U.S. Navy Missile Defense: Continuing Evolution
Part 8: The global ballistic missile threat
How the Threat has Evolved
In an earlier post, we described how the worldwide ballistic missile threat has evolved. We described the numerous reports and commissions that identified this growing threat early on. By the end of the last decade, this threat had grown to such an extent that as a companion document to the Congressionally-mandated Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the first-ever Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR) was published in 2010 to underscore the compelling nature of this threat. More on the BMDR in a moment.
The 2010 National Security Strategy underscored the most important functions of the national government:
This administration has no greater responsibility than the safety and security of the American people. And there is no greater threat to the American people then weapons of mass destruction, particularly the danger posed by the pursuit of nuclear weapons by violent extremists and their proliferation to additional states.
Today, as described earlier, the global ballistic missile threat has morphed from massed numbers of ICBMs unleashed by a peer competitor to the threat of accidental release of a ballistic missile or the threat of one fired by a so-called rogue nation or a national or international terrorist group. And the threat of what these ballistic missiles could carry – from solely nuclear WMD to chemical and biological WMD – has multiplied the number of nations that can combine these capabilities to threaten the United States, forward-deployed forces, allies, and friends.
These themes where reinforced by then-Program Director of Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense Rear Adm. Alan B. Hicks in a Naval Institute Proceedings article which framed the current and future BMD/WMD threat:
Today, the United States faces a greater danger from an expanding number of hostile regimes and terrorist groups that seek to acquire and use ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). These adversaries may not respond to traditional tools and concepts of deterrence. More than 25 countries – some friendly to the United States and some not so – have ballistic missiles and WMD programs in various stages of development. Our intelligence estimates indicate that a small number of countries could acquire ICBM capabilities by 2020, either through indigenous development or technology transfer, thus posing a direct threat to the nation.
China’s large store of ballistic missiles, especially the “carrier-killer” DF-21D, is an essential ingredient undergirding its anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) efforts in the Asia Pacific region. While some downplay China’s increasingly bellicose statements – especially toward the United States – regarding its maritime interests, and believe that China’s growing military arsenal is not a threat, a September 2011 Center for Naval Analysis report described the reasons for China’s military buildup, noting:
China continues to have vital interests that touch on questions of sovereignty and territorial integrity in maritime areas near the mainland. Until these issues are resolved, a key component of how Chinese policy-makers think about maritime power is their need to develop the means necessary to prevent de jure independence for Taiwan, prevent an attack on the Chinese mainland from the sea, and defend China’s territorial and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) claims. The United States is perceived as the single most important potential security threat and the one actor that could prevent China from attaining its goals with regard to Taiwan and other disputes in regional seas.
But China is not the only country that presents a compelling threat of ballistic missiles armed with WMD. In his third State of the Union address, President Obama said, “Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.” In a sentence, this summarizes the grave concerns regarding Iran’s ability to arm its increasingly-robust ballistic missile arsenal with WMD. Iran has embarked on an aggressive program of ballistic missile development, producing missiles capable of longer range. Coupled with inflammatory rhetoric by Iran’s leaders, including recent threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, Iran’s ballistic missile development presents a clear and present danger.
While considerable ink has been spilled – specifically focused on Iran’s enrichment of uranium for other-than-peaceful development – it is the combination of this nascent WMD capability with its ballistic capability that presents an increasingly dangerous threat. A recent CSIS study captured the growing threat presented by Iran:
The most threatening form of U.S. and Iranian competition takes place in the military and security arena. The areas where this competition now gets primary attention are the nuclear and missile arena, and Iranian threats to “close the Gulf.” U.S. and Iranian tensions over Iran’s nuclear program have grown steadily over the years. They now threaten to reach the crisis point as Iran produces highly enriched uranium and develops all of the technology necessary to produce nuclear weapons, and as US, European, and UN sanctions become steadily stronger.
The United States Response
The National Strategic Narrative, the highest level statement of U.S. strategic interests – and the one that undergirds all other national, intelligence community and defense community documents – notes that, “In the 21st century we want to become the strongest competitor and most influential player in a deeply inter-connected global system, which requires that we invest less in defense and more in sustainable prosperity and the tools of effective global engagement.”
This narrative goes on to show how National policy decisions regarding investment, security, economic development, the environment, and engagement well into this century are built upon the premise that the United States must sustain our enduring national interests – prosperity and security – within a “strategic ecosystem,” at home and abroad; that in complexity and uncertainty, there are opportunities and hope, as well as challenges, risks, and threats.
While achieving the goals outlined in National Strategic Narrative clearly requires a whole-of-government approach, it falls to the Department of Defense to be a primary agent for ensuring the nation’s security. And since ballistic missiles armed with WMD remain the singular existential threat to the United States, ballistic missile defense is a mission that involves all the services, and regional BMD is a mission that increasingly supports the U.S. geographical Combatant Commanders (COCOMs).
The Intense Focus on BMD
The 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR) revealed a strategic pivot in the way the United States and its allies and friends would deal with the growing ballistic missile threat. As the BMDR noted:
The United States will defend U.S. deployed forces from regional missile threats while also protecting our allies and partners and enabling them to defend themselves. This policy has guided the development of U.S. capabilities since the emergence of the ballistic missile proliferation problem in the 1980s and the development of initial terminal defense capabilities in the early 1990. As regional protection capabilities begin to take shape, it is important to ensure effective operational and political cooperation with allies and partners.
The United States will seek to lead expanded international efforts for missile defense. It will work more closely with allies and partners to provide pragmatic and cost-effective capacity…The United States, with the support of allies and partners, seeks to create an environment in which the acquisition, deployment, and use of ballistic missiles by regional adversaries can be deterred, principally by eliminating their confidence in the effectiveness of such attacks, and thereby devaluing their ballistic missile arsenals.
The 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance went further regarding the ballistic missile threat, tying these missiles more closely with WMD. It notes, “Of particular concern are the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction (WMD).” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta gave additional emphasis to the BMD threat and the Navy’s crucial role in this mission in a press briefing in January 2012 following the release of Defense Strategic Guidance and Defense Budget Priorities and Choices. The Secretary’s statement, noted, in part:
The Navy is protecting our highest priority and most flexible ships, such as Arleigh Burke destroyers. It plans to retire lower priority cruisers that have not been upgraded with ballistic missile defense capability or that require significant maintenance, as well as combat logistics and fleet support ships.
But to fully understand the nature of the ballistic missile threat to the United States, our forces forward, our allies and our friends, we need to look more deeply into the growing threat posed by China and Iran, as well as by various terrorist groups.