The Best Defense Ever? Busting Myths About the Trump Administration’s Missile Defense Review


Unveiling the 2019 Missile Defense Review, President Donald Trump declared in typical hyperbolic fashion that the United States will build a defense system to protect the American public against missiles “anywhere, anytime, anyplace.”  The text of the review was only slightly less ambitious, calling for six lines of expanded effort including new space-based and/or directed-energy weapons and extending U.S. missile defense goals beyond protection against limited regional threats toward a global protection system. The president’s lofty vision for U.S. dominance in space was consistent with his calls to create a separate “Space Force” military service and the hope he floated that NASA could land an astronaut on Mars as soon as next year. Indeed, the only thing missing from the document’s over-the-top unveiling was an announcement that the United States would accomplish this goal with the Warp Drive, powered by unobtainium.

In practice, the administration’s missile defense accomplishments are likely to remain rather more earthbound. The 2019 Missile Defense Review is only the latest in a long series of attempts to “solve” dilemmas of defense with dreams of new technologies. There is no reason to believe these dreams will materialize this time either — though unwelcome reactions of adversaries will be real enough. Regardless of viability, the vision of an umbrella rendering the United States invulnerable to nuclear weapons has become embedded in U.S. strategic thinking and, in fact, political culture. As a statement of belief, the Missile Defense Review reflects that reality. As a policy proposal, though, after Pentagon and congressional action the most likely outcome will be moderate increases for existing “kinetic kill” systems, but no great leap toward the radical and risky new programs that Trump promised


The United States pursued defenses against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in the 1950s and 1960s, only to drop these defenses when it signed the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. It had become clear to both the United States and the Soviets that defensive systems could always be outmatched by deploying more offensive missiles at much lower cost than expanding defenses. Ballistic missile defense would just accelerate the arms race for little real benefit. President Ronald Reagan resurrected missile defense in the early 1980s with his “Strategic Defense Initiative,” which would rely on exotic (i.e., nonexistent) technology to overcome the fundamental advantage of strategic offense. Reagan’s vision of orbiting X-ray lasers — inspired by Edward Tellerremained science fiction, and the Soviet Union’s demise ought to have reduced the need for nuclear defense.

Nevertheless, missile defense became an even more fervent belief for conservatives after the Cold War. As a military-technical question, some missile defense investments seem worthwhile. There is merit to “theater defense” of limited areas against shorter-range missiles in hot spots like the Persian Gulf. But national invulnerability remained alluring, and Republicans prominently featured ballistic missile defense in their 1994 “Contract with America.” In 1998 evangelical stalwart Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, declared missile defense part of a pro-life, pro-family agenda — not merely a foreign policy issue but a “moral imperative.”

How Boldly Shall We Go?

High-level tensions in 2017 and 2018 between the United States and North Korea, which could have escalated into a nuclear exchange, certainly raised awareness of America’s vulnerability to nuclear attack, despite the over $200 billion already spent on missile defense research, development and deployment between 1985 and 2018. A truly perfect defense from nuclear attack would be worth a great deal to American taxpayers. But since no amount of money can produce such a holy grail — and since the quest itself may bring harmful side effects — then if the United States must pursue ballistic missile defense the question becomes whether to continue to sink money into programs with questionable track records, or move on to more esoteric programs with even higher technical risk and subsequently bigger price tags.

Of the Missile Defense Review’s recommendations, the best case can be made for systems relying on relatively proven technology and with relatively less ambitious goals. That means Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Patriot for the Army; ship- and shore-based Aegis/Standard Missile programs for the Navy; and for the Air Force, yet another mission for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: as a platform for boost-phase intercept. THAAD and Aegis at least have performed better in tests than other ballistic missile defense systems, and their theater defense role is less technically demanding than shooting down longer-range, faster ICBMs.

Using the Joint Strike Fighter as an anti-ICBM platform is still a dubious proposition, however. Modified versions of existing air-to-air missiles are hopeless for the task: They would have to intercept an outgoing ICBM below approximately 100,000 feet of altitude. ICBMs accelerate rapidly, so catching them at such low altitude requires the F-35 (or an unmanned aerial vehicle) to be virtually on top of the adversary launch site, deep in hostile territory, at the moment of liftoff. In principle an entirely new, large exo-atmospheric interceptor missile could be developed and built for the F-35. Doing so might allow intercepts within 200 to 300 miles of a launch site. Such an ambitious capability — if it ever became a reality — could be useful against geographically small North Korea but would be pointless against most adversaries given their available interior space.

The Missile Defense Review also proposes a major expansion of the interceptors based in California and Alaska designed to shoot down intercontinental-range missiles, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense. This system has, at best, a mixed test record. The Missile Defense Agency, an agency free from many of the Pentagon’s usual oversight, testing, and accountability rules, states a success rate of 10 intercepts out of 18 attempts since 1999. The Union of Concerned Scientists puts the intercept success rate under 50 percent.  Keep in mind that those tests have been highly scripted toward success rather than conducted under operational conditions.

There is also interest in expanding Aegis’s ballistic missile defense capability to include ICBMs. That ability has yet to be engineered, let alone tested, but Aegis at least seems better managed by the Navy than the Missile Defense Agency’s ground-based system. Ground-based “kinetic kill” systems like Aegis or the midcourse defense do have the advantage of actually existing; they aren’t PowerPoint fantasy technology. The interceptors are expensive and delicate, however, and beyond mediocre performance in simple intercept tests they are likely to be highly vulnerable to countermeasures as simple as metalized balloons and chaff in their pathway or more sophisticated like maneuvering warheads.

Where No Missile Defense Has Gone Before?

Trump, the Missile Defense Review, the National Security Strategy, and last year’s National Space Strategy have all declared that space is a “new warfighting domain.”  While the Missile Defense Review formally calls for “study” of space-based missile defenses, Pentagon leaders are enthused by the prospect and Trump himself said at the document’s unveiling that space-based defenses will play a “very, very big part.” The shift in U.S. space policy came in response to Chinese advancements in space, which include human and robotic space exploration as well as the military use of space. Although the United States has expanded its expertise in those areas for decades, because of the dual-use nature of space technology it has taken a “do as we say, not as we do” approach to those same areas regarding China — viewing it as threatening when the Chinese develop the same space capabilities, even for non-military uses, that the United States relies on every day. But space is also an inherently expensive place to operate, an environment with different physical principles than other domains — warfighting or otherwise. As such, developing new technology for space requires considerable economic and technical risk. Moscow learned that when it sought to keep up with U.S. “Star Wars” efforts in the 1980s, which contributed — along with its military involvement in Afghanistan, cheap oil, and its own failed economic system — to the demise of the Soviet Union by draining its coffers.

The United States partially vindicated the Soviets’ fear that missile defense technology could be used for offensive purposes, including for anti-satellite weapons, in 2008 with Operation Burnt Frost, in which a U.S. anti-missile interceptor was used to destroy an orbiting satellite. Many countries today remain fearful of being vulnerable to American space weapons, which further encourages these countries to pursue, out of self-interest, their own versions of offensive space capabilities. Since its anti-satellite weapon test in 2007, China has learned it is more politically acceptable to test nearly symbiotic “missile defense” capabilities instead. Similarly, Russia and India have missile defense programs with anti-satellite potential.

Offense in space is cheaper and easier than defense.  Space-based kinetic interceptors could target ICBMs during their boost phase, but that requires the interceptor to be near the launch site. A battle satellite in low-Earth orbit will, because it is orbiting, spend only a small fraction of the time within range of adversary launch sites.  Continuous coverage therefore requires a constellation of dozens or more likely hundreds of expensive satellites. Satellites carrying directed-energy weapons like lasers could have more range, but still would require line-of-sight shots — and more importantly, that technology does not currently exist. Orbiting anti-missile platforms would themselves be highly vulnerable to anti-satellite weapons. Advocates may propose that orbiting ballistic missile defense platforms carry defensive countermeasures of their own, but it is hard to imagine how such countermeasures could not be overcome with improved anti-satellite weapons. Development of defensive space technology has been described as a “self-licking ice cream cone” as it is never really reaches the intended goal; it only perpetuates the need for a next step, and more funding.

Whichever technologies are pursued, the price tag could be high indeed. Many of the review’s critics focused on the sticker shock: Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund, for example, suggests the price tag for the steps outlined in the document could top $1 trillion. Such a high figure is not implausible. The National Academy of Sciences calculated in 2012 that a “bare-bones” constellation of space-based interceptors alone could cost half a trillion dollars. Even as modest an improvement as buying 20 additional interceptors for the Alaskan ground-based midcourse defense will cost $2 billion, not counting the never-ending expense of retrofitting “fixes” to all the deployed interceptors after test failures. Grandiose ideas come with grandiose costs.

Landmines: The Downsides of a Technologically Questionable System

Even if missile defense were moderately successful and affordable, arms control advocates have convincingly warned for decades about the potential for counterproductive, even dangerous, unintended consequences of pursuing a nuclear shield. Robust missile defenses are likely to increase an adversary’s incentive to strike first in a crisis, to trigger arms races to overwhelm any defensive system, or to encourage the deployment of entirely new kinds of weapons. Because offense is cheaper and easier than defense, technically capable countries such as China and Russia have kept pace with U.S. efforts to thwart those countries’ strategic capabilities and will continue to prioritize doing so. Physics is the same in Moscow and Beijing as it is in Washington. Expanding U.S. missile defense efforts could push them to expand their strategic nuclear forces, creating a game of catch-up the United States cannot afford and will not win. Last year, for instance, as if on cue, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed Russia would get around U.S. missile defenses with nuclear-powered cruise missiles, or with robotic submarines carrying hundred-megaton warheads to detonate in America’s harbors. In pursuing nuclear invulnerability we risk chasing a chimera, only to step on landmines.

Missile Defense Review supporters might argue that the Chinese and Russians initiated this cycle with new offensive systems of their own; the United States is merely reacting. In fact, China has not greatly expanded its modest arsenal of intercontinental missiles (theater systems to strike deployed U.S. forces are another matter). Russia is deploying new strategic nuclear systems, but consistent with arms control treaties, has actually been reducing its total number of deliverable strategic weapons by dismantling even greater numbers of old launchers. Experts who study Russian decision-making believe fear of U.S. counterforce and ballistic missile defense efforts is a significant motivator for Moscow. In either case, America’s ability to deter attacks through nuclear retaliation remains unchallenged and is likely to remain so.

Exacerbating fears in foreign capitals will be the Missile Defense Review’s novel inclusion of offense as part of American missile defense. Unlike previous missile defense policy statements, the latest document places preemptive attacks on adversary missile forces within the category of “missile defense.”  The Missile Defense Review avoids the words “preemption” or “counterforce,” instead using the phrase “attack options for missile defense.” What the review does suggest, though, is disarming first strikes: “U.S. attack operations supporting missile defense will degrade, disrupt, or destroy an adversary’s missiles before they are launched. Such operations are part of a comprehensive missile defense strategy.”  It notes that “DoD is placing added emphasis on the capabilities needed for such attack operations.”  Counterforce has always been part of U.S. doctrine, but official statements have, in the past, downplayed any connection between missile defense and offensive strikes precisely because that is what adversaries like Russia or China have suspected American missile defense is all about. The most charitable read would be that Missile Defense Review authors were directing those comments at North Korea, not trying to raise Russian or Chinese fears. Even so, giving Kim Jong Un additional incentive for a “hair trigger” is not wise, and of course the document is read globally. Explicitly linking anti-missile systems and disarming first strikes in a public document suggests either a major misstep in strategic messaging or a dramatically more aggressive U.S. counterforce posture.

Rhetoric vs. Implementation: What’s Next for Missile Defense?

An old aphorism about space suggests “no bucks, no Buck Rogers.”  There is a long distance between something being proposed in a high-level policy document and it becoming a Defense Department program of record with congressionally appropriated funding. Given the multiple, interconnected risks associated with funding new technologies as well as service bureaucratic interests and skepticism in Congress, the most likely bet is that funding priority will go to “more of the same” programs. The services will be most inclined to support lower-risk programs relevant to theater war plans and that make use of flagship platforms like Aegis or the Joint Strike Fighter; generals and admirals will not be eager to trade away their future “crown jewel” programs for hypothetical space lasers. With mounting deficits, large increases in Defense Department funding for new missile defense programs will be a tough sell, especially given Democratic control of the House of Representatives. Major procurement programs usually have champions on both sides of the aisle, but since the Reagan era, missile defense has had few friends among Democrats. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) was strongly negative on the Missile Defense Review, as was Senator Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee. In today’s political climate it is difficult to see how any expensive new initiative subject to decades of partisan disagreement can survive.

As with the call for a “separate and equal” Space Force, what emerges from the Missile Defense Review is likely to be well short of Trump’s bold claims. But a “failure to launch” for the document’s most ambitious ideas is probably a good outcome, as these concepts would be more likely to generate budgetary black holes and dangerous reactions from adversaries than to deliver a spaceborne shield that frees Americans from the frightening reality of the nuclear age.


David T. Burbach is an Associate Professor at the Naval War College who writes on security and technology issues. Joan Johnson-Freese holds the Charles F. Bolden, Jr. Chair of Science, Space & Technology at the Naval War College.

The views expressed are the authors’ alone and not those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, or the Department of Defense.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Master Sgt. Eric Peterson