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Pentagon seeks to expand scope and sophistication of U.S. missile defenses

A Dec. 10, 2018, photo provided by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency shows the launch of the U.S. military’s land-based Aegis missile defense testing system from Hawaii. (Mark Wright/Missile Defense Agency/AP)

The Trump administration is seeking to expand the scope and sophistication of American missile defenses on a scale not seen since President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative in a new strategy that President Trump plans to roll out personally on Thursday alongside military leaders at the Pentagon.

Known as the missile defense review, the document that Trump will unveil marks the first official update to American missile defense doctrine in nine years. It comes as North Korea and Iran make advances in ballistic missile production, and as Russia and China press forward with sophisticated cruise missiles, short-range ballistic missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles that potentially threaten the security of U.S. forces and allies in Europe and Asia. 

The Trump administration’s response is to call for urgent new investments in missile-defense technologies across the board, many of which the Pentagon pursued during the Cold War but abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s and 2000s, the Pentagon focused on building interceptors to down missiles from rogue states. Now it is again broadening its ambitions, both in terms of technology and mission-set. Whether the administration secures enough money to tackle such lofty ambitions in missile defense remains unclear.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with reporters Dec. 12, after calling for a ban on Iran's ballistic missile testing at the United Nations Security Council. (Video: Reuters)

The Pentagon wants to put a constellation of sensors above the Earth that can track missiles as they launch, and is recommending a study of weapons that can shoot down missiles from space. The review will also note that further development of high-energy lasers could give the United States a cost-effective way to destroy missiles shortly after their launch in what is known as “boost phase.”  

For years, U.S. missile defenses have focused exclusively on combating threats from rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran. While the Trump administration’s strategy continues that focus, it adds a new objective as well: the defense of U.S. forces and allies from regional missile threats. This means, in part, finding new ways to protect American forces and allies in Europe and Asia from the cruise missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles.

“We are expanding the scope of what we’re postured to defend against,” a senior administration official said in a call with reporters Wednesday. 

A U.S. think tank said on Monday it had identified at least 13 of an estimated 20 undeclared missile operating bases inside North Korea, underscoring the challenge for American negotiators hoping to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. (Video: Reuters)

Undertaken at the direction of the White House, the missile defense review was supposed to be released nearly a year ago, but the Pentagon spent months rewriting it to address regional missile threats in addition to those posed by rogue nations. Ongoing disarmament negotiations with North Korea also raised questions about when the Pentagon would see fit to release a document that gives some insight into possible ways the United States could down Pyongyang’s missiles in the future.   

The document will give an indication of the Pentagon’s priorities and overall strategy. The initiatives it outlines must receive backing from Congress to proceed. Lampooned during the Reagan years for its high price tag and questionable effectiveness, missile defense now enjoys far broader support in Congress, particularly since North Korea tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile in 2017. 

The full review is due to be released by the Defense Department on Thursday. People familiar with the document discussed some of its contents with The Washington Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the review has yet to be released. 

One of the main issues facing the Pentagon is whether it can develop and field new technologies fast enough to counter rapidly advancing missile threats in nations such as North Korea. The strategy will encourage prototypes for promising new technologies to be evaluated outside the standard acquisition process to increase speed.

Above all, the Pentagon is looking at new defenses the United States could employ against the missile threat posed by North Korea, ideally by downing missiles shortly after launch in their boost phase. 

The F-35 fighter jet in the future could be fastened with an interceptor capable of shooting down North Korean missiles. The U.S. military could also put high-powered lasers on drones flying off the Korean coasts that could shoot that nation’s rockets. It may also test whether Aegis missile defense systems on American ships can down the sort of intercontinental ballistic missile Pyongyang could launch against the United States. The U.S. military could also take some of the Aegis missile defense test systems in Hawaii and make them operational to better protect the state. 

The review will address the possibility of establishing a third site with ground-based missile interceptors in the United States to defend against possible attacks from Iran, but according to a senior administration official, it will stop short of a decision on whether the Pentagon should press forward with the initiative. The United States operates ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California. The Pentagon has been mulling a third site closer to the East Coast.

The review will also suggest ways for the United States to enhance protection of its forces and allies from regional missile threats, or possible attacks on American interests outside the U.S. homeland. 

The Pentagon will encourage allies in Europe, Asia and the Middle East to develop their own air and missile defense platforms that can operate together with American systems. It will also seek to field more mobile missile defense systems so American forces can respond quickly during regional crises or conflicts and ensure their access to the battlefield isn’t denied by an adversary.

While the U.S. efforts will look to counter regional missile threats, they don’t seek to protect against a full-scale strategic missile attack on the American homeland by a nuclear-armed nation such as Russia or China. Washington will continue to rely on its nuclear deterrent to prevent such attacks, the senior administration official said, noting that U.S. missile defense capabilities are still “primarily postured to stay ahead of rogue threats.” 

The review also rejects the possibility of limiting American missile defenses in the future. The Bush administration, led by national security adviser John Bolton, lifted such limits with its withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia in 2002.