13 March 2017

Build Limited Missile Defenses Against Russian, Chinese Strikes: Experts


Russia’s most advanced attack submarine, the Severodvinsk class, could approach the US coast and launch nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. (Navy graphic)

WASHINGTON: It’s time to build up missile defenses against limited attacks from Russia and China, leading experts gingerly suggest in a forthcoming study. While we can’t stop an all-out nuclear barrage, they say, we can and should reduce the temptation for Moscow or Beijing to risk a small strike. Such limited nuclear strikes are an important part of modern Russian military doctrine in particular, which prescribes them as a way to quickly end a losing conventional war — a technique incongruously called “escalate to deescalate.”

Henry “Trey” Obering

None of the contributors to Missile Defense and Defeat is proposing a Reaganesque Star Wars shield. They don’t think it’s feasible, affordable, or even desirable, since just trying to build one would undermine the Mutually Assured Destruction that has kept the nuclear peace for 70 years. But as China and Russia grow both more capable and more confrontational, several of the authors argue, we need to break the taboo on discussing any kind of missile defense against great powers. A congressionally chartered review now underway in the Pentagon is a great place to start.

“The reemergence of a belligerent Russia with the largest missile inventory in the world… presents an existential threat to the United States and its allies,” writes Henry “Trey” Obering, former director of the Missile Defense Agency. “We must use this inflection point to build the next generation of missile defense needed, not only to meet the rogue nation threat (i.e. North Korea and Iran), but also the threats posed by Russia and China as well.”

Kenneth Todorov

In particular, “it is time for America to prioritize homeland cruise missile defense,” writes former MDA deputy director Kenneth Todorov. Historically, missile defense has focused on ballistic missiles flying high and fast; cruise missiles are lower, slower, and a distinctly different problem. “The threat to the U.S. homeland from cruise missiles, predominantly from China and Russia, is increasing at an alarming rate,” writes Todorov, and “the use of these weapons in such scenarios has been part of Russia’s publicized doctrine for years.”

Keith Payne

Co-author Keith Payne, a senior member of Strategic Command’s Senior Advisory Group, is especially concerned about threats to America’s ICBM fields. While the Nixon Administration’s Safeguard system was meant to keep our capacity to retaliate intact through a Russian first strike, he writes, we’ve largely ignored active defenses for our ICBMs since, relying on purely passive defenses like hardened silos. While Payne says stopping a large-scale Russia or Chinese attack would require dramatic technological breakthroughs, he’s more optimistic about what he calls “a ‘thin’ missile defense to protect against limited missile threats or attacks from any origin, including Russia and China.”

Brad Roberts

Likewise, “(while) the United States should not seek homeland missile defense against Russia and China,” writes Lawrence Livermore’s Brad Roberts, “the protection against limited ballistic missile strikes (should) be extended to protection against limited cruise missile strikes on the homeland.” Particularly in Europe, where Aegis systems ashore and at sea are officially only aimed at Iran, Roberts writes, “the objective (is) taking Russia’s ‘cheap shots’ at the alliance off the table (–) that is, Russia’s use of a very small number of strikes, with the threat of more to come, to persuade NATO not to act militarily to secure an interest (–) as opposed to the large-scale strikes of which Russia is also capable.”

Lead author and collection editor Tom Karako, missile defense director at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, is actually more cautious than his four co-authors in discussing defense against the Russian threat. But even he recommends beefing up missile defenses with, for example, interceptors fired from non-descript cargo containers, intermingled with empty decoys in a gigantic shell game: That, he told me with satisfaction, “will drive the Russians bananas.”

Tom Karako

None of these ideas is about creating a perfect defense, Karako emphasized. “This isn’t about any sort of bubble,” he said. “It’s about raising the threshold” — making a limited strike less likely to succeed, and therefore less tempting.

The venue in which Karako & co. hope these out-of-the-box ideas get discussed is the “review of the missile defeat capability, policy, and strategy of the United States” ordered by the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act and due back to Congress by Jan. 31st, 2018. Unlike the last such study, which was narrowly couched as a Ballistic Missile Defense Review, this Missile Defeat Review explicitly includes cruise missile threats, new dangers such as hypersonic weapons, cooperation with allies, and “left of launch” solutions such as blowing up the enemy missiles on the launchpad (a way to “defeat” that’s not “defense). “It’s not just about ballistics any more, and (the) legislative mandate is pretty up front about that,” Karako told me.

What’s more, rather than just tasking the policy wonks in the Office of the Secretary of Defense to conduct the study, Congress specifically ordered the Joint Staff to participate as well this time, which Karako expects will give the new review a “much more operational flavor.” This is the kind of comprehensive review, Karako said, that then Navy and Army chiefs Jonathan Greenert and Ray Odierno called for in their “eight-star memo” saying the current approach to missile defense was “unsustainable.”

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