The Pentagon, Prudence, and Missile Defense

Earlier this year, the U.S. military acknowledged that North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles can now hit targets anywhere in the continental United States. Bizarrely, the Pentagon has responded by cutting the one program that could stop them.

The Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program, which has existed since the early 2000s, is designed to protect the homeland from an intercontinental missile (ICBM) attack. Or, in other words, to act as the last line of defense in the event of nuclear war.

It does this by shooting ICBMs out of the sky. The GMD, which is made up of 64 ground-based launchers, sends out “kill vehicles” which use sensors, lasers, and rocket thrusters to track and catch ICBMs, destroying them before they hit the earth.

To most people it sounds like the stuff of “Star Wars” novels, but, increasingly, it is a necessary tool in a constantly changing, missile-heavy world. Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran either possess nuclear missiles, or are working hard to acquire them—to say nothing of other rogue nations and failed states doing the same.

This makes the Pentagon’s recent decision to terminate the program all the more confusing.

That the GMD has long been in need of an update is without question. Just one percent of the Pentagon’s mammoth budget goes toward missile defense—and of that one percent, a significant portion is spent overseas, defending U.S. forces and allies. Our “kill vehicles”—the central component of the GMD system, which take out incoming missiles—have been in need of a reboot for quite some time.

The Pentagon was working steadily toward a re-design of the program, before pausing it in May, and then outright canceling it in August.

“Ending the program was the responsible thing to do,” said Michael Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. “Development programs sometimes encounter problems . . . so we’re not going down that path anymore.”

The new path the Pentagon intends to go down is called the Next Generation Interceptor. And almost everything about it is secret. But we do know one thing about it, and that is it will take at least 10 years to be fully operational.

In other words, the decision to pivot away from the GMD will leave the U.S. without a robust missile defense system for at least a decade, during one of the most unpredictable global periods in recent memory.

It’s an unusual decision for other reasons, as well, chief among them that the re-design of the GMD kill vehicles was actually going fairly well.

While the program faced setbacks, the existing kill vehicles were performing successfully with engineering changes, and existing challenges slowly were being overcome.

More important, the existing GMD system is working and would remain in place, even as the kill vehicles are being re-designed, ensuring ongoing protection from existing threats. The Pentagon’s decision to focus solely on the Next Generation Interceptor, however, will ensure this protection is taken offline, transferring resources away from current protections against deadly threats.

In other words, as the threats from ballistic missiles of rogue actors around the globe increases, our ability to defend against them will decrease.

Pentagon bureaucrats Michael Griffin and Ellen Lord seem convinced that reducing our existing missile defense capabilities in pursuit of what’s coming is sound strategic defense policy. Some in Congress disagree.

Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) speculated that the decision may be “short-sighted,” and noted that the United States “cannot afford to wait possibly a decade for a new and still conceptual kill vehicle.”

While the allure of new technology to keep the country safe is understandable, it cannot and should not be pursued in a way that leaves the homeland open to direct threats. And a decision to pivot away from rehabbing the GMD does just that.

While Pentagon bureaucrats may lack the will, the Pentagon itself certainly has the resources to upgrade the GMD. Under President Trump, defense resources have never been higher.

As one expert noted, however, the influx of cash can lead to strategic errors.

What’s happening at the Pentagon today is typical of past periods in which the military was flush with funding. New ideas and initiatives get started, aimed at leaping ahead to more advanced capabilities, without much regard to whether the funding will continue flowing. Meanwhile the existing solution to a challenge is neglected, because a better answer supposedly is coming. When that better answer flames out for lack of funding or technical feasibility, the nation ends up worse off than where it started because the legacy system has not been maintained.

As the threat of ICBM attacks steadily grows, it would be short-sighted and, potentially, ill-fated, for the Pentagon to move resources from existing and functional programs to a technology that will take at least a decade to develop, if it can be developed at all. The risks are too high to leave the homeland undefended in this environment of profound and significant threats.

About Rachel Bovard

Rachel Bovard is senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute and Senior Advisor to the Internet Accountability Project. Beginning in 2006, she served in both the House and Senate in various roles including as legislative director for Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and policy director for the Senate Steering Committee under the successive chairmanships of Senator Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) and Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), where she advised Committee members on strategy related to floor procedure and policy matters. In the House, she worked as senior legislative assistant to Congressman Donald Manzullo (R-Il.), and Congressman Ted Poe (R-Texas). She is the former director of policy services for the Heritage Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @RachelBovard.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images Plus

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