North Korea has launched missiles seven times in January 2022, including a suspected intermediate-range missile for the first time since 2017 on January 30 and a supposed hypersonic missile into the Sea of Japan on January 10. The latter alarmed the Federal Aviation Administration so much that it temporarily halted departures from some West Coast airports that evening.
These recent North Korean missile launches followed Iran’s space launch to lift a satellite into orbit on December 30, 2021—which most experts believed to be a developmental intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test.
These missile launches highlight a surge over the last year in the missile capabilities of North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China. Further, these events highlight the need for the Biden administration to increase spending on research and development to improve America’s lagging missile defense capabilities. Effective missile defenses complicate adversaries’ aggressive designs, deter bad actors, and keep the United States and its allies safe.
America Is Falling Behind
In 2021, hypersonic missiles were the highest-profile missile threat because three U.S. adversaries—Russia, China, and North Korea—reportedly conducted successful tests. These weapons are a significant threat since they are maneuverable and travel to their targets at very high speeds and low altitudes, making them almost impossible to track and thus capable of evading missile defenses. These tests also are alarming since there has been a string of failed U.S. hypersonic missile tests in recent years.
Russia tested several hypersonic cruise missiles launched from naval vessels in 2021. Further, China and North Korea reportedly tested hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) mounted on ballistic missiles. The HGV China launched in November reportedly “went around the world” before landing close to its target. Russia is also developing an HGV that it last launched in 2018.
It is unclear whether the three supposed hypersonic missiles North Korea tested in 2021 and early 2022 included functional HGVs; there are questions as to whether Pyongyang is capable of producing the advanced materials needed to construct them so they can survive the extreme heat and pressure generated by their high speeds. Some experts believe that North Korea’s alleged HGVs were actually maneuverable reentry vehicles, a type of ballistic missile warhead capable of shifting targets in flight. If this is the case, it would still be a significant advance for North Korea’s missile program.
Although Iran is not believed to be pursuing hypersonic missiles, a September 2021 Arab Weekly article commented that Iran’s neighbors are concerned that it could acquire this technology thanks to renewed Iranian-North Korean cooperation on missile programs.
The United States is significantly behind in developing its own HGVs and hypersonic defense because the Obama-Biden administration effectively shut down U.S. hypersonic research while China and Russia accelerated their programs and made significant advances. The Trump administration made major investments in hypersonic offense and defense, spending $3.4 billion in 2020. Nevertheless, Hudson Institute senior fellow Arthur Herman said that the United States is not expected to have operational hypersonic missiles before 2023 or a hypersonic defense capability before the mid-to-late 2020s.
Missile Programs are Advancing Across the Board
2021 also saw many other noteworthy missile advances, including:
North Korea conducted its first ballistic missile launch from a submerged submarine in October. It also conducted several launches in 2021 of an advanced short-range ballistic missile, the KN-23, which is believed to be highly accurate and maneuverable. In September, North Korea reportedly tested a long-range cruise missile capable of hitting Japan. Although Pyongyang did not display new medium- or long-range missiles in military parades last year, it is almost certainly developing them.
Iran has the largest and most diverse missile arsenal in the Middle East, and in 2021, it continued advancing the desire to maintain this capability. Missile activity in that year included two space launches; tests of missiles of various ranges; and tests of cruise missiles, anti-ship missiles, and drones. Iran continued to provide missiles, rockets, and drones last year to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, the Syrian army, and Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist proxy in Lebanon, which has fighters in Syria.
China reportedly has the world’s most diverse missile program and is engaged in improving and expanding its ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and drones in 2021. In addition to hypersonic missiles, China is believed to be developing other advanced missile technologies such as maneuverable anti-ship ballistic missiles and multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRVs). Further, public satellite images from July 2021 showed a second Chinese nuclear silo field. This imagery indicates that Beijing is greatly expanding its ICBM arsenal and is almost certainly related to a December 2021 Pentagon report that assessed China’s plan to increase the number of its nuclear warheads from the low 200s to 700 in 2027 and 1,000 by 2030.
Russia and the United States extended the New START Treaty for five years in March, despite this agreement’s major flaws—it omits tactical nuclear weapons, is technologically outdated, and does not include China. Outside of New START, Russia pursued missile technologies that evade U.S. missile defenses by testing sea-launched hypersonic cruise missiles from frigates and a submarine in 2021. Russia is also developing the Burevestnik, a long-range, nuclear-powered, and nuclear-armed cruise missile, and the Poseidon, a nuclear-powered underwater drone—neither covered by New START. Further, Russia’s newest ICBM, the R-26 Sarmat, is expected to enter service in late 2022. This advanced, heavy ICBM is designed to evade U.S. defenses and could carry as many as twenty nuclear warheads or a hypersonic glide vehicle.
What America Can Do
The surge and increased sophistication in missile production programs by America’s adversaries require a substantial commitment by the United States. Accordingly, consistent and robust integrated and missile defense funding is needed to reflect a recognition of these missile programs as both immediate and long-term threats.
It is long past time to embrace air and missile defenses as a critical deterrent that disrupts the aggressive missile strategies of U.S. enemies—they are not a destabilizing factor, as some disarmament advocates contend.
The U.S. homeland must enhance its missile and air defenses to stay ahead of rogue actors and near-peer missile programs—like Iran, North Korea, Russia, and China. A proper defense strategy must include the Next Generation Interceptor (NGI) program, scheduled to be deployed in 2028.
In addition to NGI, the United States needs to accelerate investments in currently deployed missile defense technologies like THAAD, PAC-3, and SM-3 to defend, deter, and defeat threats to the U.S. homeland and its allies.
There should be an expanded investment in offensive and defensive hypersonic strike capabilities. This must include both the Hypersonic and Ballistic Missile Space Sensor and operational U.S. hypersonic missiles.
There should also be increased investment in other advanced missile defense technologies—specifically, directed energy systems such as high-energy lasers, high-powered microwave weapons, and particle beam weapons.
Instead of playing catch-up to the Chinese and Russians, we need to shift the paradigm to directed energy weapons as they show the most promise at defending against hypersonics. This could likely be in place on the ground, on ships, or on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the near future. We should also accelerate research into how directed energy functions in space. Reusable launch platforms and increased commercial activity in this area present an opportunity to drive down costs and accelerate the deployment of capabilities.
Will Biden Act?
Despite these achievements in adversarial missile programs, liberals in government show hostility toward missile defense. This makes it unlikely that the Biden administration will increase spending on needed research and development programs. Indeed, the administration is poised to actually decrease funding.
However, there’s some good news in the short term. The Biden administration essentially retained the Trump administration’s spending levels on missile defense in its 2022 budget request, pending the completion of its Missile Defense Review. Congress also succeeded in reversing some of the Biden administration’s proposed missile defense budget cuts. This review should be publicly issued in the end of February 2022, and in tandem with the National Defense Strategy and the Nuclear Posture Review.
President Joe Biden’s 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) request for missile defense and defeat will probably be very different due to the Missile Defense Review, which is likely to reflect how missile defense has long been an anathema to most liberals—including Biden—who have portrayed it as wasteful and ineffective. Moreover, many liberals maintain that U.S. missile defense is destabilizing because it provokes Russia and China to buy more long-range warheads to overcome missile defenses, leading to an arms race.
Throughout his career, Biden has been critical of U.S. missile defense. As a senator, he regularly opposed missile defense spending and was a staunch defender of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. As vice president, Biden played a key role in the 2009 dismantling of missile defense programs, including the only operational system that could blunt ballistic attacks on the homeland by North Korea. However, the Obama-Biden administration raced to restore this program in 2015 in response to a surge in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
For the above reasons, Biden’s national security staff will probably resist missile defense spending. Instead, the staff will remain susceptible and fall to pressure from liberal arms control groups who hope to curtail missile defense programs.