By Daniel Goure, Ph.D.
More than six years into the Bush Administration and what do we have to show for its investment of billions of dollars in missile defense? Precious little is the answer. To defend the nation we are relying on a waterlogged Ground-Based Missile Defense (GMD) site at Fort Greeley, Alaska with about a dozen interceptors. A few more missiles have been deployed at Vandenburg AFB in California. There are a small number of Navy cruisers equipped with the Aegis ballistic missile defense system and a number of Army PAC-3 missile batteries, neither of which can protect the homeland. That is all there is.
The Bush Administration withdrew from the ABM Treaty on the grounds that this agreement was no longer relevant or enforceable, and that it was unduly restricting the Department of Defense’s ability to develop and deploy effective missile defenses.
Having taken this monumental step over vociferous objections, particularly from U.S. allies in Europe, the Administration then went on to squander the opportunity. It spent most of its time and money pursuing systems that had their origins in the Cold War, when the design parameters for missile defenses were extremely restrictive. That is one reason that there is a plethora of defensive systems in development to deal with shorter-range threats but only one, the GMD, to address long-range ballistic missiles.
To date, the Missile Defense Agency has in development only one system designed from the start free of all ABM Treaty constraints. That is the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI). The KEI is an extremely powerful missile that is intended to provide an option for boost phase defense, intercepting long-range ballistic missiles in the earliest part of their flights. With U.S. departure from the ABM Treaty, KEI was able, uniquely, to capitalize on and incorporate previously prohibited design features: mobility, deployability and sensor cueing from space.
Moreover, KEI could be both land and sea-based. In the latter configuration it could operate up close to many potential threats even in peacetime, ready to respond in seconds to a hostile launch. All the other mobile or sea-based missile defense systems are short-range and therefore unsuitable for intercepting long-range offensive missiles. Some have suggested that KEI could serve as the follow-on booster for the ground-based missile defense of the homeland. Because of its throw-weight, KEI could also carry advanced warheads including large sensor packages or multiple kill vehicles to deal with future offensive threats such as advanced penetration aids or fractionated warheads.
Rather than putting its weight behind the KEI program, the missile agency has progressively cut back the program, delaying first deployment until well into the next decade. Since 2005, it has taken nearly $800 million from the program while racking up a series of failed GMD tests. One idea has been to deploy the KEI on the Navy’s new class of cruisers, the CG(X). Because the Missile Defense Agency cannot make up its mind about KEI, it is contributing to delays in defining the characteristics of the CG(X).
Equally maddening, the Bush Administration has set itself up for failure by trying to deploy a third GMD site in Eastern Europe. Because it employs the relatively slow GMD interceptor, such a site would have only limited utility in defending either Western Europe or the United States. At the same time it alarms rather than reassures our allies and irritates the Russians. Finally, as with all U.S. bases on foreign soil, it is subject to the whims of the local government. You would think the Administration has learned nothing from its experience with Turkey, a member of NATO, in the run-up to the Iraq War. No fixed, land-based missile defense site on foreign soil can be considered safe or reliable.
Let me offer a modest proposal that takes advantage of what the Administration has been able to achieve in missile defense while recognizing simultaneously the realities of the 21st Century. Deploy KEI on large naval vessels.
Not on the CG(X), which should be designed to meet the Navy’s enduring missions, but on a variant of the Navy’s new class of amphibious ships, the LPD-17. More than 680 feet long, with a loaded weight of 25,000 tons, the LPD-17 could easily carry a large number of KEIs, as well as other air and missile defenses including the Navy’s Aegis system. Moreover, the LPD-17 comes equipped with one of the most modern command, control and communications suites in the Navy and therefore would be able to integrate seamlessly with the rest of the Fleet.
Deploying KEI at sea recognizes one eternal truth. Sovereignty over U.S. military forces exists only at home and on the seas. Everywhere else we seek to operate our forces it is at the sufferance of allies and coalition partners. Moreover, once a ground-based GMD site is built it is there forever. The threat may change but you cannot move in-ground concrete silos to meet it. Only missile defenses on ships can respond to changes in the threat.
KEI-equipped LPD-17s deployed in the Black and Aegean Seas would negate any long-range missile threat from Iran whether directed at the United States or Europe. The same capability in the Sea of Japan could defend not only that country but the western U.S. too. If shorter-range defensive missiles such as the Aegis BMDS or the Army’s theater missile defense system, THAAD, were deployed on the LPD-17, such a vessel could also be deployed to defend our friends in the Persian Gulf from short-range Iranian ballistic missiles.