Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr. focused on U.S. missile defense during a discussion on national security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.
“We want our adversaries to know that not only is there a price for attacking us or our friends,” he said, “but also that the attack may not succeed in the first place, resulting in pain but no gain.”
No Decision Yet
In improving the entire U.S. defense missile system, Winnefeld said a holistic view must be taken to ensure limited resources are “wisely” invested — not just in ground-based interceptors.
“In this light,” he said, “there has been a lot of talk about installing an East Coast missile field. Our environmental impact statement should be complete in the middle of next year.”
However, Winnefeld said, the only reason to make that investment would be to provide the capability to shoot, assess and then shoot again, which can only be done if the sensors needed to do so are in place.
“We need to put our ability to see targets at the head of the line, and therefore, there’s been no decision yet by the department to move forward with an additional [continental U.S.] interceptor site though we very well could do that,” he said.
“Meanwhile,” Winnefeld added, “our current sites — Vandenberg [Air Force Base, California] and Fort Greeley in Alaska — protect the U.S. homeland from the existing and the projected ICBM threat from North Korea and Iran should either of them really emerge.”
The vice chairman noted even though an additional interceptor site in the continental United States would add battle space and interceptor capability and capacity, a decision to construct the new site would come at a “significant material development and service sustainment cost, so we need to be careful.”
He added, “While that site could eventually be necessary, in the near-term, upgrading the kill vehicle on the [ground-based interceptor], improving our ability to discriminate, and enhancing the homeland defense sensor network are higher priorities for us in improving our protection against limited ICBM attack.”
Winnefeld explained how he and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, prioritize the department’s investment in capabilities.
Any sensible nation has to prioritize its investments in defense along some kind of strategic framework, the admiral said.
“If we don’t do this in a sensible way, we’ll end up with a cacophony of demands in an era of declining means,” Winnefeld said.
This has implications for the nation’s missile defense investments, he said; capabilities are “ways” which can’t be prioritized before “ends.”
Winnefeld said he and the chairman, and increasing numbers of other DoD leaders “believe that our investments have to be prioritized along the lines of what it is we’re being asked to protect.”
Some of these national security interests, he said, are more important than others.
“It stands to reason that we need to ensure that we take care of the highest-ranked interests first,” Winnefeld said.
Preventing Existential Attacks
At the apex of any country’s national security interests, the vice chairman said, is its own survival — the U.S. is no different.
“At the top of the list of threats to that interest is, of course, a massive nuclear attack from Russia or some other high-end potential adversary like China,” Winnefeld said.
“This is about existential attacks,” he explained, “attacks that are extremely hard to defend against, and because we prefer to use the deterrent of missile defense in situations where it has the highest probability of being most effective, we’ve stated that missile defense against these high-end threats is too hard and too expensive, and too strategically destabilizing to even try.”
Winnefeld said the number of nations trying to achieve that capability is growing rather than shrinking and the department’s principal current concern is North Korea, “because they are closest in terms of capability, followed by Iran.”
He added, “A robust and capable national missile defense is our best bet to defend the United States from such an attack. That’s why the Ground-based Midcourse Defense program, is going to remain our first priority in missile defense.”
In a shrinking defense budget, Winnefeld said, “this system will be accorded the highest priority within the missile defense share of our pie.”
Staying Ahead of the Threats
The vice chairman praised the Missile Defense Agency for a “fantastic” job, and noted that it is DoD’s policy to stay ahead of the threats which underscores the importance of taking “a lot” of time and effort to improve the capability and reliability of the entire U.S. missile defense system.
“The Missile Defense Agency, led by [Navy Vice Adm.] Jim Syring, has done a terrific job of this,” Winnefeld said. “It’s not easy to hit-to-kill at the kinds of closure speeds we’re talking about, but we’ve done it.
“It’s hard to make advancements in such a program,” he continued, “when it’s so expensive to test the things you change in response to the things you might find wrong.”
Winnefeld credited the MDA for understanding that concept, and understanding “when you find a problem, you don’t stop at the first thing you see; you wring out the whole system.”
He added, “You don’t stop at the first possible fix to what you find wrong, and MDA has done exactly that. They’ve taken their time, and they’ve done it right.”
(Follow Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone Marshall on Twitter: @MarshallDoDNews)