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Trump’s new plans for missile defense may spark arms race, critics say

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has built missile defenses primarily to counter rogue states. President Trump on Thursday expanded the program's ambition, including calling for updated space technology. Officials say the new policy responds to Russian advances. Nick Schifrin talks with Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund and Rebeccah Heinrichs of the Hudson Institute.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The president announced today the United States would improve its capability to defend against potential missile attacks launched at the country and its allies.

    Nick Schifrin was at the Pentagon for today's announcement.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. built missile defenses primarily to counter rogue states. Today, the U.S. expanded the program's ambition.

  • Donald Trump:

    Our goal is simple: to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States anywhere, any time, any place.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump's words echo President Reagan's from 36 years ago, when he launched the Strategic Defense Initiative that imagined shooting down nuclear weapons from space.

  • Ronald Reagan:

    We could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today's missile defense review calls for space-based sensors and to study the possibility of space-based interceptors, like lasers aboard satellites.

    U.S. officials say the new policy responds to new Russian technologies, including a hypersonic missile a Russian animation showed speeding around missile defenses. China is also pursuing hypersonic and advanced cruise missiles, said acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan.

  • Patrick Shanahan:

    These new threats are harder to see, harder to track, and harder to defeat. To our competitors, we see what you are doing, and we are taking action.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In order to counter North Korean or Iranian missiles, the review reiterates plans to build 20 additional U.S.-based interceptors. It calls for the advanced F-35 to be able to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles and for arming drones with lasers.

    President Trump called it a dramatic policy shift.

    So are President Trump's plans to build up missile defense capabilities necessary and realistic?

    We get two views.

    Joe Cirincione is president of the Ploughshares Funds, a foundation that seeks to rid the world of nuclear weapons. And Rebeccah Heinrichs is a senior fellow at The Hudson Institute.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour" to you both. Thank you very much.

  • Joe Cirincione:

    Thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Joe Cirincione, I want to start with you.

    I want to separate the report, which we have here, from what the president said. The president said, "We will ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States anywhere, any time, any place."

    Is that a good policy?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    No, it's not. And it's very different from what the report said.

    The report itself is fairly modest. That's because it doesn't have much to build on. The existing system we have, a few dozen interceptors in the frozen tundra of Alaska, doesn't work. And the rest of the concepts are just view graphs and ideas.

    But what President Trump said dramatically expands the scope of this program, and that makes it dangerous. It turns it from a regional program designed to defeat a few primitive missiles from a small nation to one that's global in scope to defeat any missile anywhere launched by anybody.

    That would take major technological breakthroughs, decades of work and trillions of dollars. And the worst part is, it stimulates the very thing it's supposed to prevent, a new arms race.

    What's the response of China and Russia? To cower? To retreat? No. They will do what we do. They will build more weapons to overcome our defense. That's the dynamic of an arms race.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, Rebeccah Heinrichs, there's a lot there, but two points that Joe Cirincione had.

    One, is it dangerous? And, two, does it create an arms race?

  • Rebeccah Heinrichs:

    No, missile defense is stabilizing.

    The president laid out the right policy today in characterizing the missile defense review. The missile defense review takes more modest steps in that direction, but it does take care of the regional threats from Russia and China.

    We have two options. The Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans, and the Iranians are moving towards increasing their capability in the area of missiles. Missiles give them a coercive ability in relative terms of peace, and it gives them a military advantage in the event that war breaks out.

    Two choices, do we defend against those particular threats, or don't we? And this missile defense review that the president laid out and the talk that he gave gets the country moving in the right — to get the right direction to have a more muscular missile defense architecture.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, Joe Cirincione, there is new hypersonic capacity from Russia and China, and new advanced cruise missile technology from both these countries.

  • Joe Cirincione:

    Yes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What's wrong with creating missile defense to defend the United States against them?

  • Joe Cirincione:

    So, ask yourself why they are pursuing those programs.

    I'll tell you what Vladimir Putin said a year ago when he introduced these programs. He's doing it because of the missile defense program. He told U.S. officials in the Bush administration that, if you pull out of the anti-ballistic missile treaty, which Bush did in 2001, he was going to be forced to develop weapons to counter any defenses.

    It takes decades to develop those weapons. That's what he did. Is that unusual? No. That's what we did. When the Soviets deployed missile defenses in the 1960s around Moscow, you know what we did? We deployed more weapons to overwhelm their system.

    That is the dynamic of defense and offense. And you know what? The offense always wins, because it's easier and cheaper to overwhelm the system than to build these complicated pie-in-the-sky systems that never, it turns out, work.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Rebeccah Heinrichs, you're shaking your head.

  • Rebeccah Heinrichs:

    Missile defense is — has broad bipartisan support. The combatant commanders that are — that oversee these different areas of responsibility support missile defense.

    It's now being integrated into our offense-defense mix. So the idea that they don't work is simply silly. We deploy them today in the regional context. The Ground-based Midcourse Defense system that protects the homeland against North Korean ballistic missiles, there's great content in our combatant commanders that oversee that.

    And so they have — five out of six the last tests have been successful of the kind of ballistic missile interceptors that are deployed today. So this is a system that protects Americans.

    The Russians deploy missile defense because they want to protect themselves. The United States' response should be to protect the American people, our deployed forces and our allies.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I want to get to the space aspect of this review.

  • Joe Cirincione:

    Yes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And what the Pentagon announced today was a study into space sensors to detect missiles all over the world, and also research into space interceptors, basically shooting down missiles from space.

    So, one, has technology advanced since 1983? And is this something in the U.S. should pursue, Joe Cirincione?

  • Joe Cirincione:

    Sensor technology has.

    We already have systems to detect any launch anywhere. We have had it since the 1960s. And sensors are getting better and smaller. That's great.

    But interceptors, putting something up in space that would be able to maintain in space for decades and would work on a moment's notice? No, that is still out of reach.

    But you know what? We don't have to just have this debate on here. What the Congress should do is commission an independent technical assessment of these technologies. Let's see what's real.

    The technology — the independent assessments we have so far warn that these things won't work, and they will be extremely expensive.

    Just to defend against North Korea from space, for example, the National Academy of Sciences thought that that would cost $330 billion for a simple regional defense, if it could be made to work.

    Let's have the facts on the ground, and then we can decide whether we want to buy any of these weapons.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Rebeccah Heinrichs, is space technology too expensive, and will it actually work?

  • Rebeccah Heinrichs:

    No, it's affordable.

    And there's two different things you have to take a look at. First it's space sensors. We do not currently have in place space sensors that can provide birth-to-death tracking of missiles.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Meaning from the launch until it actually hitting its target.

  • Rebeccah Heinrichs:

    Which is what you need, because we can't populate the planet with enough ground-based and sea-based sensors to actually see these missiles, especially the kind that hug the Earth and fly five times the speed of sound, hypersonics.

    And so we need to have space sensors. That's going to give us our biggest bang for our buck in terms of improving the overall system we currently have in place.

    The other piece of the puzzle is more controversial. And that's what — the president talking about space-based interceptors. If we're going to intercept missiles while they're boosting, which is the best place to intercept a missile, because it's before they can release decoys and countermeasures, you got to hit it in its boost space.

    The best place to do that from is from space. And so we're going to take a look at this. The report says we're just going to study it. We're going to study it. We're going to see what we need to do to move the technology in that direction and see if we can move in that direction. And I think that that's a realistic option for the American people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    OK, very quickly, because we only got one minute left, 30 seconds to you both.

    If missile defense were to work, is it a good idea?

  • Joe Cirincione:

    Oh, I would love to have an effective missile defense system. Who wouldn't?

    But I would also love to have a cure for cancer. I would like a really good lite beer. But some things are beyond our technological capability. Missile defense against ICBMs is one of those things.

  • Rebeccah Heinrichs:

    Missile defense is stabilizing. It gives the United States increased deterrence credibility. And it should be part of how the United States thinks about deterring our adversaries, in the event that deterrence fails, to give us the ability to fight and win.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    OK, I think we will have to leave it there for both of you.

    Thank you very much.

  • Joe Cirincione:

    Thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Joe Cirincione from Ploughshares, Rebeccah Heinrichs from The Hudson Institute, thank you so much for you both.

  • Rebeccah Heinrichs:

    Thanks, Nick.

  • Joe Cirincione:

    Thank you.

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