WASHINGTON — The long-delayed Missile Defense Review, which will be formally introduced by President Donald Trump at the Pentagon on Thursday, will call for research and investments to ensure America’s security for the next several decades: laser technology, the F-35 as an ICBM killer, and potentially putting interceptors in space.
Trump will roll out the report at 11 a.m. Thursday as part of his third visit to the Pentagon since taking office.
Expected to attend the rollout is a who’s who of national security officials, including vice president Mike Pence, national security adviser John Bolton; Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan; Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson; Army Secretary Mark Esper; Pentagon policy head John Rood; Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord; Pentagon technology head Mike Griffin; and Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, a leading advocate for missile defense.
A senior administration official, speaking to reporters ahead of the report’s release, confirmed a number of new technologies that Defense News has learned are highlighted in the report. The official told reporters that overall, the review looks at “the comprehensive environment the United States faces, and our allies and partners face. It does posture forces to be prepared for capabilities that currently exist and that we anticipate in the future.”
It’s been a long road for the MDR to finally emerge. Pentagon officials originally said the document would be released in late 2017 — then February, then mid-May and then late in the summer. In September, Rood, who as undersecretary of defense for policy is the point man for the MDR, indicated the report could come out in a matter of weeks. And in October, Shanahan, then the deputy secretary of defense, said the document had been done “for some time.”
There is also widespread speculation in the missile defense community that the review has been delayed, at least in part, because of the warmed relations between the Trump administration and North Korea. Notably, the mid-May time frame for release, which was floated by Shanahan in April, lined up President Donald Trump’s planned meeting in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. While that meeting was canceled and then eventually happened in June, there was a sense the Pentagon did not want to do anything that could jeopardize those talks, such as releasing a report discussing how the U.S. could counter North Korean capabilities.
Ironically, Trump will be rolling the report out just hours before a high-level North Korean delegation is expected to arrive in Washington for talks with the administration. However, Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korean expert with Tufts University‘s Fletcher School, doesn’t expect that to impact any negotiations.
“North Korea has the upper hand and is playing hard to get,” Lee said, and so won’t make a big deal out of the MDR’s statements on North Korea.
“Their propaganda machinery at home may issue a statement a couple of days later, but [lead North Korean official Kim Yong Chol] would be foolish to address it while he’s in D.C," he added.
Much of the technology discussed in the MDR will require many years of development, and in some cases will never come to fruition. But the following points give a good sense of the let’s-try-everything approach the Pentagon is putting forth with the report:
Turn the SM-3 and F-35 into intercontinental ballistic missile killers: The SM-3 Block IIA ship-launched interceptor is designed for dealing with regional threats. But the Pentagon intends to test the weapon as a counter-ICBM system in 2020, as part of a goal of creating an extra layer of protection for the homeland. In essence, the department wants to offer as many options as possible, scattered around the globe, for making sure nothing gets through the safety net.
The department has previously said the F-35 could be used in some capacity for missile defense, but the MDR calls for the testing and development of a new or modified interceptor which could shoot down a ballistic missile in the boost phase; expect early R&D funding for such a weapon to be in the FY20 budget request. There is also the possibility of using the F-35, equipped with its array of sensors, to hunt and track mobile missile units, which is a key part of North Korea’s doctrine.
Lasers on drones: The idea of using directed energy weapons, more commonly known as lasers, to take out a missile in the boost phase is not new, but it has received a boost in the past year in comments from technological leaders inside the building. In theory, putting a drone equipped with a laser high in the air at around 60,000 feet would keep it safe from any missile defense systems, while providing overwatch on potential launch sites. However, this idea feels more far-flung than others, in part because both the scaled up laser that would be needed for such capabilities has yet to be invented, let alone paired with a system that would be able to stay that high for long periods of time.
In the meantime, DoD is developing a low-power laser demonstrator to evaluate and test what technologies would be needed to make such a system a reality, despite the fact that airborne laser weapons are perhaps the hardest directed energy system to develop.