenses are adequately capable of defending the country.
We cannot afford to allow major geopolitical threats and rogue actors to develop technologies that outpace our current defenses. With North Korea’s ongoing ICBM program, hostility at an all-time high with Iran as it reels under tough yet justified sanctions, and Russia and China pushing ever further in missile testing and development, we must be better prepared.
America should not choose between investing in current technology and charting a better future for missile defense. A logical path is to aim for technological advances that meet the growing long-term demand, while also continuing to invest in proven, cost-effective technology that is readily available.
• Donald Loren, a retired U.S. Navy surface warfare rear admiral, served as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for homeland security integration in the Bush administration and as assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs for Operations, Security and Preparedness in the Trump administration.