Can the GMD System Defend Against a Chinese Attack? Three Answers (sort of). June 5, 2015.

The most interesting information to come out of a Congressional Hearing sometimes is contained in the responses to written questions submitted by members of the Congressional Committee.  Usually you have to wait until the full hearing is printed up by the Government Printing Office to see these questions and answers but frequently the answers are worth waiting for.  Here’s one example from the March 25, 2014 House Armed Services Committee Hearing on Ballistic Missile Defense, in which Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chair Representative Mike Rogers asks three witnesses whether or not the U.S. national missile defense system could defend the United States against a (accidental or unauthorized) Chinese ballistic missile attack.  To summarize their responses: (1) It’s classified; (2) It’s complicated (and classified); and (3) No, it’s not technically financially feasible to defeat a full-scale Chinese attack, but the defense would be employed to defend against a limited attack from China (or from anywhere else).

The three witnesses were Vice Admiral James Syring, Director of the Missile Defense Agency, Lieutenant General David L. Mann, Commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense, U.S. Strategic Command, and Elaine M. Bunn, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy.

Representative Rogers asked Admiral Syring and General Mann, “The National Missile Defense Policy Act of 1999 requires that we deploy national missile defenses capable of defending the United States from ‘‘accidental or unauthorized’’ ballistic missile attack, among other attacks. Can you please tell me, are we protected from an accidental or unauthorized ballistic missile attack from a Chinese ballistic missile submarine, which, as you know, the Chinese are now deploying? If not, when will we?” (Another way to view these questions is: “When will be able to defend ourselves against the most survivable portion of China’s nuclear deterrent?)

Admiral Syring’s response is printed as: “The information referred to is classified and is retained in the committee files.”

General Mann’s response is somewhat more expansive, but still ultimately relies on classification: “It is difficult to provide a specific assessment. The Ballistic Missile Defense System is not designed to counter peer or near-peer ballistic missile threats. The level of residual capability to defend against such an incident would be influenced by the degree of indications and warnings, the location of the launch and target impact area, and the accessibility of sensors and interceptors. Upon request, further details could be provided via a classified session or paper.”

Representative Rogers asked Secretary Bunn a somewhat different question: “From a policy perspective, can you please help me understand why we deploy missile defenses to protect our aircraft carriers from Chinese ballistic missiles but we do not deploy missile defenses to protect our cities from Chinese nuclear missiles?”

Her response: “We have the capability to protect our aircraft carriers from ballistic missiles in order to ensure freedom of action and the ability to project power around the globe to protect U.S. interests. The DOD is committed to ensuring defense of the U.S. homeland against limited long-range missile attacks from countries such as North Korea and Iran. With regard to China and Russia, our homeland missile defenses are not designed to counter their advanced long-range missile capabilities because defending against the quantity and quality of their ICBMs would be technologically impractical and cost prohibitive. We remain confident that Chinese and Russian ballistic missile attacks on the U.S. homeland are deterred by other means. Despite not being capable of coping with large-scale Chinese or Russian missile attacks, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system would be employed to defend the United States against limited missile launches from any source.”

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