ContributorAerospace & Defense
On Tuesday, multiple outlets reported an estimate by the office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) that plans to deploy 21 nuclear-missile-destroying interceptors would cost a stunning $17.7 billion.
Lockheed Martin LMT and Northrop Grumman NOC are developing competing designs for the Next Generation Interceptor program, which seeks to deploy a successor to the Ground Based Interceptors used in the United State’s GMD ballistic missile defense system.
Currently, 44 interceptor are deployed in silos in Alaska and California to protect the United States from a small-scale intercontinental-range ballistic missile attack, presumably from North Korea.
Unfortunately, the GBI missiles have failed nine out of 20 intercept tests (45%) over the last 22 years and are not believed capable of reliably defeating more sophisticated ICBMs which employ decoys, evasive maneuvers and/or release multiple nuclear warheads.
Congress required an independent cost assessment of the NGI program by CAPE in its last defense funding bill. According to CAPE, the bulk of the money ($13.1 billion) spent on NGI would go to research and development, including production of 10 test missiles which would be launched in the mid-2020s.
Then $2.3 billion would be spent procuring and deploying 21 interceptors starting around 2028, increasing the GMD force to 65 missiles. Operating costs to maintain these missiles would then to amount to $2.2 billion over their service lives.
That suggests a staggering total program cost of nearly $843 million per operational anti-nuke missile deployed. However, the unit cost of $109 million might matter if the MDA chooses to order more missiles beyond the initial 21 (possibly to replace the original GBI missiles), improving the payoff from the the steep R&D costs.
Originally, the Pentagon planned to spend $5.3 billion to replace the GBI’s exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV)—launched from the interceptor to ram into incoming missiles—with an evolved model called the Redesigned Kill Vehicle, using existing components to cut costs.
However, researchers warned they had found flaws with those components that would result in a high probability of failure. Critics of the GMD system also have long highlighted that it has not been tested against targets which employ multiple warheads or penetration aids, as found in many contemporary strategic missiles.
The technical risks, coupled with multiplying costs and a consensus that the RKV wasn’t improved enough to perform much better against advanced missiles led to the program’s cancelation in August 2019 after $1.21 billion had already been spent.
The Pentagon’s rebooted program seeks a new design rather than an evolutionary ‘patched together’ solution, with the goal of improving both reliability as well as fielding interceptors designed to cope with more challenging missile threats.
Unlike the RKV program, NGI has a competitive aspect. GBI contractor Boeing BA was eliminated from the running earlier in 2021, leaving Northrop Grumman (teamed with Raytheon) and Lockheed Martin to develop competing proposals for the Critical Design Review program phase, for which $1.6 billion has been allocated through 2022.
One locus of improvement relates to linking the NGI missile more densely and redundantly to various land, sea- and space-based sensors and command-and-control facilities to ensure it receives continuous guidance as it hurtles towards a nukes at up to 23 times the speed of sound.
In fact, leveraging additional sensors may expand the capability of the GMD to defend against hypersonic glide vehicle-type weaponslike Russia’s Avangard, which is released from an ICBM and flies on a flatter, more evasive trajectory than ballistic missiles.
Companies vying for the contract also mention multiple kill vehicle technology. This implies one missile might release several interceptors to smack down the multiple reentry-vehicles (MRVs or MIRVs; the latter type subtype more sophisticated) released by modern ICBMs.
For, example a DF-41 ICBM deployed by China’s PLA Rocket Force can released ten or twelve MIRVs, each of which can strike a different target with ten times the explosive yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. North Korea’s Hwasong-15 and -16 ICBMs are believed to have capacity for multiple MRVs.
In practice, modern missiles are also likely deploy penetration aids, including decoys, jammers and other countermeasures, to divert fire from genuine nukes. It’s highly likely the NGI will harness new infrared and/or radar sensor technology in a bid to better discriminate between decoys and the warhead-armed MIRVs.
Is Limited Defense Worth the Price?
Unless the Pentagon eventually buys more NGI missiles, it is essentially paying well over a half-billion dollars for each missile deployed when you count in R&D expenses. In theory, that shocking expense would be more than made back if the improved missile prevented a nuclear attack on any densely populated area of the United States.
Unfortunately, whether the missile defense system does deter attack, or is likely to defeat an attempted attack, is unclear.
So far, missile defense appears to have motivated China and Russia to invest in more advanced nuclear weapons like Avangard and the DF-41 at lower cost than the U.S. defense systems, creating a feedback loop in which the Pentagon argues it must spend billions fielding improved nuclear missiles to keep up with Russia and China’s upgraded capabilities. Quite simply, offense has long proven cheaper to mass and enhance than defense in nuclear warfare.
There are already the known reliability issues with the GMD system—ie. the 45% percent failure rate intercepting simple ballistic targets. Currently, it is believed the MDA might launch four or more missiles per incoming ICBM to increase certainty of interception, meaning the effective number of ICBMs the system can intercept is a fraction of the total fleet.
The NGI is hoped to address this issue—expert speculate it might reduce the number of interceptors launched to two per ICBM—but its success in doing so on budget is not assured based on the rocky history of the GMD and RKV program.
While providing uncertain defense versus North Korean ICBMs, the missile defense system has spurred an arms race with China and Russia despite its manifest incapacity to defend against Chia’s 200-300 nuclear weapons or Russia’s 1,550 strategic nukes.
Beijing and Moscow apparently fear the U.S. may attempt a preemptive precision strike against Russia or China’s strategic nuclear forces, premised on the belief that missile defense could mop up any surviving nukes lobbed back at the United States.
They also argue a successful November 2020 test of a Navy SM-3 Block IIA missile against a simulated ICBM implies the U.S. effectively can deploy these weapons too against a strategic nuclear attack. The SM-3 offers a shorter-range defensive umbrella than GMD, but potentially hundreds may be deployed on U.S. Navy ballistic missile defense ships.
Still, domestic critics of missile defense argue that the NGI’s programs extraordinary cost illustrates the unfavorable offense-defense balance.
Arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis opined on Twitter: “The US approach to missile defense reminds me of the store that loses money on every sale, but plans to make it up in volume. Maybe the new interceptor will allow fewer shots per target, but it is very hard to see how this is ever a winning strategy for the U.S.”
That said, theoretically, limited missile defense capability may reduce the potential for low-volume attacks from actors large and small by creating a “go for broke or go home” dynamic, ie. either launch enough missiles to swamp the defense system or don’t bother trying.
U.S. missile defense do clearly pose a more significant obstacle to a country with a smaller arsenal like North Korea—though seemingly not an insurmountable one given the numerous increasingly capable missile North Korea has deployed in the last decade despite limited economic means and international sanctions.
Ultimately, proponents of missile defense believe the highly expensive but limited defense it offers still provides meaningful protection to Americans from the horrors of a nuclear attack. Its critics believe it provides no defense that cannot be overcome at lesser cost, and that system’s existence only fuels the development of more advanced nuclear arms.