17 January 2019
Donald Trump has announced plans for a huge expansion of US missile defense with aim of destroying enemy missiles “anywhere, anytime, any place”.
The missile defense review, which Trump unveiled on Thursday in a speech at the Pentagon, calls for a major upgrade in land- and sea-based missile interceptor systems, as well as the development of a layer of satellite sensors in low orbit that would help track new types of cruise missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) that countries like Russia and China are developing.
The review argues that nuclear deterrence is the main defense against major nuclear powers like Russia and China, which both own large and sophisticated arsenals. And it restates US policy that the primary aim of such defenses is to counter well-armed “rogue states”, North Korea and Iran.
Seven months after Trump declared that the North Korean threat had been eliminated, the new missile review states that Pyongyang “continues to pose an extraordinary threat and the US must remain vigilant”.
The Pentagon review suggests that the system of sensors, radars and interceptors could eventually be used against a much broader range of adversaries, including defending US forces and allies in the Pacific and Europe against Russian and Chinese HGVs and cruise missiles.
But Trump on Thursday went much further, presenting the plan as a potential panacea for future missile threats.
“Our goal is simple: to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States – anywhere, anytime, any place,” Trump said.
“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.”
Arms control experts expressed alarm at the review and Trump’s presentation, warning that it would feed already substantial Russian and Chinese fears that US missile defense was aimed at blunting their deterrent. The review could drive those states to build more missiles with more capabilities to overcome US defenses, and trigger an arms race.
“This is the action-reaction dynamic that we saw happened in the cold war and it’s how we ended with 60,000 warheads,” said Laura Grego, the senior scientist for the global security programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
And there are also concerns over whether the very costly missile defense systems actually work. In tests that were tightly scripted, US interceptors hit their targets 50% of the time.
“Integrated, space-based capabilities are certainly worth exploring, but we don’t have unlimited resources, so we must weigh investments among competing national security priorities,” the Democratic senator Jack Reed said in a statement on the new review.
It is unclear whether Congress will fund Trump’s missile defense ambitions, especially with a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. Congress crushed a similarly ambitious plan developed by the George W Bush administration.
The US has nonetheless spent nearly $300bn on missile defense since 1983, when Ronald Reagan launched his Strategic Defense Initiative (widely known as Star Wars), according to estimates by Stephen Schwartz, a senior fellow at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Michael Griffin, an aerospace scientist who played a central role in Reagan’s Star Wars scheme, is now under secretary of defence for research and engineering in the Trump administration, and has played a leading role in promoting the new missile defence plans.
He said that in view of recent technological progress, the new systems would be “affordable”.
“It’s not some outlandish number,” Griffin said, but he would not give a cost estimate.
Melissa Hanham, an expert on weapons of mass destruction at the One Earth Future foundation, said that any idea that missile defence could limit the damage of a nuclear war was “fantasy”.
“If we invest as much money in lowering
tensions and de-alerting missile systems, we would be safer by
far,” Hanham said.