Where’s the Trump administration’s hugely delayed Missile Defense Review? The latest rumor is that it will be released this coming Thursday, and that seems plausible (but I wouldn’t hold your breath).
The review was congressionally mandated in the FY17 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and was originally expected in late 2017. Then it was expected around the February 2018 release of the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review. After that, it was expected in May. Now, it is more than a year late, and what it says remains a mystery.
When will we see it?
We’ve been told that an initial version, shepherded by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Rob Soofer, was completed and briefed to some members of Congress in late 2017. But when Under Secretary of Defense for Policy John Rood took office in January 2018, he required an extensive rewrite with a much more aggressive approach. The Trump administration’s diplomatic overtures and warming relations with North Korea became a second complication. Releasing a document that focused on the increasing threat resulting from successful North Korean long-range missile tests could undermine that budding relationship.
As far back as October 2018, officials publicly stated that the review was completed, but the Pentagon and the White House have been unable to agree to release it. Most recently, it was rumored that the Pentagon wanted to release it when then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis spoke at the Reagan National Defense Forum in December 2018, but the White House nixed that idea for reasons unknown. (We also know that many Hill staff have not been briefed on the current version and are as in the dark as we are.)
What’s in a title?
The Obama administration completed its Ballistic Missile Defense Review in February 2010. The current effort is meant to be more expansive. Congress has asked for a review of US capability, policy, and strategy to defeat missiles, including “left of launch” options that would stop missiles from being developed or launched in the first place, as well as passive and active, kinetic and non-kinetic measures. This “missile defeat” policy would cover not only ballistic missiles but also is mandated by Congress to cover cruise missile and maneuvering hypersonic missiles. So the term “ballistic” will almost certainly be dropped and “defense” will probably become “defeat.”
What will it say?
The Missile Defense Review likely will call for expanding current theater and strategic ballistic-missile defense systems and developing new systems to defend against such threats. It may even endorse developing new systems to defend against new classes of threats. We recently posted a briefing paper giving some background and highlighting what we will be looking for when it’s released. Take a look.
The review is late, but even without a new high-level mandate the FY19 budget request already significantly increased funding for existing missile defense systems. Congress also has gotten ahead of the administration and added requirements in the FY19 NDAA for the Pentagon to scope and develop new systems, including space-based missile defenses and drone-based interceptors.
Whether or not the missile defense review appears, the upcoming defense budget request will reveal Trump’s priorities in these areas. Indeed, the then-Deputy (now Acting) Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan stated back in October that, even if it is not published, the Missile Defense Review will inform the Trump administration’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget request that is supposed to be released in early February.
However, there will be one new factor whether or not the review is released: With new Democratic leadership in the House, the administration is likely to face much more skepticism than it did in recent years. The Pentagon should not expect blank checks (or wild ideas for space-based defenses) going forward.