Since the Obama Administration in 2010, it has become a practice for each new Administration to put its own stamp on U.S. missile defense policy (as it does on nuclear policy). In its Missile Defense Review (MDR), the Biden Administration should be careful to avoid a repeat of its predecessors’ mistakes by issuing a missile defense strategy and policy that can last beyond the next Presidential election and continue policies and programs that will strengthen U.S. national security.
Obama and Trump Administrations’ MDRs - The Good and the Bad:
The Obama Administration unhelpfully cancelled several cutting-edge missile defense technology development programs in development under President Bush – including the Airborne Laser and Multiple Kill Vehicle – and pulled the rug out from under our Polish and Czech allies by cancelling the Third Site in order to obtain favorable consideration from Russia on the successor to the START I agreement, which became known as the New START Treaty. Rather than translating into goodwill with our adversaries, the stalled development of missile defenses coincided with increasing threats around the world during President Obama’s tenure.
The Trump Administration’s 2019 MDR provided a sound outline for how strengthened missile defense applies to contemporary security challenges.
Despite its positive attributes, the Trump MDR was both overly ambitious in its aims relative to the political leadership’s attention to the missile defense mission, and lacking in specific plans, budgetary resources, and timelines that could have guided the Pentagon and industry. The result was that the MDR did not effectively augment actions to improve the nation’s missile defense systems. Without leadership and budget requests commensurate with the MDR’s ambitions, the Trump MDR became little more than a statement of policy aspiration after its publication.
Opportunities for the Biden Administration: Avoid the Risks of Partisanship and Ideological Rigidity
The Biden Administration’s MDR will need to contend with an unprecedented threat environment. North Korea is continuing to build its arsenal of weapons (nuclear warheads and missiles) to strike the U.S. homeland and those of America’s allies. Iran is hugging the line of a nuclear enrichment breakout capability (albeit with an unclear weaponization breakout capability), to blackmail the West for economic sanctions relief, while continuing to advance its long-range ballistic missile capability. Indeed, North Korea and Iran appear to have resumed ballistic missile cooperation, according to the United Nations.
China and Russia are in the midst of an arms race, with China undertaking a “breathtaking” nuclear breakout according to senior U.S. military leadership. Both countries have and are modernizing their vast ballistic missile inventories with weapons of all ranges, and are deploying new hypersonic glide vehicle weapons and cruise missiles launched from ground, air, or sea. And, in August China demonstrated a type of nuclear weapon not seen since the Soviet Union’s arsenal of the Cold War.
To address the increasingly complex missile threat environment, the Biden Administration, if interested in establishing a lasting consensus on missile defense, should prioritize the following policies in its Missile Defense Review, starting with a fundamental focus on the greatest threats to U.S. and allied national security, the militaries of the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation:
While Americans are increasingly concerned about domestic political divisions and divisiveness, there continues to be strong bipartisan support for the U.S. military and a strong national defense. There is no reason to make national security or missile defense partisan. By following the recommendations outlined above and learning from the mistakes of President Obama and President Trump alike, the Biden Administration can set U.S. missile defense policy and capabilities on solid footing for the long-term.
Heritage Foundation – How the Upcoming Missile Defense Review can make America Safer
Breaking Defense – To make up for years of slow policy decisions, MDA needs more cash
DoD Factsheet – Russian and Chinese Missile Defense
DoD Factsheet – Layered Homeland Missile Defense
Additional resources for procurement and modernization will only be valuable to the extent they are tightly focused on measures that meaningfully enhance the ability to deter and defeat aggression in the most pressing and realistic scenarios. Read more.
FAL's memo reviews Russian tactics and U.S. goals for the ongoing nuclear deterrence and arms control talks, and provides recommendations to policymakers for how to make negotiations successful