Center for Strategic Communication

Mitchell Freddura


On Tuesday the National Research Council released its much anticipated report on missile defense, with the lengthy (if scrupulously descriptive) title Making Sense of Ballistic Missile Defense: An Assessment of Concepts and Systems for U.S. Boost-Phase Missile Defense in Comparison to Other Alternatives.

While the report was critical of some aspects of U.S. missile defense, including boost-phase systems, it was laudatory of others, such as the Aegis, THAAD, and Patriots systems. Below are summarized the major findings and recommendations of the report.

Finding: Boost-phase missile defense systems problematic

  • “While technically possible in principle, boost-phase missile defense- whether kinetic or directed energy, and whether based on land, sea, air, or in space- is not practical or feasible for any of the missions that the committee was asked to consider.”
  •  According to the report, the drawbacks to boost-phase systems are that they are costly, provide a small window for a successful interception, and are susceptible to “countermeasures.”

Recommendation: Defense Department should abandon boost-phase systems

  • “The Department of Defense should not invest any more money or resources in systems for boost-phase missile defense. Boost-phase missile defense is not practical or cost effective under real-world conditions for the foreseeable future.”

Finding: Current non-boost-phase systems “well developed”

  • “Aegis, Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), and Patriot (PAC-3) are well developed and suited to their individual missions against [short-, medium-, and intermediate-range] threats.”
  •  “The Aegis ship-based SM-3 Block II interceptors with launch or engage on remote- both of which capabilities are under development- together with the THAAD and PAC-3 systems and their elements will provide, where appropriate, adequate coverage for defense of U.S. and allied deployed forces of Asian allies.”

 Recommendation: Expand deployment of non-boost-phase systems

  • “As a means to defend deployed U.S. forces and allies from short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missile threats, the Missile Defense Agency and the Services should continue investing in non-boost-systems such as Aegis, THAAS, and PAC-3…”

Finding: Midcourse systems flawed, but preferable to boost-phase systems

  • “[A]ny practical missile defense system must rely primarily on intercept during the midcourse of flight.”
  •  The report did note however, that “midcourse discrimination”, which necessitates discriminating between the real warhead and decoys, remains a formidable challenge to such systems.

Recommendation: Missile Defense Agency must devote more resources to midcourse discrimination

  • “The Missile Defense Agency should reinstitute an aggressive, balanced midcourse discrimination research and development effort focused on the synergy between X-band radar data and concurrent interceptor observation while closing on the threat.”

Finding: First three phases of PAA effective

  • “The first three phases of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) are expected to provide defense for Europe against a limited ballistic missile attack for deployed U.S. and allied forces within the region and Middle East…”

Recommendation: Augment PAA radar capabilities

  • “…the European PAA will need to include multiple X-band radar and long-ranger IR sensors (e.g., ABIR) that can provide concurrent data on IRBM trajectories…”

Finding: Effectiveness of current Ground-Based Midcourse Defenses limited

  • “[T]he GMD interceptors, architecture, and doctrine have shortcomings that limit their effectiveness against even modestly improved threats and threats from countries other than North Korea.”
  •  Still, modifications can be made to the existing 30 interceptors- spread throughout Alaska and California- at a reasonable cost and timeframe “so as to be far more effective for the homeland defense mission.”

Recommendation: Redesign current GMD system

  • “As a means to provide adequate coverage for defense of the U.S. homeland against likely developments in North Korea and Iran over the next decade or two at an affordable and efficient 20-yr life-cycle cost, the Missile Defense Agency should implement an evolutionary approach to the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system.”

 Some of the recommendations made by the report include:

  • Developing “smaller, lower cost, faster burning two-stage interceptors” which would carry “heavier, more capable kill vehicles.”
  • A greater synergy between X-band radar systems and onboard sensors.
  • An additional interceptor in North America battery only with the adoption of the “recommended evolution.”

Furthermore, an April letter to law makers summarizing the report’s key findings states:

  • “[A] properly configured midcourse defense is the most effective means of protecting North America at reasonable cost against limited Ballistic missile attack.”
  • “Our recommended homeland defense system would include an interceptor base in the northeastern part of the United States. That site would receive the first installations of the new homeland defense interceptor…”

Thus, an additional site on the east coast of the United States would be prudent only with the adoption of the “recommended evolution” described above- a redesign of the interceptor and an increased integration of X-band radar

Context and Conclusion

As the National Research Council’s report suggests, American missile defense is characterized both by defensive systems which excel in their objective, as well as those which fall short. Thus, a bipartisan effort is necessary in order to formulate a comprehensive and effective United States missile defense, one which integrates current capabilities and builds upon identified weaknesses.

Resources could be reallocated away from boost-phase systems and toward proven non-boost-phase systems such as the Aegis, THAAD, and Patriot. These systems could be more fully integrated and their radar detection capabilities augmented. Additionally, current GMD systems could be retooled to address their capability gaps and more effort must be allocated toward reconciling the midcourse discrimination problem.

Ultimately, Making Sense of Ballistic Missile Defense succeeds in providing a nuanced critique of American missile defense while also identifying systems around which to orient future U.S. capabilities.