The new version of the U.S. missile defense strategy released by the Pentagon and introduced by President Donald Trump on Thursday states that North Korea remains an “extraordinary threat” along with Iran, Russia, and China.
This seems at odds with Trump’s assurances that North Korea is “no longer a nuclear threat” and potentially disruptive to Trump’s diplomacy with Pyongyang, which continued with a visit from the chief North Korean negotiator to the White House on Friday.
“While a possible new avenue to peace now exists with North Korea, it continues to pose an extraordinary threat and the United States must remain vigilant,” the 2019 Missile Defense Review stated.
Reuters pointed out that Trump did not mention North Korea when introducing the report, but Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan did say Pyongyang’s missiles are still a “significant concern.”
This is not entirely a difference of opinion between the White House and Pentagon. Anyone who reads the sections on North Korea will see that Pyongyang’s arsenal of short- and medium-range missiles will remain a concern even if complete and verifiable denuclearization is achieved and North Korea abandons its quest for weapons that can hit the continental United States:
Over the past decade, North Korea accelerated its efforts to field missiles capable of threatening deployed U.S. forces, allies, and partners in the region. Since 2015, North Korea test-launched, from numerous locations throughout North Korea, over two dozen regional missiles. It has fielded more regional missiles and diversified its already large regional ballistic missile force, including delivery systems with road-mobile and submarine launching platforms.
These wide-ranging North Korean offensive missile systems have given North Korea the capability to strike U.S. territories, including Guam, U.S. forces abroad, and allies in the Pacific Ocean. They are the tools North Korea has used to issue coercive nuclear preemptive threats, and potentially could use to employ nuclear weapons in the event of conflict in Asia.
Reuters was generally sour on the report, criticizing it for abandoning the Obama administration’s subdued approach – which ostensibly prioritized keeping a low profile to “tamp down concerns by major nuclear powers about expanding U.S. missile defenses” – in favor of a bold commitment to missile defense derisively described as “a throwback to former President Ronald Reagan’s 1980s ‘Star Wars’ initiative.”
This effort to dismiss the Missile Defense Review was considerably undercut by the rest of the Reuters piece, which quoted boasts from China and Russia that American missile defenses have been made obsolete by the hypersonic weapons and satellite-killers they were eagerly developing during those quiet Obama years:
The U.S. missile defense system is just a “face-saving project” that does not scare China and Russia, the Global Times, a nationalist state-backed Chinese tabloid, wrote on Friday.
“Russia and China’s progress in developing super-fast hypersonic missiles has in particular made the U.S. missile defense system less capable than desired,” the newspaper said in an editorial.
The U.S. document also pointed to projects by U.S. defense industry giants including Raytheon Co, Lockheed Martin and Boeing Co.
“We are committed to establishing a missile-defense program that can shield every city in the United States. And we will never negotiate away our right to do this,” Trump said.
A senior Russian legislator, Viktor Bondarev, said after Trump’s announcement that the new U.S. strategy would ramp up global tensions, according to Interfax news agency.
The Pentagon review makes it quite clear that revisions to American defense strategy are necessary because the threat environment has “evolved” and become “more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory.”
This is partly due to lesser bad actors gaining possession of mobile, highly accurate Russian and Chinese missiles, which are difficult to take out with preemptive strikes or even target with retaliatory actions after they launch an attack, and are covered by increasingly sophisticated air defenses that jeopardize American pilots. Furthermore, aggressors have more targets than ever to shoot, since they are developing the capability to target and destroy satellites and ground-based electronic infrastructure.
The Pentagon, therefore, sees missile defense as vital to restoring deterrence because it can “undermine potential adversaries’ confidence in their ability to achieve their intended political or military objectives through missile threats or attacks.”
In other words, a low-key strategy would be dangerous because it reduces the perceived cost of attacks in the minds of aggressors. It is important for them to be worried about evolving American capabilities. The technology derided by Reuters as a “Star Wars” fantasy is valuable as a deterrent precisely because potential aggressors do not understand it, cannot train their forces to deal with it, and are uncertain of its capabilities.
This strategy is also meant to reduce the threat of new and more unpredictable adversaries getting their hands on Chinese and Russian technology, as well as making American allies less anxious about the need to develop their own doomsday arsenals. The Pentagon review noted that missile defense tends to reduce the perceived value of aggressive weapons, which makes potential adversaries less eager to take risks and invest exorbitant resources in developing them.
Democrats immediately slammed President Trump’s speech and the Missile Defense Review for being too expensive and too provocative to enemy states. Top Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) even threw in a snide remark about how Trump’s remarks indicate “an effective high-tech missile defense system is a higher national security priority than building a wall across the southern border,” right after Reed made it clear he is no more eager to fund missile defense than border security.
Criticizing the report from the other direction, Defense One quoted experts who found the specific proposals made by the Pentagon were not equal to its grand strategic vision:
“They deferred all of the hard things,” said Thomas Karako, a missile defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They could still do something pretty substantial, but the significance of the pivot here is kind of at the level of theory and declaratory policy,” he said. “The department could go do some more things, but there has to be some active decision to do that and they haven’t done that yet.”
Most of the initiatives touted in the report are already in the works — and some have been for years. The Obama administration boosted the number of missile interceptors in Alaska from 36 to 40. (There are also four Ground Based Interceptors in California). Congress approved an additional 20 interceptors in Alaska in 2017, bringing the total number of US interceptors to 64.
The Missile Defense Review notes that the Alaska missile field at Fort Greely “has the potential for up to an additional 40 interceptors,” but it stops short of calling to install them. It also alludes to creating a third base of missile interceptors in the continental United States to fight off future Iranian ICBMs, but said a “decision to do so, and site selection, will be informed by pertinent factors at the time, particularly emerging threat conditions.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, whose home state houses these interceptors and a radars that would detect and track missiles, said he was surprised the administration did not move ahead with a third missile interceptor site.
“To be honest, I thought they were going to announce it today,” he said. “I don’t think that that means they’re not interested. I think that that work is ongoing.”
Defense One mentioned that American defense planners are increasingly concerned about the prospect of major adversaries attacking Washington, DC, with cruise missiles, which are more difficult to detect or counter than intercontinental ballistic missiles that must rise to the edge of outer space before descending on their targets. One of the major initiatives for cruise missile defense has been equipping American fighter jets with systems that can track and engage incoming short- and medium-range weapons.