November 16, 2020

Next Generation Defense Strategy: Missile Defense

The Bottom Line

The next National Defense Strategy (NDS) should:

  • Restore the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) to its research and engineering foundation with a focus on emerging and future threats, and correspondingly increase the research and engineering budget for these activities.
  • Redefine the discussion about transferring missile defense systems to the services, so that it accounts for service-specific multi-mission requirements. This will provide the services more opportunity to be invested in the system that they inherit following the full-production decision.
  • Develop a clearer policy framework around the offensive/defensive integration of missile defense policy and operations.


Missile defense is in a bad place. The eponymous agency has wandered far from its research and engineering roots into a morass of realized risk, canceled programs, and bureaucratic infighting. The services struggle to accommodate the resource burden of protecting themselves and the homeland. The axes of regional versus homeland missile defense capabilities and declaratory policy seem to be more divergent than ever. And all of this is occurring on the background of increasingly complex, competent, and unconstrained missile threats from China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and others.

Failure to address these challenges will leave the U.S. homeland, allies, and partners increasingly vulnerable not only to missile threats, but also to increasing instability within the broader strategic deterrence framework.

The Threats

The current and emerging threat picture posed by regional and strategic missiles can seem overwhelming. More than 20 countries now have offensive missile technology, which includes cruise, ballistic, and hypersonic weapons with ranges from 300 to 10,000 kilometers. China alone has more than 1,250 ground-launched ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Russia inherited and has invested in the continued development of the most diverse inventory of ballistic and cruise missiles in the world. In March 2020, North Korea resumed ballistic missile testing after a short respite in 2018–2019. On August 20, 2020, Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami publicly disclosed a new ballistic missile with a range of 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) named after General Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general killed by a U.S. drone strike in January of this year.

The current and emerging threat picture posed by regional and strategic missiles can seem overwhelming.

Increases in missile threats are not restricted to quantitative numbers. They are also increasing in the complexity of countermeasures developed by opponents of the United States to complicate its ability to target their systems with current missile defense capabilities. China is working to include multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRVs) in the design of its newest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Russia continues to develop both MIRVs and maneuverable reentry vehicles (MARVs) for its ICBM warheads. And both countries are actively pursuing the development of hypersonic glide vehicles for regional and strategic applications. Lastly, while all the quantitative and qualitative increases in threat need to be noted, the broader motivations of each nation actively pursuing missile technology remain diverse and rooted in their respective national security interests.

Current State of Affairs

Over the past few years, the missile defense enterprise has been plagued by significant programmatic challenges. On August 21, 2019, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) formally canceled the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV) program after six years of technical challenges and $1.21 billion lost. The program that the DoD intends to pursue following the RKV termination, referred to as the Next Generation Interceptor (NGI), has had challenges getting started due to requirements definition. Its first request for proposals was released only in April 2020. NGI will likely incur a five-year gap in between the time RKV was supposed to be deployed and when NGI becomes available.

Delays have not been isolated to the homeland missile defense system. Earlier this year, the MDA announced that the initial operational capability for the Aegis Ashore site in Poland is delayed until at least 2022. This site was supposed to be operational in 2018, but has been plagued by construction issues in the host country. In January 2018, the MDA suffered a flight test failure of the SM3 Block 2A, an interceptor coproduced with Japan, off Hawaii. In August 2019, South Korea canceled the Trilateral Information Sharing Agreement that was meant to increase open communication between the United States, the Republic of Korea, and Japan regarding North Korean ballistic missiles.

While this is certainly enough to be depressed about, there have been a spate of successes that are worth acknowledging as well. In March 2019, the MDA successfully conducted its first two-shot salvo of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, which has been rightly hailed as the “most challenging test in the program‘s near 30-year history.” In July 2019, Israel and the United States successfully tested the Arrow-3 weapon system out of Kodiak, Alaska, against three different interceptors. And lastly, even with RKV canceled, the currently deployed mixed fleet of Enhanced Kill Vehicles maintains a credible capability to defend the U.S. homeland against rogue missile threats—for now. Confidence in the system is certainly bruised, but not binary.

Restore the Missile Defense Agency to a Research and Engineering Organization

As noted in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021: “Since the Missile Defense Agency was aligned to be under the authority of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, the advanced technology development budget requests have decreased by more than 650 percent.” This is an inexcusable dereliction of duty by the administration, given the increasing quantity and quality of missile threats facing the U.S. homeland, deployed troops, allies, and partners. The Missile Defense Agency was established in 1983 as a research organization and should return there, with a corresponding restoration of funds. Technologies that should see increased investment under this framework include directed energy for boost phase capabilities, innovative artificial intelligence/machine learning-enabled technologies for discrimination, hypersonic defense capabilities, and more space-based missile defense programs.

Redefine a Path for Missile Defense Systems to Transfer to a Service

Transferring MDA-designed systems to a military service has always been a challenge, but also a necessity. The reality is that the services do not want to absorb procurement, operations, and sustainment costs of a system in which they do not feel invested. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) has famously avoided being transferred to the Army despite consistent congressional pressure to do so. Aegis was conceptually architected to be a multiheaded hydra cooperatively managed by MDA and the Navy, with John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory acting as the technical direction agent. But even the Navy has grown weary of fulfilling missile defense requirements that it sees as deleterious to its blue water mission. In June 2018, then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson said he “wanted out of the long-term missile defense business,” in order to “move to dynamic missile defense.”

Transferring MDA-designed systems to a military service has always been a challenge, but also a necessity.

Since at least the late 1990s, the MDA has tried to be both a research and an acquisition agency. The result of this internally incongruent organizational design is documented earlier in this report. The next administration needs to take a look at the acquisition authorities for systems that have progressed past full-production decision, and then consider how to align the resources, acquisition authorities, and operations and maintenance responsibilities to the services that ought to inherit them. Tighter coupling of requirements definitions and early identification of the inheriting service’s unique multimission requirements, beyond ballistic missile defense, should be accounted for in the earliest phases of conceptualization at a research-oriented MDA. One of the more compelling arguments made about the relative success of the Army’s ownership of Patriot is that it is multimission-capable and supports more than just ballistic missile defense, but also is a critical component of air defense as part of the maneuver force. Identifying those kinds of multimission-capable opportunities could help the service feel more invested in the system it eventually inherits. The next administration needs to look at the necessity of transferring a system, while also encouraging a more robust early recognition of the service-specific requirements that should be incorporated into new missile defense systems.


Lastly and perhaps most importantly, the next administration needs to more fully consider missile defense in the context of strategic deterrence. The Trump administration began to recognize the implications of competitors’ increased long-range conventional strike capabilities in a regional context, which necessitates a tighter offensive/defensive integration. However, it remained unclear operationally what that would look like, and strategically what implications it had on escalation management. This realization of the need for a tighter offensive/defensive integration also widens the gap between policy thinkers regarding regional and homeland missile defense scenarios. That gap contributes to a false zero-sum conceptualization of resource competition for missile defense funds. The varying scenarios will have to be planned in the context of geographic combatant-command seams—which have historically been a source of confusion and competing resources. Overall, there is much room for increased clarity about the intent of U.S. missile defense capabilities, specifically how and where they contribute to regional security scenarios, and how and where they contribute to the more classic definition of strategic deterrence.

U.S. allies and partners make significant contributions to interoperable regional missile defenses. In Europe, the Indo-Pacific, and the Middle East, the United States enjoys robust partnerships and alliance structures with other countries that contribute to interoperability. There is no doubt that the next administration should continue to develop these tailored missile defense cooperative opportunities where they are in shared national interest.


Missile defense finds itself at a challenging inflection point right now, plagued by realized risk, program cancellations, and increasing threats. The next administration has the opportunity to clarify the operational consequences of offensive/defensive integration, restore the mission and resources of the Missile Defense Agency, and better account for service equities earlier in a program’s development to ensure that each service is more fully invested in the transition.

Missile defense finds itself in a challenging inflection point right now, plagued by realized risk, program cancellations, and increasing threats.

There is no doubt that the missile defense enterprise finds itself faced with a plethora of difficulties. But difficulties are just things to overcome—as Ernest Shackleton said about his 24-month Antarctic expedition which included 497 days lost on the Antarctic ice, after his ship named Endurance was crushed. In a fit of coincidence, Shackleton rescued the last of his men, plus an unfortunate stowaway, on August 30, 1916. Last year—on August 30, 2019—the MDA conducted its first successful remote firing test of THAAD. So maybe, with some endurance, U.S. missile defense capability will make it through.

About the Author

Sarah Mineiro works at Anduril Industries, where she is responsible for developing business growth strategy for space and missiles defense. Sarah enjoyed a 15-year career in the intelligence community, Department of Defense, and House Armed Services Committee working on space, missile defense, hypersonic, and nuclear policy and programmatic issues.

Learn More

From July to December 2020, CNAS will release new papers every week on the tough issues the next NDS should tackle. The goal of this project is to provide intellectual capital to the drafters of the 2022 NDS, focusing specifically on unfinished business from the past several defense strategies and areas where change is necessary but difficult.


The Next Defense Strategy

About this commentary series By statute, the Department of Defense (DoD) must deliver a new National Defense Strategy (NDS) to Congress in 2022. And CNAS is here to help. From...

Read More
  1. Jen Judson, “Pentagon Terminates Program for Redesigned Kill Vehicle, Preps for New Competition,” Defense News, August 21, 2019, Nathan Strout, “The MDA Is Still in Charge of Hypersonic-Tracking Space Sensors,” C4ISRNET, March 16, 2020,
  2. Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2019 Missile Defense Review (January 2019),
  3. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and National Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020 (September 2020)
  4. Missile Defense Project, "Missiles of Russia," Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 14, 2018, last modified August 24, 2020,
  5. Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea Launches Two Short-Range Ballistic Missiles,” The New York Times, March 28, 2020,
  6. Patrick Sykes, “Iran Unveils ‘Soleimani’ Missile As U.S. Seeks Sanctions Return,” Bloomberg News, August 20, 2020,
  7. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and National Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020.
  8. Jen Judson, “Cost Tripled for Missile Defense Warhead, despite Prior Warnings, GAO Finds,” Defense News, July 23, 2020,
  9. Aaron Mehta, “Pentagon Releases Request for Proposals on Next Generation Interceptor,” Defense News, April 24, 2020,
  10. Steven Bucci, “America’s Missile Defense Cannot Afford a Decade-long Gap,” Defense News, February 6, 2020,
  11. Jen Judson, “Poland’s Aegis Ashore Delayed to 2022 with New Way Forward Coming Soon,” Defense News, February 18, 2020,
  12. Barbara Starr, “Officials: U.S. Missile Defense Test Failed in Hawaii,” CNN, January 31, 2018,
  13. Hyonhee Shin and Tim Kelly, “'Blind Men': End of South Korea–Japan Pact Undermines Bid to Understand North Korea Threats,” Reuters, August 23, 2019,
  14. Gabby Ferreira and Kaytlyn Leslie, “Pentagon: Missile Defense Test Succeeds in Shootdown,” Military News,, March 26, 2019,
  15. Jen Judson, “U.S., Israel’s Arrow-3 Missile Put to the Test in Alaska,” Defense News, July 28, 2019,
  16. House of Representatives, William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021, H.R. 6395, 116th Cong., 2nd ses.,
  17. Jen Judson, “Senators Push for U.S. Army to Fully Own Terminal Missile Defense System,” Defense News, May 29, 2019,
  18. “Johns Hopkins APL Plays Key Role in Second SM-3 Block IIA Intercept Test,” Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, press release, October 26, 2018,
  19. David Larter, “The U.S. Navy Is Fed Up with Ballistic Missile Defense Patrols,” Defense News, June 16, 2018, The discussion at the time was not as much about a false dichotomy between whether or not to fulfill missile defense requirements as it was about the need to transition ballistic missile defense capabilities from scarce mobile resources such as guided missile destroyers to more land-based permanent infrastructure such as Aegis Ashore.
  20. Jen Judson, “Slippery Slope: MDA Boss Fights Transfer of Missile Defense System to Army,” Defense News, August 14, 2019,
  21. Jen Judson, “In First, MDA Remotely Launches a Missile,” Defense News, August 30, 2019,
  • Commentary
    • Breaking Defense
    • May 29, 2024
    Differentiating Innovation: From Performance Art to Production Scale

    The Department of Defense has an innovation problem, and it’s not the one you are probably thinking about. Certainly, the Department needs to improve its ability to move with ...

    By Andrew Metrick

  • Commentary
    • Foreign Policy
    • May 21, 2024
    The Pentagon Isn’t Buying Enough Ammo

    Even in today’s constrained budget environment, the U.S. Defense Department needs to do more to prioritize munitions buys and prove it has learned the lessons of Ukraine....

    By Stacie Pettyjohn & Hannah Dennis

  • Reports
    • May 10, 2024
    Space to Grow

    Executive Summary In the more than 50 years since the first satellite launch, space has become irrevocably intertwined with the American way of life and the American way of wa...

    By Hannah Dennis

  • Commentary
    • May 8, 2024
    Sharper: Nuclear Deterrence

    The United States faces two determined near-peer competitors with robust conventional military forces and increasingly advanced nuclear arsenals. In the Indo-Pacific, the Peop...

    By Philip Sheers, Anna Pederson & Alexa Whaley

View All Reports View All Articles & Multimedia