Tom Karako, the director of the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, discusses successful US national missile defense test on March 25, 2019, the Trump administration’s “masterpiece theater” 2020 defense budget request and the need for a space sensor to help detect more advanced threats like hypersonic weapons with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian. The interview was conducted at the Association of the United States Army’s annual Global Force symposium and conference in Huntsville, Ala., where our coverage is sponsored by L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here in Huntsville, Alabama for the Association of the United States Army’s annual Global Force Symposium, the number one winter meeting of U.S. Army leaders from around the world as well as academics, industry and thought leaders. Our coverage here this week is sponsored by L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS, and we’re honored to have with us as our first guest Tom Karako, the man who studies missile defense at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Tom, great seeing you, great seeing you at the airport on the way down here, and obviously a very big missile test yesterday. The Pentagon announced a successful salvo test. Explain to us what that means and why it’s such a significant development given that the United States and the nation has been investing now for many decades to truly create a national missile defense system.
Tom Karako: This was the ground-based mid-course defense, or GMD system. That’s the one system devoted exclusively to protecting the homeland from really long-range ICBMs from North Korea or whoever.
Yesterday’s test was a big one. It was a first in a lot of ways, primarily because usually in these tests you fire one interceptor, whereas in a real threat scenario there would be more than one. But yesterday’s test they fired two of them. Both contributed to kind of the operational realism, but also kind of yielded some new sensor data. There was a whole lot of sensors involved in this. I think they’re going to be pouring over the data that they got out of this for many months to come.
It was successful. Both kill vehicles hit what they were supposed to hit, so it was a pretty cool thing to do.
Mr. Muradian: Especially with concerns, obviously, about North Korea, we don’t know about North Korean activity, but I’m going to ask you a little bit about what’s going on on that front as well, because it looked like we had turned the corner. The President walked away from a deal. A lot of folks supported that. Any deal is not better than a bad deal, but then we had the sanctions hiccup.
Let’s talk a little bit more about that test and the bits and pieces that went into it both from ground-based sensors, sea-based sensors, because Aegis, there were a number of things that were playing in this. Walk us through sort of the topography of the test.
Mr. Karako: I think suffice it to say that MDA put as many sensors as they possibly could at this, and they’ve got things at sea, they’ve got ships, they’ve got radars on land, and they’ve got stuff in space, and they basically put everything that they had to look at it. So what that means is they’re going to be getting, again, a lot of sensor data pour-over, looking at the threat representative target as it was launched from the Kwajalein Atoll, as well as getting a good look at the threat cloud and the incoming kill vehicle. So they put a whole lot of stuff between Kwajalein and Vandenberg, California which is where the two GBIs were launched from, and got a really good look at everything.
Mr. Muradian: Where does this play, sort of what’s next? The command is always working on new tests. Obviously they’re going to be digesting this data. But what’s sort of the next test point? Because there is a very, very ambitious, long-term test schedule that they do share with experts like you.
Mr. Karako: The long-erm schedule, this was the first GMD test in a while. They’ll do some more in the future here, but the big thing coming up is not so much these tests as much as it is the redesigned kill vehicle. That’s had a little bit of a hiccup. The 2020 budget kind of confirmed the redesigned kill vehicle, which is the follow-on, a more reliable version, had a little bit of a hiccup and they’re going to figure that out before they kind of move forward. So that means really a two-year delay from 2023 to 2025. And I think it was Admiral John Hill who was quoted in the press saying look, we’re not going to rush this, we’re going to get it right, and I think that’s probably exactly the right path to take.
Mr. Muradian: We just saw the administration’s budget request go out. By the way, anybody who’s asking why we have an AMC background here, AMC is the host command for this great event and their folks have been working really hard to support all of us.
So talk to us a little bit about the budget. This is the first great power budget. Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan when he was Deputy Defense Secretary was saying this was going to be the masterpiece. From your standpoint, given that you focus on missile defense masterpieces, Tom, is this a missile defense masterpiece?
Mr. Karako: No, it’s not. This is masterpiece theater. It’s not just that the top line is down, it’s not just that the research and development line is down. But the components, the really important ways in which the United States needs to pivot and change from chasing the rogue state ICBM to complex and integrated air and missile attack, you’re not seeing that. And the single most important endorsement of the Missile Defense Review was the space-based sensor layer. The activities in the 2020 budget are astonishingly modest in that respect. $15 million to go and do studies that have already been done; and by the way, transferring them from MDA, which was supposed to be doing this mission and knows the mission, over to the Space Development Agency that doesn’t exist yet, a lot of people are scratching their head and trying to figure out how in the world this makes sense.
I don’t understand, for instance, how that is a way to go fast, to act at the speed of relevance. Everybody’s talking about the hypersonic glide threat from Russia and China. Well, this is a recipe to be twiddling our thumbs for a couple more years. This is not about getting a space-based sensor layer up.
So Congress, for instance, is going to have to take a look at that and say hey guys, you’ve been talking a big game about getting up a space sensor layer, but if this as represented on the 2020 budget request, if this is the path we’re going to take, all we’re going to get out of this is paper satellites.
Mr. Muradian: Talk to us a little bit then about hypersonic defenses and how do we do that? Because both of our adversaries or potential adversaries or great power competitors, China and Russia, have been investing quite a lot of money in hypersonics, some of which we know, some of which we don’t know, obviously. And that which we do know worries us a little bit in terms of a renewed focus on this.
So with a delay like this, what does this mean for U.S. defenses against hypersonic systems?
Mr. Karako: First of all, hypersonics is a category. It just means going faster than Mach 5, and it really refers to a number of things in the atmosphere. It includes maneuverable ballistic missiles that are going fast; it could mean really fast advanced cruise missiles; and oh by the way, these long-range glide vehicles, hypersonic glide vehicles. So it’s a number of things. But let’s focus on what’s usually referred to in that when people say hypersonics as a noun. It’s the glide vehicle thing.
So unlike highly predictable ballistic missiles that come from one place and go to another and have a highly predictable path, that’s how we can kill them, glide vehicles are going to move around. They’re going to go around our sector radars. This is why we can’t do sector radars anymore, at least we shouldn’t. The Army shouldn’t, for instance. And we first have to have the sensor architecture to track it birth to death. That’s why the space-based sensor layer is so critical.
But oh by the way, you also need different capabilities in your command and control. So there is some good money in the 2020 budget, I think $50 million for C2BMC. That’s the command and control backbone of the ballistic missile defense system. That’s good, but we’re going to have to think a lot bigger about the architecture. The overall architecture for the counter-hypersonic defense mission, because the current BMDS and the sensors that feed into the BMDS like command and control is not going to be enough. So we’re going to have to think big first about command and control and the sensors, then we’ll get to the interceptors. But the interceptors aren’t going to be helpful — highly capable and all that — unless you have the first two things.
Mr. Muradian: Especially when you’re looking at warning rates that are going to be in the mere minutes, minute and a half, two minute range. Obviously having the command and control and the sensor architecture in place is absolutely critical.
Let’s briefly talk about North Korea, what they’re doing. What is sort of the latest that you know? Because CSIS is one of the world’s leading organizations that tracks what the North Koreans are up to. Talk to us a little bit about the activity we’re seeing and what it potentially portends, both on the rocket side standpoint but also on the nuclear side.
Mr. Karako: I guess there’s some enthusiasts and there’s some skeptics. I fall more on the skeptic side. I tend to think that North Korea’s been bamboozling us the last couple of years. We’ve been falling for it as a country, that is, on the diplomatic side. It’s good that they’re not testing, actively anyway, with live fire tests. But the noise about rebuilding a facility, a launch pad, that’s kind of a finger in the eye. A launch pad for a space-launched vehicle is not the thing you would do for military reasons. It’s the sort of thing that they’re trying to maneuver and I think kind of threaten us, cajole us, coerce us in different ways. So they could very well pop something off. That would probably not go over very well in the White House and other places, so I think that’s probably a bad idea if you’re North Korea. On the other hand, I think it would kind of show them for who they are. I don’t think anybody who’s been tracking this really thinks that they’re sincere in comprehensive, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament.
Mr. Muradian: The number one North Korean strategy is buy time, buy time, keep advancing capabilities.
Mr. Karako: They’re good at that.
Mr. Muradian: They’re very very good at that.
Tom, thanks very much. I really appreciate it. Tom Karako of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thanks, as always. A very memorable quote. Masterpiece theater, not a masterpiece.
Mr. Karako: Thank you.