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what's in trump's missile defense review

Missile Defense by Number

Your guide to Trump's 2019 Missile Defense Review.

Words: Kate Hewitt
Pictures: DecoArt

In 1950, a man by the name of Max Klein invented a kit that came with paint and a thin board covered in light grey lines with a number in each designated space. The kits, known as “paint by number,” became a popular activity for children (and adults). It took a complicated painting (for only $14.95, you too can have a Mona Lisa!) and made it accessible to audiences of all ages.

It was summer of 2018 when the first rumblings of Trump’s Missile Defense Review (MDR) arose. The hot weather came and went without the MDR being released. The leaves changed and fall bid farewell without a glimpse of the anticipated document. Before we knew it, winter was here (cue the Game of Thrones theme song) and with it: the 2019 MDR.

Seeing as yesterday was my first MDR since my “nuke” community initiation, the hype was real. The heightened anticipation was followed shortly by confusion. So many pages (108 to be exact), so many systems, so many damn acronyms. Allow me to make the MDR a little more palatable. I present: Missile Defense by Number.

Twenty: The minimum number of nations currently possessing offensive missile technology. The MDR made it explicitly clear, like the Administration’s strategy documents that came before it have stated, that the security climate is changing. The text focuses on this evolving threat environment throughout the entirety of the document, consistently calling for flexibility and adaptability to rapidly adjust to that threat. “With more than 20 states possessing offensive missile technology, and many expanding and modernizing their capabilities, it is clear that future adversary offensive missile threats and U.S. defensive goals will be diverse and dynamic.” That flexibility extends past current capabilities to future design, research, and acquisition. While the MDR gives lip service to the couple dozen countries with offensive missile capabilities, it emphasizes the missile threats (unsurprisingly) from four countries: North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China.

Three: the number of principles the 2019 MDR is guided by. For context, the 2010 Obama BMDR outlined six policy priorities (defend the homeland against limited ballistic missile attack threats; defend against regional threats and protect allies while enabling them to defend themselves; test new capabilities before they are deployed; commit to fiscal responsibility; mandatory flexibility in US Ballistic Missile Defense; and a goal of US-led international expansion for missile defense) with five expanded elements of strategy (defending the homeland, defending against regional threats, integrating capabilities regionally, strengthening international cooperation, and managing the missile defense program). Almost every single one of those above elements is also covered in the 2019 MDR, more on the two that aren’t later.

Maybe this is just me be being a fiscally responsible (cheap) millennial, but if any administration is going to advocate for continued systems and new technology investments that cost billions of dollars, I want more than two words on oversight.

So what did the Trump MDR select as guiding principles governing US missile defense? First, US missile defense will protect against “rogue states” defined in the MDR as North Korea and Iran (but also mentions Russia and China, so that is new territory). Second, our missile defense will defend US deployed forces abroad as well as our allies and partners. Third, the United States will explore new concepts and technologies to ensure the U.S. is leading missile defense innovation and not simply catching-up to those “rogue” states and adversaries.

These three governing principles will guide four elements of strategy. For the foreseeable future, expect that the US missile defense strategy will: capitalize on every opportunity to “detect, disrupt and destroy” any missile post-launch which means using every capability afforded to us; strive to be flexible in every aspect of the process (design, research, and acquisition) to adapt to the earlier mentioned security climate; show up more in conversation generally everywhere; and space (more on that later).

Three (and a half): the number of regional active defense systems the US will continue to pursue. One important continuity between the 2010 and 2019 MDR is the recognition of active regional missile defense systems. Our regional missile defense systems allow the United States to utilize mobile sensors and interceptors, in coordination with our allied partners, to adapt to an emerging threat. Those three (and a half) systems that are here to stay, include:

// The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD): This system uses hit-to-kill (use of sheer force to destroy its target) technology for short-, medium-, and international-range missiles. According to the Director of Operation Test and Evaluation FY17 report, aka the people who test and evaluate the effectiveness of these systems, the THAAD system successfully intercepted its missile targets during two separate tests in July 2017.

// The Aegis Sea-based Missile Defense: This system utilizes sensors and hit-to-kill interceptors to track and destroy regional ballistic missiles.

// The Aegis Ashore: This system, operated by the US Navy via Romania (and Poland in the near future), operates under NATO command and control to protect Europe against Middle East missile threats. Like the sea-based Aegis, it utilizes hit-to-kill interceptors. According to the same DOTE report, the Aegis (BMD) successfully intercepted four out of five tested missile targets.

// The Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3): This system, deployed since 1982, is designed to intercept short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) and cruise missiles. According to the same report, the Patriot recently intercepted all five of its test targets.

Two: the number of themes from the 2010 BMDR missing from the 2019 MDR. In reading the 2019 MDR, two important themes (and rhetoric) seemed MIA. The first being a shift in the rhetoric of testing. Unlike the 2010 BMDR which requires mandatory testing and assessments for oversight and affordability; the text on “rigorous” testing in the 2019 report emphases a need to speed up, streamline, and increase testing frequency. While I completely agree that failing faster is a better goal than just failing, testing is not free and rushing R&D to achieve quicker system deployment is a slippery slope. Second, and also to the point of exorbitant testing costs, the 2019 MDR talks about being “fiscally sustainable” ONE TIME but fails to mention program oversight anywhere in the document. Maybe this is just me be being a fiscally responsible (cheap) millennial, but if any administration is going to advocate for continued systems and new technology investments that cost billions of dollars, I want more than two words on oversight.

One: the biggest policy shift was in space. Literally. With the Trump administration’s call to create a sixth military branch, the setup of the 11th combatant command (US Space Command) and the announcement of Steve Carell’s new Netflix show “Space Force” — no one was surprised that “space” showed up in the 2019 MDR. Indeed, many national security space experts agree that the time has come to give more attention to the space domain. But space wasn’t just a side point in this MDR, it was the main point, and it represented the biggest policy shift of the MDR. While the Obama administration emphasized the importance of space-based sensors to detect ballistic missiles, there was never a discussion in the 2010 BMDR of space-based interceptors. However, the 2019 MDR not only talked about space 68 times in its text (57 times more than the 2010 BMDR), it also gave serious consideration to the possibility of US space-based interceptors and called for “new and near-term examination of the concepts and technology for space-based defenses.” This kind of discussion not only shifts US space policy – it will set off serious alarms for the two biggest adversaries mentioned in the MDR: Russia and China. This type of US missile defense, even if it is solely rhetoric, will certainly prompt a response by the two biggest competitors of the US in this era of renewed great power competition.

172: the number of times the document uses the word “allies.” After the Trump administration released its 2017 NSS, 2018 NDS and NPR, one of the largest criticisms was the lack of attention to our allies and partners. With minimal discussion of their importance in previous documents, coupled with the undermining comments of the Commander in Chief, the US alliances seemed to sit on unsettled ground. But the 2019 MDR mentions allies 172 times! All of this talk about allies and partners is excellent. Let us give credit where credit is certainly due. But it would have been better if it didn’t seem so haphazardly placed. Literally, the word “allies” or “partners” is on every single page of the document. We are defending them, using them to hedge, bolstering their capabilities, supporting them when China/Russia/North Korea/Iran posture against them, recognizing the threat to them is evolving, assuring them in nonproliferation commitments – the list goes on for 108 pages. I am not going to say they are trying too hard but they are trying too hard.

Missile defense is messy, complicated and expensive and no one should be naïve enough to think it will ever be different. The 2019 MDR tries to define the space and label the color code while still recognizing that the security environment is rapidly changing and increasingly dangerous. The US must adapt to protect our homeland and allies — I do not disagree. However, the number that matters most at the end of the day is the bottom line in our checkbook. The United States cannot afford everything on every defense wish list. Hard choices need to be made when it comes to our defense to be flexible, innovative and effective. After all, even Max Klein recognized that if each number in his kit was precisely painted, it didn’t cost a fortune to have a Mona Lisa.

Kate Hewitt


Kate Hewitt currently works in national security and is the founder of THE BABES BLUF, a current affairs and lifestyle blog with a monthly column for Inkstick Media. Previously, she was a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow and Research Assistant with the Foreign Policy program at The Brookings Institution focused on nuclear security and strategy issues. She also served as a Community and Organizational Development Adviser in Peace Corps Moldova and held internships with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Energy Northwest. Kate was a recipient of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Rieser Award (2018), an N Square Nuclear Security Innovation Fellow (2018), and a Farsi Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellow (2017). She has authored articles, reports and book chapters on national security, foreign policy, and the importance of women in STEM and national security — the latter of which is a passion of hers that she exercises by sitting on the Board of Advisors for Girl Security. She holds an M.A. in Global Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a dual-BA in Political Science and Philosophy from Gonzaga University.


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