“I remain concerned, I’ve said that with my NORTHCOM hat on, with [North Korea’s] advancements, capability and capacity. That’s why it’s crucial that we continue our Service Life Extension Program on our current ballistic missile defense capabilities. We must field the next generation interceptor on time, if not sooner than 2028.” -Gen. Glen Vanherck, Commander, US Northern Command
“Our current missile defense system can defeat today’s ballistic missile capabilities of our adversaries. However, the threats posed by both ballistic and non-ballistic systems from rogue nations and strategic competitors can…increase and grow in complexity.” -Adm. Jon Hill. MDA Director (28 May 2021; FY2022 DoD Budget Briefing)
Currently, there are 40 ground-based interceptors (GBIs) housed across three missile fields in Fort Greely, Alaska. These 40 GBIs are composed of three different generations of interceptors, with the first of these GBIs emplaced 17 years ago. As a result, these GBIs have varying degrees of reliability and capability, largely due to the age of the technologies used when they were fielded.
As required by law and supported by policy, all 44 GBI interceptors (the 40 in Fort Greely and the four additional ones at Vandenberg AFB in California) have the capability to strike down all of the current threats from both Iranian and North Korean ICBMs. We, and more importantly, our adversaries, understand that the current GBI arsenal, and the underlying Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, has the demonstrated capability to protect the entire country, from Florida to Alaska to Maine and all the way to Hawaii. Our adversaries also know that the GMD system can confidently defend our homeland with multiple shot opportunities, further increasing their reliability of our defenses.
Yet the capability and capacity of our adversaries’ offensive missile systems continues to evolve; some North Korean ICBMs are already capable of ranging all 50 U.S. States. As a result, MDA plans to replace all three generations of GBIs with the Next Generation Interceptor (NGI) beginning in 2028 and extending into the next decade. This replacement timeline assumes ideal conditions of resourcing, development, and testing. In the meantime, due to their age and great advancements in offensive missile capabilities, the current GBI fleet continues to deteriorate in reliability. In addition, Congress and the previous Administration authorized and funded an increase to the number of GBIs, including the construction of a new, 20-silo missile field at Fort Greely. This new field, which is nearing completion, currently sits empty. As such, the previously planned improvements to both capability and capacity for the only missile defense system capable of defending the entire U.S. homeland from rouge state ballistic missile threats currently remains stagnant.
“The DPRK’s nuclear activities continue to be a cause for serious concern. Furthermore, the new indications of the operation of the 5MW(e) reactor and the Radiochemical Laboratory are deeply troubling. The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear programme is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable.” -International Atomic Energy Agency, “Application of Safeguards in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”, Report by the Director General, August 27th, 2021
This week, North Korea appears to have begun ramping up its 5-megawatt Yongbyon reactor, capable of creating weapons-grade plutonium appropriate for producing warheads. While reprocessing at the Yongbyon facility is not a new development, the renewing of operations is a signal from Kim Jong Un that he is not interested in a nuclear deal with the Biden administration and that he will continue along the path of nuclear development for the foreseeable future. North Korea currently has five different missiles with intercontinental range, with the latest being the Hwasong-16 ICBM that was displayed in a military parade last October. It is estimated that their nuclear stockpile contains approximately 30-40 warheads, and Pyongyang continues to modernize their delivery platforms, including road-mobile and submarine launchers.
As mentioned earlier, many of the GBIs in the ground are almost two decades old and there are concerns that the Service-Life Extension Program (SLEP), tasked with maintaining the reliability and upgrading the current GMD system to defend against advancing threats, remains underfunded in the FY 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requests and markups.
“The big concern back when layered homeland defense was first discussed was the concern that the existing fleet would start to lose its reliability over time while we also had this timeline for next-generation interceptor off to the right… Now we have a Service Life Extension Program and we’re moving out there and that will increase and give us a hardware-based data capacity to really understand reliability”. -Vice Admiral John Hill, Director of the Missile Defense Agency, Department of Defense Press Briefing on the President’s Fiscal Year 2022 Defense Budget for the Missile Defense Agency, May 28th, 2021
In FY2020 and FY2021 Congress added significant funds for GMD SLEP and Risk Reduction activities, which have been used to fund several critical sustainment activities, including upgrades to six of the oldest GBIs, new boosters and EKV parts. FY2020 funding for SLEP totaled $620 million, and FY2021 funding totaled $600 million, initiating significant reliability and sustainability enhancements to the existing GBI fleet. However, the total FY2022 funding for SLEP has dropped to less than $40 million, indicating a gap in addressing the remaining aging GBI fleet and other parts of the aging GMD architecture. With only a fraction (6 of 40) of the existing GBI fleet addressed with the FY2020 and FY2021 SLEP investments, continued significant SLEP funding is needed to ensure the GMD system paces the ever growing and evolving ballistic missile threat to the US Homeland.
While the decision to strongly support NGI is strategically sound to protect against the threats of the future, the threats of today cannot be dismissed, and a reliable GMD architecture maintained through a fully and consistently funded SLEP program is indispensable in ensuring defense of the homeland.
Committing to the right investments now, will garner the greatest strategic returns for the continuity of effective Homeland Defense assured and certain in its modernized relevancy — pacing ahead of the strategic threats to ensure our way of life.
Hail to the men and women that serve the nation in Fort Greely, Alaska in this vital and critical capacity. Our total respect and abundant gratitude to their tenacity, their grit, their commitment to their mission during the most challenging times in our nation and enduring the extreme weather conditions of Alaska and living in a remote location to selfless serve for the defense of our nation.
They are the most important asset we as a nation have and we must do everything to keep them assured and certain in their mission. We were honored to be with them at Ft. Greely last week.