Congress to Fill Gap in US Missile Defense in NDAA, Advance Nuclear Weapons Priorities

Michaela Dodge and Thomas Spoehr | July 20, 2017 | 9:22am EDT
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Two Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors are launched during a successful intercept test. The test, conducted by Missile Defense Agency (MDA), Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) Operational Test Agency, Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense, and U.S. Pacific Command, in conjunction with U.S. Army soldiers from the Alpha Battery, 2nd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, U.S. (Flickr Photo/Labeled for Reuse)

Congress is currently deliberating the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2018.

The NDAA is an important tool for Congress as it offers it an opportunity to influence defense policy, as well as indicate its wishes with regard to armed forces and defense programs.

How do the two versions of the NDAA measure up as far as missile defense and nuclear weapons policy goes?

The House Armed Services Committee version establishes a whole range of nuclear weapons and missile defense policies that would advance U.S. nuclear security in the future.

The NDAA provides for creative opportunities to address and respond to Russia’s violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

For example, the House-passed version of the NDAA provides funding for the development of active defenses against this class of systems, explores feasibility of modifying current and planned systems for intermediate-range missiles, and declares Russia in material breach of the treaty.

The House Armed Services bill requires the Missile Defense Agency to develop a space-based sensor layer. Space is the best avenue for getting the best ballistic missile data, including survivability of sensors deployed there versus on land or at sea.

The Senate Armed Services Committee version of the NDAA supports this requirement. It also establishes a space test bed for a ballistic missile intercept.

The United States currently has a gap in its comprehensive layered ballistic missile defense architecture, and the NDAA provides for a first step in mitigating this gap.

With an eye toward protecting Hawaii from the North Korean ballistic missile threat, the House version of the NDAA also takes an important step in ensuring current U.S. missile defense systems are all they can be.

The bill requires the Missile Defense Agency to test the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor against a long-range ballistic missile target.

Congress should also explore additional options for increasing ballistic missile protection of Hawaii, including an activation of the existing missile defense assets for the protection of the islands.

The House version also contained a requirement for the administration to issue a strategy for the acquisition of a 360-degree sensor to better detect lower-tier threats such as cruise missiles by 2018, and achieve initial operating capability of the sensor by 2022.

Such a sensor would be beneficial for the Department of Defense. But the timelines given are unrealistic, even in the most optimistic of scenarios, and this provision should be modified or eliminated.

These are steps in the right direction. To a lesser degree, the Senate Armed Services Committee version echoes the House committee’s sentiments.

The Senate Armed Services-passed version of the NDAA relieves the United States from a compliance obligation under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty should the president determine Russia remains in noncompliance with the treaty.

While the White House objects to the language on the ground that it restricts its options, a forceful action addressing Russia’s violations is way overdue. Additionally, the law gives the president time to make the noncompliance determination regarding Russia.

The bill also limits funding for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) implementation, as long as Russia remains in violation of its Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty obligations.

This linkage is prudent, particularly considering Russia’s increases in its number of strategic deployed warheads under New START.

The Senate Armed Services bill offers a strong endorsement of the Long-Range Standoff Weapon, a necessary program that would ensure U.S. bombers are capable of fulfilling a nuclear mission for decades to come.

The Senate version also provides an opportunity for maintaining, improving, and expanding the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system, currently the only system capable of meaningfully protecting the U.S. homeland from a North Korean ballistic missile threat.

This is prudent policy considering North Korea’s recent long-range missile test.

Both NDAA versions advance U.S. missile defense and nuclear weapons policy in important ways. Congress and the administration should support these efforts.

Michaela Dodge specializes in missile defense, nuclear weapons modernization and arms control as policy analyst for defense and strategic policy in The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.

Thomas W. Spoehr, a retired Army lieutenant general, is director of the Center for National Defense at The Heritage Foundation.

Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by The Daily Signal.

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