What Is a Robust National Missile Defense Capability? (May 20, 2015)

In looking back at a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report from last July, I was struck by its statement that, as part of its Ground Based Midcourse (GMD) national missile defense system, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) planned “to deliver a robust defense capability in 2019.”[1]  I hadn’t noticed such a statement before, and it immediately raised two questions: In the context of the GMD system, what does a “robust defense capability” mean?  And what happens in 2019 to mark the “delivery” of this robust capability?  As discussed below, I have been unable to uncover an answer to either question, so if anyone knows the answers, I would be interested in hearing from them.

The GAO Report itself does not answer these questions.  All it says is that in order to reach 44 operationally deployed interceptors by 2017 and to deliver this robust capability by 2019, “many concurrent efforts must be completed including successful testing, restarting CE-II production, and developing and acquiring interceptors with new components.”  However, all of these steps are necessary to achieve the 44 deployed interceptors by 2017 alone.

The word “robust” is often used in discussions of missile defenses, frequently in the context of steps that are said to make defenses “more robust.”  It is much rarer to see the word used to denote a specific capability of a defense system, and in particular when that system is the GMD system.  But I have found two examples, both from 2011.

In March 2011, then MDA Director Lt. General O’Reilly, speaking in the context of both the GMD systems and regional defenses, told Congress that: “Our objective is to a field a robust missile defense by providing at least two intercept opportunities, by two or more different interceptor systems, against every threat missile in flight by the end of this decade.”[2]

The MDA’s 2011 Program Update, in a section headlined Developing the BMDS Over the Next Decade: Robust Homeland Defense Against Limited Attack, similarly stated that: “By the end of the decade, we will have in place a two-layered ICBM defense consisting of the GMD system. BMDS sensor network, and the Aegis system with the SM-3 IIB to provide multiple intercept opportunities of potential ICBMs targeting the United States by current regional threats.”

These two statements seem to be clearly defining a robust defense as one that provides multiple intercept opportunties by at least two different types of interceptors, specifically the GMD system’s GBI interceptors and the Eurpean Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA)’s SM-3 IIB interceptors.  The apparent idea here is that not only does having two different types of interceptors in two different locations provide more possible intercept opportunities, thus reducing the risk of a failure due to reliability issues, but also that the different nature of the two interceptors (and the different parts of the target’s trajectory at which they attempt to intercept) might allow one type of interceptor to succeed even if the other type failed (for example, due to an unexpected countermeasure).  The latter argument does not seem very convincing in this case, as both types of interceptors work in basically the same way.  In any event, the SM-3 IIB was cancelled in 2013.  While GMD system can still make multiple intercept attempts, they would all use GBIs with very similar kill vehicles (and all the intercept attempts would occur in roughly the second half of the target’s trajectory).

More recently, in his presentation to the 2014 Space and Missile Defense Conference, MDA Director Admiral J.D. Syring showed a slide with the title: Robust Homeland Defense (2020-2025 Timeframe).  This slide shows a number of planned GMD improvements that are planned for 2016 onwards.  Thus this slide appears to be arguing that the GMD system will gradually become more robust as capability enhancements are made rather than indicating that a specific defined “robust defense capability” will be achieved at some point between 2020 and 2025.


Is there anything planned for 2019 that could significantly enhance the GMD’s systems capabilities?  The slide “Ground-Based Midcourse Defense Fielding” also shown by Admiral Syring at the 2014 SMDC Conference, does not show any new GMD capability being deployed in 2019.

GMD PlannedFielding

As far as I can tell, the most significant events currently planned for the GMD system in 2019 are two tests:

— The first intercept test for the new Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV).

— The first intercept test using the two-stage GBI booster.

The year 2020 could see a number of new capabilities added to the GMD system, such as the deployment of the Long-Range Discrimination Radar, and the possible first deployment of both the RKV and the two-stage version of the GBI.  However, there does not seem to be anything happening in, or even by, 2019 that would justify labeling the GMD system’s capability as robust.


[1] Government Accountability Office, “Missile Defense: MDA Report Provides Limited Insight on Improvements to Homeland Missile Defense and Acquisition Plans,” GAO-14-626R, July 17, 2014, p. 4.

[2] Lieutenant General Patrick J. O’Reilly, House Armed Services Committee, Strategic Forces Subcommittee, March 31, 2011.

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