OpEd: Boost Phase Defense Gets A Boost From Obama

by and

If you thought U.S. President BarackObama’s administration was too distracted by economic problems to pay attention to defense during its first few months in office, think again. The new administration is moving quickly to rein in Pentagon spending and refocus military priorities.

In January, the White House told Defense Secretary Robert Gates that a hoped-for increase of $57 billion above the planned military budget for fiscal 2010 would not be funded. Combined with shrinking appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the White House move means that the defense department will see a decrease in its buying power for the first time since George W. Bush took office in 2001.

The administration’s scrutiny of defense doesn’t stop with broad spending shifts. It is also moving to rebalance military outlays between conventional and irregular warfare by cutting back a number of costly weapons programs such as the Navy’s next-generation destroyer.

One of the most intriguing military initiatives the new administration has pursued in its early months is a shift of emphasis for the Missile Defense Agency aimed at putting more money into boost phase defense. Boost phase defense focuses on the earliest stage in the trajectory of ballistic missiles, before multiple warheads and decoys have been released to complicate the challenge of interception.

The current missile defense plan favors interception later in a missile’s trajectory, during the stage when warheads are hurtling through space known as “midcourse,” or during the fiery re-entry of warheads back into the atmosphere aptly labeled as the “terminal” phase. Military planners have long known that missiles were more vulnerable in boost phase and the period immediately following booster shutoff known as “ascent” phase, but the difficulty of getting at missiles while they were still over enemy territory dissuaded the Bush administration from putting much money into boost phase defenses.

Apparently the Obama administration sees it differently. Earlier this month the White House told the Missile Defense Agency to cut its budget by about $2 billion in fiscal 2010 but give more attention to boost phase defense concepts. The likely beneficiaries of this guidance are a mobile defensive system called the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, the Airborne Laser and a low-cost modification of the military’s main air-to-air missile called the Network Centric Airborne Defense Element.

The budget office wasn’t specific about which boost phase programs should get more money, but it did terminate several efforts associated with midcourse defense, most notably the Space Tracking and Surveillance System conceived to provide satellites for tracking enemy warheads while they coast through space.

President Obama’s advisers aren’t giving up on midcourse or terminal defense. In fact, they directed increased funding for the sea-based missile interceptor that will be carried by the Navy’s Aegis warships and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense program. But the White House apparently has decided that the only way to achieve the long-touted benefits of a layered defense is to put more money into killing missiles early in their flight.

The logic of layered defense is easy to grasp. If ballistic missiles are intercepted at three points in their trajectory and each time the defense is 50 percent successful, then by the time attackers have passed through the third layer of defense, only one in eight of the attacking missiles still survives to reach targets. Thus, defensive systems can be far from perfect and yet cumulatively achieve very good results.

Having effective boost phase defenses is especially beneficial, because if missiles can be destroyed before they release multiple warheads, decoys and countermeasures the task of subsequent layers in the defensive scheme is greatly simplified. In the case of smaller nuclear powers such as North Korea, a combination of boost phase defenses with other interceptors later in the missile trajectory might completely negate the threat they pose.

This presumably would provide a powerful deterrent against launching missiles. In fact, it would create strong disincentives to developing ballistic missiles in the first place, since their capacity to influence the behavior of other countries would be greatly diminished.

Nobody in the Obama White House believes that current technology can achieve similar results against heavily armed nuclear powers such as Russia and China, but the main concern today is with the rising number of smaller nuclear states led by unpredictable leaders. Traditional approaches to deterrence might not work with those countries, making missile defense the only military alternative to pre-emption.

Each of the boost phase programs currently being pursued by the Missile Defense Agency has unique advantages. The Airborne Laser combines speed-of-light interception with global mobility, low-cost kills and the capacity to destroy more than a dozen missiles in a single sortie. The Kinetic Energy Interceptor provides an agile, versatile defensive missile with land and sea mobility. And the Network Centric Airborne Defense Element would enable stealthy fighters such as the F-22 to destroy hostile missiles in boost or ascent phase at much lower cost than traditional missile interceptors.

Boost phase systems by themselves probably cannot provide an adequate deterrent or defense against nuclear attack. But when integrated into a defensive architecture that includes the Ground-based Midcourse Defense and Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense systems, they provide the best protection currently possible for coping with the threat of nuclear aggression. It is surprising and encouraging that the Obama Administration has grasped this vital insight about nuclear security so early in its tenure.

Loren Thompson is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute.