Trump Unveils Ambitious Missile Defense Plans

Jan 17, 2019
Originally published on January 17, 2019 6:55 pm

Updated at 5:47 p.m. ET

President Trump unveiled a sweeping plan Thursday to defend the U.S. and its allies from missile attack.

The plan is the first update to the nation's missile defense strategy in nearly a decade, but in many ways it is reminiscent of President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, a pie-in-the-sky program that was later dubbed "Star Wars."

The report outlines a battery of new technologies — including lasers and space-based systems — that the Pentagon wants to combat what it deems to be a growing missile threat. It also calls for adding 20 interceptor missiles to an existing system of 44 interceptors based in Fort Greely, Alaska.

"Our goal is simple," Trump said at a Pentagon briefing on Thursday. "To ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States anywhere, anytime, anyplace."

Critics were quick to point out that meeting this goal would cost many billions of dollars.

"It would be incredibly costly," says Laura Grego, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists who tracks missile defense programs. Grego says that Trump's comments hark back to the days of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. That program cost billions, and in the end, its vision of a space-based blanket defense against nuclear attack proved to be too technically challenging.

The Pentagon's last review of missile defense was conducted in 2010, under President Barack Obama. That earlier review emphasized the threat from nations such as Iran and North Korea and called for a limited defense that could stop them.

Things have changed since then.

North Korea has successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States. China and Russia, meanwhile, are working on advanced weapons that can, in theory, evade existing missile defenses.

The new review still calls out Iran, and it describes North Korea as an "extraordinary threat," despite ongoing talks between the North and the Trump administration.

But it also focuses heavily on Russia and China, which are developing defense-foiling systems such as a nuclear-powered cruise missile and hypersonic weapons capable of flying at more than five times the speed of sound.

"The U.S. will now adjust its posture to also defend against any missile strikes including cruise and hypersonic missiles," Trump said.

That adjustment could lead to an arms race, warns Vipin Narang, an arms control expert at MIT. The explicit calling out of Russian and Chinese weapons might provide a political opportunity for those nations to accelerate their programs, he argues. "This will be a gift for Putin."

But others say that an arms race is already underway.

"We will always be in an arms race, whether you want to be or not," says Trey Obering, a former head of the Missile Defense Agency who is now an executive vice president at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.

Obering says the new missile defense review is "just in time," given the evolving threats facing the nation. He adds that a lot has changed since the 1980s. Advances in materials, computation and rocketry have all made missile defense cheaper than ever, he says.

Tom Karako with the Center for Strategic and International Studies adds that the Pentagon's ambitions as written in the report are more modest than Trump's goal of destroying any missile on the planet. "I think that's a fine aspiration," Karako says. "But from my reading of the document, it says something a little bit less." Most of the money for advanced systems like lasers will be restricted initially to R&D, he says.

Overall, it remains unclear how much of Trump's missile defense strategy will become a reality. In his speech, the president implied that wealthy allies of the U.S. might help pay for the defenses, but physicist Grego says it is more likely that members of Congress will be the ones who will authorize funding.

"The Democratic House will be much more skeptical than previous Congresses," she predicts. "He'll have a tough time moving a lot of this stuff through."

: 1/16/19

A previous version of this story incorrectly located Fort Greely in Alabama. It is in Alaska.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Trump was at the Pentagon today to unveil his administration's new strategy for missile defense.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Our goal is simple - to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States anywhere, anytime, anyplace.

SHAPIRO: Joining us to discuss how the president plans to meet this goal is NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Hi, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi there.

SHAPIRO: So I guess the first question is, who is the U.S. defending itself against? What is the specific threat here?

BRUMFIEL: Well, the names are pretty familiar. There's Iran and North Korea. North Korea is still considered an extraordinary threat according to this report despite the recent overtures towards peace by the Trump administration. But then also, notably, this report explicitly calls out Russia and China. And this is really a bit of a change. Russia and China have sort of - U.S. officials have shied away from naming them as threats in previous reports.

SHAPIRO: Russia and China have lots of missiles obviously, so why weren't they already part of the strategy before now?

BRUMFIEL: Well, the problem with defending against their missiles with missile defense is they have so many. They could overwhelm the system. And so basically previous administrations haven't wanted to aggravate Russia and China. They haven't wanted to sort of provoke them. So they've always said this missile defense is about places like Iran and North Korea. Russia and China - we counter with all our missiles. If they fire at us, we'll fire at them. So, you know, that's sort of been the traditional way we talk about this.

And this report still does some of that, but here's the thing. Russia and China have also been developing missiles to specifically counter U.S. missile defenses. So these are things like hypersonic weapons that can travel over five times the speed of sound. And Russia has a design for a nuclear-powered cruise missile with infinite range, which is kind of a crazy thing. But they are working on it. And so now Trump said today that the U.S. would invest directly in countering these new systems. Critics worry this looks a lot like an arms race.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Those weapons sound potentially terrifying. What exactly is the U.S. calling for to counter that?

BRUMFIEL: Well, initially it's all pretty modest and kind of keeping with the normal line. They call for 20 new interceptor missiles at a base in Fort Greely, Alaska. It also calls for a new system to track missiles in space or from space using satellites. Further down the line, there's more advanced stuff, things like lasers to shoot down missiles. And it sort of sounds a bit more like Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program from back in the 1980s.

SHAPIRO: Missile defense has had a spotty track record in the U.S. To make all of this stuff and make all of it work, what - how many billions of dollars are we talking about here?

BRUMFIEL: There's not really a good estimate for what we're talking about today. The lasers and stuff is all R&D, so it's hard to know.

SHAPIRO: Well, what does Trump say about how this will be paid for?

BRUMFIEL: Trump has a great sort of Trumpian response to this. He suggests our allies might pay for it. Here he was earlier today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: We protect all of these wealthy countries, which I'm very honored to do. But many of them are so wealthy. They can easily pay us the cost of this protection.

BRUMFIEL: But the truth is that really it's going to be the Congress who has to pony up for this, and that may be difficult with Democrats in the House. They're longtime skeptics of missile defense.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel, thanks a lot.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.