International partnerships are key to a strong missile defense amid budget crunch

Michael J. Del Rosso VP & Senior Fellow, The American Strategy Group
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The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) hopes to improve our troubled homeland missile defense system with funding in the 2015 defense budget. But what about missile defense for our warfighters, ships, and foreign bases? What about our allies? With sequestration crushing the defense budget, the question is this: How can we afford a robust missile defense of the American heartland and, at the same time, defend allies and our soldiers around the globe from growing missile threats?

America’s defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) is inadequate. It consists of one site at Vandenberg AFB in California, with four ICBM interceptor missiles, and one site at Fort Greely in Alaska, with 20 interceptors. To counter North Korean and Iranian ICBMs launched into polar paths that evade our Pacific defenses, our missile defense system must be expanded. The minimum system improvement must also cover our completely undefended Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard.

A basic and realistic national missile defense would augment existing interceptors with anti-ICBM Aegis Ashore systems in Texas, Mississippi, and Florida, costing some $700 million each, plus accompanying Patriot missile batteries to defeat cruise missiles. The cost to deploy an existing TYP-2 radar in Maine to help coordinate targeting of missiles coming over the North Pole would be $20 million. Finally, Aegis cruisers and destroyers in the Atlantic, or in port, would be tasked to defend the eastern coast with shipboard equipment until permanent Aegis Ashore sites could be built. Initial system cost: less than $4 billion.

By 2012, the U.S. spent $36 billion in ground-based ICBM defense, with another $4 billion programmed for 2013-2017. Director of the MDA, Vice Admiral James Syring, is well aware of the difficulties his $37 billion 2015 budget request faces in Congress and, despite growing threats, he is unlikely to ask for more funds for homeland missile defense.

Additionally, the list of hot spots and unstable regions grows longer every day, with potential enemies improving their weapons and closing the gap with our missile defense technologies. As a result, U.S. Combatant Commands like CENTCOM are asking for better missile defenses in their operational theaters. At the same time, allies and treaty partners like Turkey, Japan, Israel, and the Gulf nations are asking for more missile defense systems as their regional threat levels rise.

Obviously, today’s fiscal challenges mean that no one nation can do it all. But low-risk joint programs with foreign partners can support new missile defense systems and also improve the capability of existing ones. There is some precedent for this kind of collaboration.

The MDA has long cooperated with Israel on the Arrow missile defense system. In 2007, the Arrow 2 missile demonstrated it can intercept attacking ballistic missiles. Boeing, partnered with Israeli Aerospace Industries since 2008, is now developing Arrow 3, an extremely capable interceptor based on simple concepts and mature technologies that are reliable and inexpensive. The MDA is also working with Israel’s Missile Defense Organisation to develop David’s Sling, a medium range interceptor that defeated a target missile last year. (Though Arrow 3 and David’s Sling consistently intercept target missiles, the Obama administration proposes cutting funds for the U.S. share of missile defense projects with Israel.)

Improving the highly successful Aegis ballistic missile defense system, through a program with Japan, is another example of stretching defense dollars by partnering with allies. In 2006, the U.S. Navy and Japanese Ministry of Defense created the SM-3 Cooperative Development Program to develop a variant of that American missile in order to intercept long range ballistic missiles. The U.S. and Japan share in funding the project, and Japan has already contributed $1 billion of its own money.

And perhaps the most successful multinational partnership involves Patriot, the only air and missile defense system proven by over 1,000 flight tests and actual combat. Nevertheless, like any other complex defense system, Patriot must be updated to stay ahead of the threat curve. A Patriot modernization program — the Fair Share program — recently improved radar, trainers, missiles and launchers. Almost 90 percent of the $400 million cost was funded by the United Arab Emirates, a precedent that should galvanize the Department of Defense to commit to a long-term modernization program to keep the system on the front lines.

There is a model suggested by these programs, and by others, that provides a template for defense spending in austere fiscal environments. The basic steps are:

First, improve missile defense systems that already exist. With systems like Aegis, Arrow, David’s Sling, and Patriot, there is no need to invest in expensive pie-in-the-sky concepts that may never succeed. Potential adversaries are developing missiles that are rapidly eroding the U.S. technology advantage, so it is imperative that America and its allies first improve systems they trust before spending scarce money for new systems.

Second, invest in systems that potential partners know and, in many cases, already own. Aegis and Patriot are cases in point, with Japan adopting Aegis, and 11 countries deploying Patriot. Incremental improvements to those systems will keep them ahead of growing threats at an affordable cost that our allies will help support.

While Congress deals with a defense budget badly warped by sequestration, it is a good time for defense planners on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon to be innovative in getting the most bang for every defense buck. It is a good time to invest in joint defense programs that protect us, our allies, and our warfighters.