Just weeks after North Korea tested its fifth nuclear weapon, I found myself climbing down into a silo that houses a Ground-based Interceptor (GBI) at Fort Greely near Delta Junction, Alaska.
North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon a total of five times, four of them while President Obama has been in office. The most recent one occurred on the heels of a missile test involving several missiles, more evidence that Pyongyang is increasing its missile and nuclear testing tempo and mastering the ability to perform complex missile attacks. Indeed, media reports indicate North Korea might be preparing to launch yet another missile in the coming days.
While some skeptics remain unconvinced, many in the intelligence community believe we have enough evidence to believe Pyongyang has successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead that it could deliver on a missile.
Should North Korea begin preparing for another launch, soldiers from the 49th Missile Defense (MD) Battalion at Fort Greely would ready several GBIs for launch. If Pyongyang did decide to launch a missile towards the United States, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system is the only system currently deployed with the responsibility to intercept an incoming enemy warhead before it reaches American soil.
Despite the critical importance of the system, and the North Koreans persistent hostility and willingness to flout international objections to its nuclear and missile programs, President Obama cut the GMD system in half in his first years in office. What followed was predictable. The system inevitably missed hitting a test warhead in three consecutive interceptor tests. Then, world events finally interrupted the Obama administration’s plan to scale back GMD and reduce funding. North Korea tested its third nuclear weapon and a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Road mobile ICBMs are especially dangerous because of their ability to surprise the enemy, thereby shrinking the window of opportunity to destroy the missile before launch or once it has been launched and is midflight, descending on its target. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced in March 2013, in response to both the Iranian and especially the North Korean missile programs, the Obama administration would be deploying “an additional” 14 GBIs to Alaska, bringing the total of GBIs (including those at Vandenberg Air Force Base to 44). What Secretary Hagel did not mention was that those GBIs were already planned for deployment before President Obama canceled their deployment. Secretary Hagel also announced the United States would conduct an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for a possible additional third GMD site. What followed after this announcement can be described as a mixed bag of improvements and setbacks for GMD.
MDA went on to successfully intercept a target in July 2014, after Vice Admiral James Syring took over the program, bringing the record to a total of 9 of 17 successful intercepts. And, implicitly admitting the cuts were a mistake, the administration agreed to a one-year plus up in funding for FY16 by adding about $700 million back to the program. The added boost enabled Admiral Syring, to recommit the agency’s focus on homeland defense, address the challenges that led to the previously missed intercepts, and to improve its testing program.
Indefensibly, especially considering the increased tempo in North Korean missile and nuclear tests (and Iranian missile tests), the FY17 President’s budget submission shows the funding returns to lower levels like earlier Obama years. Moreover, although the EIS narrowed the potential third site options down to three sites, the administration has punted on a decision to move forward with constructing the third GMD site. Given the geometry of an Iranian missile fired on the United States, a third missile defense site would significantly improve protection, especially when combined with additional sensors. A third GMD site, either fixed or transportable, will increase the system’s “battle space,” a phrase used to describe the time operators have available to them to hit an incoming warhead before it hits its intended target.
Moreover, even though the 14 “additional” GBIs is a welcome addition to the 30 already in place, there is plenty room for more. Fort Greely has three missile fields, each with a 20 silo capacity to house 20 GBIs. Missile field 1 (MF1) has 20 silos already dug, 6 are complete/operational, while the other 14 have metal sleeves; MF 2 has 14 completed silos; MF3 has all 20 completed. While the silos may be operational, contractors and MDA are still working on upgrading GBIs to get to a total of 44 (4 are at Vandenberg AFB) by end of FY17. If policy-makers decided to move forward with completing the unfinished fields, the United States would increase the capacity by 20, bringing the total available GBIs to 64. The environmental impact study (EIS) that assessed the area before contractors began constructing the fields also approved two more fields sites. If we prepared and developed these sites, the U.S. GBI operational capacity—not including a potential third site—would be 104. This makes good sense when one considers the trajectory of the missile threat from countries like North Korea and Iran. (Indeed, a recent report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) also posited that adding GBIs (40, to be exact) would be a prudent decision. Additionally, moving forward with developing all the fields at once, or at least aiming to complete the two that are partially completed, would be far more cost-effective than starting and stopping production lines to complete a few at a time.
Aside from noting the obvious underused potential at the missile fields, the visit to the GMD site at Fort Greely also reinforced just how important the mission of the system is, the dedication of the warfighters operating and preparing to launch GBIs in the event of an attack, and the pressure on the contractors maintaining the enormously complex system. It’s worth keeping in mind the climate the system and its operators and their families must contend with. While I was there, it was cold and windy. But the temperatures are expected to drop much further in the coming weeks. Once the first snow falls, the warfighters and contractors will be competing with freezing temperatures, drifts, and will do so under a blanket of darkness 24 hours out of the day—for about 65 consecutive days.
It’s tough task, but one that dozens of Americans have accepted. After all, as one poignant sign in a control room reminded, “More than 300 million Americans are counting on you.”