Ballistic Missile Defense: NAS Report: Back to the Clinton Administration’s Approach to Ballistic Missile Defense (September 19, 2012)

Early press coverage of the National Academy of Sciences September 11, 2012 report Making Sense of Ballistic Missile Defense: An Assessment of Concepts and Systems for U.S. Boost-Phase Missile Defense  in Comparison to Other Alternatives has emphasized that the Report calls for scrapping President Obama’s approach to missile defense and returning to the approach of the George W. Bush Administration.   Thus UPI headlines its story “Panel Urges Return to Bush Missile Defense” and the New York Times says “the panel suggested that President Obama shift course by expanding a system he inherited from President George W. Bush and by setting aside the final part of an antimissile strategy he unveiled in 2009.”[1]  In fact, the approach proposed by the NAS panel is a repudiation of the missile defense strategy of the George W.  Bush Administration, and is a return to the missile defense approach of the Clinton Administration.  In particular, it moves away from the Bush Administration’s goal of building a single integrated global missile defense system back to the traditional approach of using separate systems for national and theater defenses.

Shortly after becoming President George W. Bush made sweeping changes to the U.S. missile defense.  He withdrew the U.S. from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) and determined that the United States would deploy an initial National Missile Defense (NMD) system by the end of 2004.  In order to achieve this goal, he exempted the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) for essentially all the normal Department of Defense development, testing and reporting requirement and implanted a “spiral development” approach under which systems would be deployed long before they were adequately flight tested.  The result is the current Ground-Based Midcourse (GMD) national missile defense system, with its 30 large Ground-Based Interceptors (GBIs) in silos in Alaska and California, on which the U.S. has essentially wasted at least $34 billion since 1996.  The systems GBI’s interceptors are so expensive and unreliable, that contrary to what press reports might suggest, the NAS does not propose expanding the deployment of the GBI interceptors, but instead argues that they should be completely scrapped and replaced by entirely new higher-acceleration interceptor missiles.  The GBIs would then, literally, be used for target practice.

More fundamentally, the George W. Bush missile defense program formally eliminated the distinction between National Missile Defense, intended to defend the U.S. homeland from intercontinental range missiles, and Theater Missile Defenses, intended to protect U.S. forces overseas and U.S. allies form shorter-range missiles.  Instead, the Bush Administration stated that its goal was to build an integrated global defense against missiles of all ranges.  Consistent with this approach, the Bush Administration in 2007 announced plans to deploy interceptors in Poland, not for the defense of Europe, but for defense of the eastern United States from possible future Iranian long-range missiles.  The Obama Administration has basically maintained this integrated approach, with the difference that its proposed European missile defense system would first defend Europe and then, by 2020, the United States from Iranian missiles.  This approach is reflected by MDA Director Lt. General Patrick O’Reilly’s 2011 statement that by 2020 the MDA intended to be able to “deal with fifty missiles in the air at once” under “seamless world coverage.”[2]

The conclusions of the NAS report represent a rejection of this integrated approach (although it is not clear that this was the Report’s intention).  In essence, it argues that national missile defense requirements are best achieved by building a dedicated NMD system, and that theater missile defense requirements capability are best met by deploying TMD systems.  Thus the NAS Report calls for scrapping Phase IV of Obama’s European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), which was the part of the system intended to protect U.S. territory, as unnecessary for either European or U.S. national defense.  Instead, it advocates going ahead with only the first three phases of the EPAA as purely a theater missile defense of Europe, and also deploying new interceptors and radars dedicated solely to national missile defense.   In addition, the NAS plan would complete this disintegration of this planned global system into separate NMD and TMD pieces by eliminating the only currently planned system that could have in in theory knitted all these systems into an integrated whole, the space-based Precision Tracking and Surveillance Systems.

Ultimately the NAS plan thus represents a return to the approach developed by the Clinton Administration, to which it bears a striking resemblance.  Both plans called for deployment (although the Clinton Administration never decided to proceed with deployment) of interceptors at two sites (leaving aside the current token deployment of four interceptors in California) supported by a sensor system comprised primarily of X-band radars co-located with upgraded early warning radars (although the X-band radars proposed by the NAS are far smaller than those in the Clinton plan).  And both approaches rely on separate theater missile defenses for defense of U.S. forces and allies.


[1]UPI, “Panel Urges Return to Bush Administration,” September 11, 2012; William J. Broad, “U.S. Missile Defense Strategy Is Flawed, Panel Finds,” The New York Times, September 12, 1012, p. 3.

[2]Marina Malenic, “MDA to Compete Aegis Ashore, Pass On Next-Gen THAAD,” Defense Daily, March 22, 2011.

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