WASHINGTON: With new missile threats proliferating worldwide, both the House and Senate versions of the annual defense policy bill push new approaches to missile defense such as laser weapons and “boost phase” defenses that shoot down missiles just after launch.
That’s also why one of Washington’s foremost thinktanks has launched a new program on the problem. “I think a missile defense project is so exciting and so salient right now because, in a sense, we’re entering into a new missile age,” said Tom Karako, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The ‘missile defense’ label captures something that people are used to, but it does reach out beyond the traditional definition.”
That traditional image was formed 24 years ago during the first Gulf War: The bad guy’s Scuds go up, our Patriots shoot them down. (The Patriot’s actual effectiveness in 1991 remains controversial). But Scuds are crude ballistic missiles, not far removed from the Nazi V-2. They fly in a predictable arc and land with little accuracy. Since then, ever more adversaries have acquired precision guidance — which makes any kind of missile much more dangerous — and/or cruise missiles — which are much slower, lower, and harder to detect.
“The element of surprise is nearly impossible with an ICBM attack, and we will always have time to react. We can’t necessarily say the same thing for a cruise missile attack,” Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. James Winnefeld said at an event hosted by Karako on Tuesday. A surprise cruise missile strike (say, from ships or submarines offshore) could decapitate the US leadership and stop us from retaliating against a subsequent ICBM strike, Winnefeld said: That’s “why homeland cruise missile defense is shifting above regional missile ballistic defense in my mind, as far as importance goes.”
“Cruise missile defense is a different animal,” said Karako. “In 2003, we intercepted a number of Iraqi ballistic missiles, but we missed all five Iraqi cruise missiles fired, including one that nearly hit the Marine headquarters in Kuwait on the first day of the war.”
Cruise missiles themselves aren’t new — the old Soviet Union had plenty — but far more adversaries have them now. That includes non-state groups like Hezbollah, Hezbollah’s sponsor Iran, and above all China. While Beijing still has relatively few long-range ICBMs capable of hitting the continental US, at least compared to the old Soviet Union, it has built up a massive arsenal of shorter-ranged ballistic and cruise missiles.
But ballistic and cruise missiles aren’t the only problem. Adding precision guidance to artillery rockets, cannon shells, or even mortar rounds makes these traditional military tools much more dangerous. There’s also the proliferation of armed drones, which are effectively slower-moving, reusable cruise missiles.
“The full spectrum from smart artillery to UAVs to cruise missiles to maneuvering reentry vehicles of various kinds and anti-ship cruise missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles, [and] hypersonics… it’s a unified problem set,” said Karako. You can’t just try to stop one and forget about the others, he warned. “For an integrated air and defense program, you have to be doing a lot of things simultaneously.”
That means using — and coordinating — a much wider range of tools than just traditional Patriot-style interceptors. Lasers are literally the flashiest example here, but there’s also room for rail guns; “non-kinetic” means such as cyber and electronic warfare; and even missile strikes of our own to destroy the enemy missiles before they’re fired, what’s known as “left of launch.”
The House-passed version of the National Defense Authorization Act is full of this kind of thinking. It mandates Pentagon studies on “the true and complete integration of air and missile defense” and on “left-of-launch and non-kinetic means of defense.” HASC also cites the joint letter sent to then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel by Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno and Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert, which called the current acquisition strategy “unsustainable” and said the threats “continue to outpace our active defense systems.”
Both the House and the Senate Armed Services Committee also include provisions advocating so-called “boost phase” missile defense, which would destroy ballistic missiles just after launch when their bulky and fragile boosters are still attached. SASC would mandate that the Pentagon “develop and field an airborne boost phase defense system by fiscal year 2025,” while the House language says “by fiscal year 2022.”
Both bodies clearly expect such a system would use a laser. Ironically, the US has already developed a flying laser weapon for boost-phase defense, the Airborne Laser, but ABL was a converted 747 full of volatile chemicals that had to fly near or even into enemy airspace to get in range, and, despite some successful tests, celebrated Defense Secretary Bob Gates cancelled it in 2011. Modern solid-state lasers dispense with the chemicals and could generate adequate power in a much smaller and more survivable aircraft.
But just the fact that boost-phase is back in the debate is politically remarkable, said Karako. Historically, boost phase has been “a lightning rod,” he said, but now it’s looking like a bicameral consensus. (If not a bipartisan one, since Republicans of course control both chambers). Overall on missile defense, he said, “there is remarkable similarity between the House and the Senate this year.”
“There’s still these flashes of controversy,” Karako acknowledged. For many Reaganites on the right and anti-Reaganites on the left, missile defense is still laden with 1980s-vintage emotional symbolism that overshadows present-day technological and geostrategic realities. But that “theological” element of the debate has greatly diminished, he said.
“The idea that we should have missile defense is just not that controversial anymore,” Karako said. “It’s all going to be about how much, what kinds, where are we going to put it, who pays for them — all the arguments we have over less exotic weapons systems.” That’s still plenty to keep Congress (and Karako) busy.
Colin Clark contributed to this story.