Congress Must Expand the Nation's Defense Against Ballistic Missiles

In March 9 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering, the director of the Missile Defense Agency, said his agency made history in 2004 by establishing a “limited defensive capability” for protecting the United States against ballistic missile attack.

Congress, as it undertakes the task of drafting the fiscal year (FY) 2007 Defense Authorization bill, must recognize that this defense is very thin and needs to be strengthened. It can do so by making several significant changes in the missile defense budget, such as adding funds to accelerate the concurrent testing and operation program for the long-range missile defense interceptors in Alaska and California and to improve and expand the sea-based interceptors on the Navy’s AEGIS ships.

Looking to the future, Congress should direct the Agency to start serious work on placing missile defense interceptors in space.

A Limited Defense, an Expanding Threat

The threat to the U.S. from rogue states seeking nuclear weapons and improved ballistic missile capabilities is expanding. Iran has announced that it has begun enriching uranium, possibly for the purpose of building a nuclear weapon.

This action is in open defiance of international obligations that require Iran to freeze its enrichment program. Meanwhile, North Korea continues to stonewall the six-nation talks designed to achieve its nuclear disarmament. Both Iran and North Korea continue to pursue ballistic missile delivery systems for such weapons.

For example, North Korea is now estimated to possess more than 600 short-range SCUD-class missiles and as many as 200 medium-range No Dong missiles. It is also continuing development of longer-range missiles that could target U.S. territory in the future. These actions, among others, mean that the U.S. cannot afford to wait to defend itself.

In this context, Congress must understand that the “limited defensive capability” Obering referred to in his testimony is extremely limited indeed. According to Obering, the U.S. now has just nine Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptors fielded in Alaska and two in California for possible use in defending U.S. territory against long-range missiles launched from the Korean Peninsula. It is at best uncertain whether these interceptors could counter an Iranian long-range missile aimed at the East Coast.

Perhaps most importantly, additional testing of the GMD system is necessary to give military commanders confidence in its operational capabilities. Finally, Obering also admitted that the Navy has fewer than 10 Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptor missiles aboard AEGIS class ships. By any reasonable measure, this is not a robust defense.

How to Strengthen Missile Defense Now

History dictated that the U.S. would have to start with a limited defense for countering the ballistic missile threat. This is because for 30 years (1972-2002) the U.S. observed the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with the former Soviet Union that barred the development, testing, and deployment of effective defenses against ballistic missile attack. The negative impact of this policy of purposeful vulnerability cannot be overstated. Even following U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, the Department of Defense proceeded along the limited paths of development and testing the ABM Treaty allowed.

Clearly, Congress cannot reverse the impact of the ABM Treaty in a single Defense Authorization bill. Nevertheless, it can take some immediate steps to ensure that the existing limited defense is expanded as rapidly as possible:

  • Increase funding for the GMD system by $200 million in FY 2007 to accelerate its concurrent testing and operational capability. The acquisition of the GMD system depends on the spiral development approach that the Department of Defense has adopted. This approach recognizes that a missile defense system, generally, cannot be tested until it is built. It also recognizes that there is an inherent operational capability in the developmental system. Adding funds to the GMD account would pay for mores flight testing and more test missiles, which would accelerate those areas of GMD testing and give the operators of the system the confidence they need to put the system on constant alert without halting testing and provide the best defense possible as quickly as possible.
  • Increase funding for the SM-3 missile and AEGIS system by $100 million in FY 2007 to support the deployment of at least 100 interceptors by FY 2011 and improve the capability of the battle management component of the overall weapon system. Testing and developing of the SM-3 missile and AEGIS weapons system for missile defense have gone well. Additional money in this account would build on this strong performance.
  • Cut funding for the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) program in half in FY 2007. The KEI program is designed to provide a ground-based approach for performing missile defense interceptions in the boost and ascent phases of a target missile’s flight. While a boost-phase intercept capability is essential to the comprehensive, layered missile defense architecture the Bush Administration is seeking, it is far from clear that the ground-based option is the best approach—in fact, the Missile Defense Agency has already chosen the Airborne Laser as the lead boost-phase system. Thus, the KEI should be a relatively low priority among the competing missile defense programs. The Bush Administration is requesting $406 million for the KEI program in FY 2007; Congress should reduce this to about $200. As for future funding, Congress should make clear in report language that it intends to shift KEI funds toward the more promising multiple kill vehicle (MKV), which will allow the placement of more than one kill vehicle on each GMD interceptor.
  • Reduce funding for ballistic missile defense products and core functions by $100 million in FY 2007. These accounts support a wide variety of developmental activities. The President has asked for about $980 million in funding for them. With the pressing need to build confidence in the operational capabilities of the developmental missile defense system, Congress should redirect roughly 10 percent of these two accounts to that higher priority.

Future Guidance

Congress should provide guidance to the Missile Defense Agency on the missile defense budget for the years after FY 2007 to push it to break free of the enduring effects of the ABM Treaty. Specifically, Congress should point toward a reallocation of resources within the roughly $9-billion-per-year missile defense budget to exploit the technological options that the ABM Treaty barred the U.S. from pursuing. Two priorities deserve special mention:

  • Increased velocity in the SM-3 missile: Congress should include language in the report accompanying the Defense Authorization bill to direct that the SM-3 program use the Advanced Technology Kill Vehicle (ATKV) system developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This technology will allow the follow-on SM-3 Block 2 missile to achieve velocities of between 6 and 7.5 kilometers per second. By comparison, the current SM-3 missile has a velocity of 3 kilometers per second. Further, the use of the ATKV alternative will allow this increase in velocity within the 53 centimeter capacity of the Navy’s existing Vertical Launch System (VLS), making the SM-3 Block 2 missile an attractive option for allies interested in participating in missile defense, such as Japan. Finally, Congress should direct the Missile Defense Agency to provide future funding for Standard Missile 2 (SM-2) Block 4 air defense interceptors that would defend U.S. coasts against short-range missiles launched from ships.
  • Rapid development and deployment of a space-based interceptor: This interceptor should be based on the Brilliant Pebbles technology developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Space is where the critical boost phase interceptors should be placed to achieve maximum effectiveness. This option will provide global coverage and remain on-station permanently, giving military and civilian leaders the maximum flexibility to respond to missile threats against the U.S. and its friends and allies. The effort made to develop Brilliant Pebbles under the Strategic Defense Initiative proved that the technology for space-based missile defense is obtainable. Congress should remember that the Brilliant Pebbles program was cancelled by the Clinton Administration in 1993 because of its policy to preserve the ABM Treaty and not for technical reasons. The Clinton policy failed, and ABM Treaty restrictions no longer pertain.


As a result of the ABM Treaty, U.S. missile defense capabilities lagged missile capabilities of potentially hostile states when President Bush took office in 2001. While the accelerated missile defense program has made up some ground in the intervening years, it still lags behind these foreign missile capabilities.

The Bush Administration must finally break the missile defense program free from the enduring effects of the ABM Treaty. This means giving the missile defense interceptors already in the field and those soon to be fielded as much operational capability as possible. It also means moving missile defenses where they will be most effective, space. By adjusting missile defense funding for FY 2007 and making clear its intentions for future years, Congress can prod the Administration in this direction.


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