The ballistic missile threat to U.S. allies and the homeland is skyrocketing. Russia is deploying a new heavy intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying ten or more warheads. It also has a new ballistic missile submarine and missile. China is believed to be adding warheads to its existing ICBMs and is deploying a newer missile in both road and rail mobile configurations. Beijing has deployed almost a thousand theater ballistic missiles, including one type that is believed capable of attacking U.S. aircraft carriers. In addition to testing new land-based and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, the regime in Pyongyang has deployed hundreds of medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles and, possibly, a missile capable of reaching the continental United States, the KN-08. Then there is Iran, which has violated current U.N. sanctions by continuing to test ballistic missiles of different ranges. U.S. friends and allies and our critical forward operating bases and forces in Europe, East Asia and the Middle East, even American cities, are increasingly vulnerable to ballistic missile attack.
The Obama Administration has had to scramble in order to respond to this growing threat. Just a week ago, President Obama told a television interviewer that “One of the things that we have been doing is spending a lot more time positioning our missile defense systems, so that even as we try to resolve the underlying problem of nuclear development inside of North Korea, we’re also setting up a shield that can at least block the relatively low-level threats that they’re posing now.” The President may have been referring to his reversal of an earlier decision to reduce the number of Ground Based Interceptors deployed at Fort Greeley, Alaska by nearly half. Or he might have been thinking about the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to Guam and its possible sale to South Korea. Then there is the deployment of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) with the Standard Missile (SM) 3 aboard U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers.
Elsewhere in the world, the Administration has also taken steps to enhance its missile defense posture. Four Aegis BMDS-capable destroyers have been home ported in Rota, Spain. The first deployment of Aegis Ashore, the key element of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, will become operational early this year. An advanced version of the SM-3, the Block IB, is currently being deployed and an even more capable version, the IIA, is in co-development with Japan.
While it may sound as though the Obama Administration is doing a lot to develop adequate defenses against the growing ballistic missile threat, this is not really the case. The budget for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), the organization responsible for both developing new capabilities against ballistic missiles and acquiring current systems, was sharply reduced at the start of President Obama’s first term and has stagnated ever since. As a consequence, the agency is caught between the competing requirements to develop new and improved sensors, weapons and battle management systems, to produce enough interceptors now to meet the current threat and to fund procurement of spare parts to keep already deployed systems operational.
An example of the problem is MDA’s approach to buying the SM-3. Even though Congress added money to MDA’s FY16 budget expressly for the purpose of buying ten SM-3s, the agency may only acquire six or seven, using the remainder of the funds for spares. This is not the first time that the Administration has failed to meet procurement targets for SM-3 set by Congress. Since FY11, Congress has added some sixty SM-3 interceptors to the program of record. Each year, Congress adds money and in the next budget the Administration has reduced the requested funding for SM-3 procurement, undermining legislative initiatives to stabilize production rates.
In addition, the Administration has shortchanged funding for the new SM-3 Block IIA, a system designed to take on precisely the advanced theater ballistic missile threats already deployed by Russia and China and under development in North Korea and Iran. The proposed funding profile will result in a one year production hiatus, impacting not only the deployment of this much-needed capability but also increasing the cost for follow-on missiles. On top of cancelling the plan to develop a variant of the SM-3, the IIB, capable of intercepting ICBMs, the treatment of SM-3 in each defense budget proposed by this Administration belies President Obama’s strong rhetoric. The Administration needs to heed Congressional sentiments and significantly enhance its spending on SM-3.
It looks as though President Obama will leave office with a decidedly mixed record when it comes to dealing with the ballistic missile threat. On the one hand, there has been a significant increase in the number of Aegis BMDS-capable ships and the Aegis Ashore deployment in Romania, THAAD deployments to the Far East and sales to close allies, and quantitative and qualitative enhancements to the National Missile Defense Architecture. On the other hand, chronic underfunding has left the Pentagon falling farther behind the growing ballistic missile threat. In addition, the Administration’s failed attempts to contain North Korea’s and Iran’s ballistic missile programs only makes the problem of dealing with the threat more difficult.
This piece first appeared on the Lexington Institute's website here.