Both Russia and China have adopted a strategy threatening the use of very limited nuclear strikes against the United States even against our mainland, most probably in the pursuit of regional security objectives such as a conventional conflict in Eastern Europe in the case of Russia or Taiwan in the case of China.
This is different than the most common nuclear threats we faced during the Cold War which was having to stop the use of large-scale nuclear weapons as part of, for example, a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.
Thus, while this new nuclear threat needs to be addressed, it will require a two-step process, with both greater numbers of missile interceptors than we now have, but also with more capable and geographically dispersed interceptors coupled with space-based sensors that can quickly acquire and track adversary missile launches. Doing so enables interceptors to destroy missiles in boost phase before multiple warheads can be deployed.
Exactly what role then should our legacy systems play? Forty-four deployed interceptors are now 15 years old, and are now in silos in Alaska and California, and to defend the United States from long range missiles, whether limited, unauthorized or accidental strikes from such nuclear armed countries as China, Russia, and North Korea.
Complimenting such capability are over 1,200 interceptors deployed overseas by the United States and its allies aboard Navy Aegis cruisers, land-based THAAD and Patriot regional missile defense batteries but capable of defeating only medium- and short-range missile threats.
Although the current kill vehicle used on the Alaskan interceptors has been successful in 5/8 of the latest tests, the defense department has opted to pursue a totally new kill vehicle, which will deal with new threats such as multiple warheads or decoys or heightened hypersonic speeds. This has unfortunately delayed the previously planned deployment of 20 additional interceptors in Alaska, as there is no new kill vehicle available.
One option is to use the existing kill vehicle for the new missiles. Although there are some technological deficiencies in the kill vehicle, they could be fixed. And with 20 new missiles, our deterrent capability expands, particularly helpful in the face of both North Korea and Chinese nuclear upgrades.
Dangerous Nuclear Strategies
But to meet the threats on the horizon, even as we enhance those technologies now in use in Alaska, we must pursue space-based sensors and defenses. They have been proved affordable and technologically capable in previous OSD (Office of the Secretary of Defense) assessments. What is missing is authorizing such a program to move toward a reasonable acquisition plan that builds such defenses.
Historically, the key obstacle to a space-based defense has not been money or technology. The roadblock has been the assumption that effective space-based systems will lead to an arms race and greater strategic instability. The assumption is that spaced-based defenses—because they are especially effective in the boost phase or in the early stages of a missile flight, and can cover vastly more area than fixed land-based defenses—will force our adversaries to overcome any defense by building more offensive warheads.
But is this true?
No. In fact, the opposite is the case. There is nothing incompatible between arms control and missile defenses. For example, the Moscow and New Start treaties of 2003 and 2010 respectively reduced deployed American and Russian strategic nuclear warheads from 6,000 to 1,550 [1,550 is the official treaty limit but which does not include bomber weapons than can be deployed in considerable numbers above the New Start Treaty threshold], a significant 70 percent cut. This occurred despite President George W. Bush in 2003 withdrawing the United States from the 1972 ABM treaty with Russia (that prohibited missile defenses) and the subsequent 2004 deployment in Alaska and California of the homeland missile defenses we now have.
Thus, missile defenses did not prevent nuclear reductions but in fact were able to be deployed simultaneously as dramatic reductions in nuclear weapons were also achieved.
But what about the often-heard argument that missile defenses cannot substitute for deterrence because no defense is perfect. An adversary it is assumed can simply launch more missiles at us than we have interceptors and thus make any defense worthless.
Let us examine the illogic of such an argument. If an adversary worried that 44 or 64 American interceptors would be enough to undo deterrence and prevent hundreds of their retaliatory warheads hitting the United States, there might be reasonable grounds to consider missile defenses as destabilizing.
But such a defense, even eventually space-based, is aimed precisely at the kind of threat announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin in April 2000. Knowing any major nuclear strike against the United States would risk Armageddon, Putin crafted a limited first strike strategy hoping to prevent the United States from responding at all to Russian aggression.
Far from trying to enhance strategic stability, the new Putin doctrine seeks to allow for Russian aggression without cost. But in so doing, ironically, the Putin strategy makes American missile defenses far more credible and valuable, especially if based in space where they are most effective.
No longer does the United States have to prove to skeptics that missile defense must protect our homeland from hundreds or thousands of incoming warheads. Now we need to defend against much more likely but limited attacks, which is a much more achievable goal.
And because such American and allied defenses can be relatively robust, our adversaries are left with a stark choice between risking Armageddon (using all its nuclear weapons in a strike to overcome effective defenses and risk a large-scale retaliatory strike from the United States) or standing down and not initiating the use of any nuclear weapons at all because a limited use of nuclear armed missiles by our adversaries can be credibly defeated by our defenses.
While the current Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) system can defend against such limited strikes aimed at our homeland, it is certainly true the Russians and Chinese will eventually deploy advanced missiles with hypersonic speeds, thus making it imperative for the United States to transition to new sensors to seek, acquire and track such missile launches, but also deploy better interceptors to deter and defeat advanced missile threats.
In the interim, we still need to keep our eye on the ball with respect to the threats from North Korea and Iran, as well as China and Russia. Any U.S. President must protect the United States from immediate and near-term nuclear missile threats from wherever they may arise, including continuing counter-proliferation diplomacy with our allies to eliminate such proliferation threats.
Keeping our defenses upgraded will require building an improved kill vehicle but the previously planned deployment of 20 additional interceptors should go forward as well. Congress should accelerate—“at the speed of relevance”—the currently planned space-based sensors to see missile threats which ground-based radars cannot. And finally, the pending defense budget should fund an acquisition strategy to deploy space-based interceptors based on the Bush-41 administration proposals which were determined by OSD to be credible and affordable.
All these upgrades would cost an additional $3-$4 billion a year—roughly .5 percent of the defense budget. But with this relatively modest investment, the United States could markedly better deter the new Russian and Chinese strategies that recklessly threaten the limited use of nuclear weapons. And when coupled with our current nuclear modernization effort, the twin technologies of air and missile defense and nuclear deterrence will reinforce deterrence and strategic stability.
Deterring such limited strike threats will also enable existing and new missile defenses to transition to adopting a capability not just to deal with limited strike threats, but to have a high capacity for robust air and missile defenses which should include high energy lasers and microwaves, high powered microwaves, guided precision projectiles, and unmanned and remotely piloted vehicles. The defense budget does include nearly $1 billion for such research and development, but that needs to be enhanced with work in these other areas as well.
Such new research, development and acquisitions proposed here would also set the stage for the acquisition of a truly integrated air and missile defense, a “layered defense concept.” This would enable the United States and its allies to acquire a power-projection capability even inside contested areas, while defending our regional bases overseas and the U.S. homeland from current and projected ballistic and guided missile and UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) threats.
The Trump administration’s missile defense review acknowledged many of these factors but needs to be better matched by the defense budget currently before Congress. Our adversaries are not being held up by inactive legislators or endless analysis of defense requirements. The bad guys get to vote so to speak. The missile and nuclear threats are here and now, and the avenues we need to pursue to defend Americans and our allies are also clear.
Peter Huessy is the president of Geostrategic Analysis of Potomac, Maryland, a defense and national security consulting firm.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.