In a short memo to the Secretary of Defense from the Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno and the Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the two Chiefs requested a study to realign the acquisition of missile defense systems with a new strategy to defeat the ballistic missile threats to the United States, its allies and forward based forces around the world. The strategy is based on a preemptive strike with new non kinetic technologies, such as electromagnetic propagation, cyber as well as offensive force to defeat nuclear ballistic missile threats before they are launched, known as “left of launch.” The strategy is to attack by electronic embedment or through the electronic radar signatures of the threat’s command and control systems and the targeting systems of the threatening ballistic missiles.
The “Left of Launch” strategy has been percolating over the past few years in the bowels of the Pentagon and government labs as part of an effort to reduce the cost of engagement of missile defense and to defeat an outnumbering force of offensive ballistic missiles that continue to proliferate around the world should they be used to threaten the United States and its allies. Though the Joint Chiefs of Staff do not have direct acquisition authority for their services systems, they are in command of the Services future outlook to best position their services to defeat the future threats for the national security of the United States.
The United States certainly needs to invest, develop and enable acceptable policies to eventually deploy future “left of launch” technologies and systems to stay ahead of an outnumbering and proliferating threat. But in the real-world scenario, relying solely on “left of launch” capability for defense against ballistic missiles from nations such as North Korea or Iran is problematic, as it depends on the United States launching preemptive strikes on nuclear states such as North Korea, a possibly in the future Iran before that adversary had actually commenced an attack. The United States would then have to face the political and strategic consequences from first strike preemption, and the unpredictable response from the adversary state and its allies. Such an approach would likely not enhance regional or global stability.
For “Left of Launch” to be more than an offensive capability to defeat the threat before it is engaged, it needs to be part of the overall demonstrated deterrent to change the calculus of those threatening to launch. This would require a high-degree of reliability and confidence that these new technologies and systems would be effective, and would require active and regular demonstrations of these systems to be viewed by the world at large in a testing type environment.
Having an all offensive strategy such as “Left of Launch” team does not and cannot replace the necessity of having modernized kinetic energy missile defense systems. It cannot be guaranteed that “Left of Launch” would be 100 percent effective nor can the political resolve to use it be counted on. For threatening offensive forces to stand down there must be a demonstrated U.S. capability to reliably deny an adversary’s first strike capability, and demonstrate a tremendous offensive force repercussion. Offensive strategic systems and strategic missile defense systems must be integrated and be one strategic force team to most effectively deter an adversary.
Today, the limited strategic homeland missile defense remains mostly isolated from the offensive systems both in national policy and technical integration. On a regional level, missile defense is also limited to primarily a force protection role, and deployed on offensive platforms such as Aegis Ships with the Navy, and on Air Bases that project offensive air power. Bringing together offensive and defensive systems and structures to be fully integrated is the most effective and efficient means in defeating and deterring a threat both tactically and strategically.
In anticipation and in conjunction with “Left of Launch”, it is vitally important to best use what has been developed and deployed in the field of kinetic energy missile defense. The most effective way to reduce the cost of engagement and demonstrate deterrence with missile defense systems is to modernize the current interceptors and to provide much better discrimination information from radars and sensors, providing more battle-space time and fusing all of that information for the best possible firing solutions. The next step is to adequately invest, develop, test and prove out cheaper, revolutionary kinetic energy intercept systems such as the rail gun and directed energy, the latter of which the cost of engagement is less than the cost of a cup of diesel fuel.