Missile Defense Umbrella?

Ilan Berman and Clifford Lee had a piece in the WSJ today recalling Secretary of State Clinton's recent comment about a "defense umbrella" for the Middle East to transition into a robust defense of missile defense. While not really central to their argument, the argument that

any "defense umbrella" will require the deployment of missile defense technologies capable of neutralizing a potential salvo of nuclear-tipped missiles-whether from Iran or another rogue such as North Korea.

doesn't seem compelling. We currently have extended *nuclear* guarantees to a number of countries under which we don't have salvo neutralizing missile defense capabilities extended. "Defense umbrella" seems like it was probably ducking the "nuclear" questions for political or otherwise reasons but there is no reason it necessarily requires missile defense, particularly the grandiose one the articles argues for. Moving beyond the Middle East "defense umbrella," there are a number of misleading asserts made in the op-ed. On the question of budgets, they argue

Yet America's missile-defense efforts are being scaled back. Congress is contemplating a $1.4 billion reduction to the Pentagon's budget for antimissile capabilities. Advocates of missile defense are seriously concerned that this is just the beginning, and that the Obama administration seeks to kill the system with a thousand cuts. During the presidential campaign last year, Barack Obama promised to strip $10 billion from the Pentagon's budget for missile defense

Missile defense advocates are quick to the draw on the $1.4 billion argument, which is true. What is generally not mentioned is that the reduction included plusups in the AEGIS and THAAD systems which are proving increasingly effective and elimination of funding for programs like KEI, MKV, and ABL because they are not technologically feasible and won't be for quite some time, if ever. I was very suspicious of the claim that Obama made a campaign pledge to cut an amount greater than the budget of missile defense but Nukes of Hazard does a great job refuting here.

The article goes on to say:

In addition to slashing the overall budget for missile defense, it has terminated promising projects such as the multiple-kill vehicle (MKV) program-in which multiple interceptors on a carrier vehicle (essentially a satellite) would improve our chances of hitting enemy missiles. Another project terminated is the airborne laser (ABL), an aircraft-based high energy laser that could be flown near potential enemy ballistic-missile hotspots.

ABL (of which there is still R&D money in the FY2010 budget) and MKV seem promising in theory but Gates explains the problem with ABL in his May 20 House Appropriations hearing:

I don't know anybody at the Department of Defense, Mr. Tiahrt, who thinks that this program should, or would, ever be operationally deployed. The reality is that you would need a laser something like 20 to 30 times more powerful than the chemical laser in the plane right now to be able to get any distance from the launch site to fire.

So, right now the ABL would have to orbit inside the borders of Iran in order to be able to try and use its laser to shoot down that missile in the boost phase. And if you were to operationalize this you would be looking at 10 to 20 747s, at a billion and a half dollars apiece, and $100 million a year to operate. And there's nobody in uniform that I know who believes that this is a workable concept. [emphasis added]

On the MKV question, Gates explained at the original announcement for the FY2010 budget:

We will terminate the Multiple Kill Vehicle program because of its significant technical challenges and the need to take a fresh look at the requirement.

A successful MKV's value is supposed to be in part its ability to defend against countermeasures but MDA Director O'Reilly noted in response to a question from Senator Collins on their 16 June SASC hearing that the current recalibration also can achieve those goals

Ma'am, the MKV program was a research program that was aimed at delivering a capability in the later part of the next decade. As we have spoken earlier today, we believe pursuing or diverting that research towards intercepting earlier also puts pressure on countermeasures. It forces an adversary to either deploy them when they wouldn't want to very early in flight where they start to drift away over time. It is difficult to make a lightweight object, especially right after boost and deploy it so that it appears like an RV, re-entry vehicle. And second of all, once you deploy countermeasures, if you maneuver your RV, you either, one, disturb those countermeasures, or two, you give away which one is the real RV.

Next up is the discussion of European missile defense. The "third site" debate (which seems to be in limbo rather than finalized) ultimately comes down to a few questions people will inevitably differ on: how important should be pressing the "reset" button with the Russians (and could that pave the way for joint missile defense which probably provides better radar data and a further disincentive for Iran to strike not only the U.S. but Russia as well given the joint interceptor), what is the status of domestic political support in Poland and the Czech Republic (and could there be non missile defense ways to put U.S. military assets on their territory to assure them that don't anger Russia too much), and how large is the Iranian missile threat and to what degree could missile defense stop it? The last is a particularly complicated topic way beyond the purview of this post but I did think the East West Joint Assessement made some good arguments that should be engaged. On a bit of a tangent, I'd point to an interesting exchange from the June 16 Hearing:

SEN. LIEBERMAN: Do the systems in Alaska and California give us the same -- I know the protect us from a North Korean attack. Do they give us the same coverage, for the entire United States, for a missile attack from Iran?

GEN. CARTWRIGHT: Yes, sir, they do. There is additional contribution, as I said, from having sensors in Europe early. But for the kinetic capability, the actual ability of the interceptors, the ones in Fort Greely, Alaska, do protect all of the United States, sir, against launches -- all the launch points out of Iran.

In other words, more missile defense in Europe can help provide additional capability against Iranian missile but the GBI's in Alaska also protect against an Iranian attack. I was also surprised at Cartwright's answer to the confidence with which he would be willing to tell the president that we could hit something (which includes the entire system) with missile defense:

GEN. CARTWRIGHT: I'd be very comfortable saying 90 percent.

Moving back to the article, the last main point I'm skeptical of is the claim made that

A half-hearted missile defense effort only encourages investments in missile technologies on the part of our adversaries, making them believe that with additional resources they will be capable of overwhelming American defenses. U.S. missile-defense policy should be designed to elicit the opposite response. Our enemies and competitors should be forced to conclude that energy and funds spent developing nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them will be wasted because Americans have the know-how and hardware to prevent them from reaching their intended targets.

There's three major problems with this series of arguments. First, there are probably prohibitive technological (see above) and budgetary (particularly when in two wars and facing over a trillion dollars in deficit) constraints that will make a second to none missile defense infeasible. Second, the historical record seems shaky at best for missile defense investments deterring missile proliferation. Kingston had some good analysis on this question here. Lastly, even if the United States could built a missile defense that people did not want to directly try to overwhelm, they will find asymmetric ways to deal with the threat. They will rely on things like countermeasures and cyber to overcome the technological disadvantages. They won't just sit idly by. In conclusion, VCJCS Cartwright aptly noted recently:

"Right now, the enemy is imposing cost on us. We react with exquisite, very expensive, long-time-to-discover systems. We've got to turn that around. We've got to be in front of it," Cartwright said. "We've gone the right direction in missile defense. We have proliferated; we have so many choices, the adversaries just plain don't know where to go.