Missile defense seems to be on everyone’s mind. On 17 January, President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan announced the release of the 2019 Missile Defense Review (MDR) at the Pentagon.
The MDR is the last of four strategic guidance documents that Trump directed the national security establishment to create to better guide decision-making on critical defense policy issues.
The threat of missile attacks addressed by MDR is not related only to those on the United States. In fact, the inter-agency assessment was to a great extent interested in the dangers posed to U.S. allies and American assets overseas.
In a global security environment with credible missile threats from rogue actors, the need for the MDR became an absolute necessity. Countries like Iran and North Korea are of course on the top of the list. The Iranian missile threat has always been a serious concern for the entire region. Not just due to its own arsenal (which it continues to test and improve with vigor) but also because of the proliferation of these weapons throughout the Middle East and North Africa. This obviously exponentializes the threat posed by these missiles to both U.S. forces in the region as well as allied countries, a danger that continues to present itself to this day.
The North Korean threat as well, despite the country’s slow and steady progress in reconciling with the West, still poses a serious concern. Even according to the most optimistic view of the North Korea-America peace process, Pyongyang still maintains a rich array of long- and medium-range missiles that threaten not just American personnel stationed on the Peninsula, but also key partner states such as Japan.
MDR lays out several key objectives.
First on the list is to deploy more systems within the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD). Currently, the GMD comprises some four dozen systems stationed all around the globe. The recent MDR calls for an increase in the number of those systems, as well as improvements on outdated or flawed models. Already, twenty additional anti-missile batteries are slated to be deployed in Alaska.
A second central objective is the development of a “space-based kill assessment capability” or, in other words, how to effectively station anti-missile systems in space. In light of Trump’s surprise announcement of a planned Space Force to a sixth branch of the military, this is one element of the MDR that has gotten quite a bit of attention. In theory, space-based systems will make the task of intercepting missiles and other projectiles mid-flight much easier. This is really important in light of America’s adversaries, such as Russia and China, developing advanced hypersonic missiles capabilities that can travel at exceptional speeds with unpredictable flight paths that challenge existing defensive systems.
The planned goal of missile defense infrastructure in space should not mislead anyone that this technology is ready to deploy. The Pentagon’s statement carefully worded its intention to begin an “assessment” of potential “capability.” Translation: the Defense Department is now ready to begin research into the feasibility of such a system or systems.
That isn’t to say that brand-new tech isn’t going to be introduced to American defense in the near future. As part of the broader anti-missile effort, the U.S. Army recently announced that it intends to acquire at least two Iron Dome anti-missile batteries from Israel, consisting of twelve launchers, two sensors, two battlement management centers, and 240 interceptor missiles. This would mark the first time Jerusalem sells Washington a full weapons system.