by Robert G. Gard and John Isaacs
The recent missile launches by North Korea and Hezbollah’s rocket attacks on Israel underline the extreme difficulty in defending against missiles of all ranges and the fact that despite more than 50 years of research, the United States has yet to deploy an effective and reliable missile defense system.
When the North Koreans launched a long range missile in July 2006, the United States put our fledgling national missile defense system on alert, but it was more a symbolic gesture than a system upon which the President of the United States or American people could rely.
The on-going war in the Middle East demonstrates that neither the Israelis nor the United States has developed a system to protect vulnerable people from short-range rockets – aside from destroying the launchers, an exceedingly difficult task.
Thus despite the many tens of billions of dollars spent on missile defense and the flagrantly inaccurate claims by proponents of missile defense systems, after 50 years missile defense remains an experimental system that has provided the United States with very few tangible results. Moreover, despite Pentagon claims that solving missile defense problems is merely an “engineering” problem, defending against missile attacks of any range remains a complex and extremely challenging problem that the expenditure of well over $100 billion has not solved.
Defense against long range ballistic missiles: Not there yet
In mid-July of this year, North Korea tested a long-range ballistic missile, the Taepodong-2, in its early stages of development. This missile is believed to have the capability to reach Alaska and northern portions of the West coast of the United States. In response to preparations for that launch, the Bush administration placed its ground-based, mid-course missile defense system (GMD) on alert; its purpose is to protect the United States against one or a very few warheads that states hostile to the United States might deliver by long-range ballistic missiles.
One observer has characterized these actions as representing a symmetrical international Kabuki dance: the North Koreans tested a missile with no idea whether or not it would function as intended, and the United States activated its missile defense system without any evidence that it had the capability to intercept the North Korean missile if it threatened the territory of the United States.
The North Korean Taepodong-2 failed within a minute of its launch, plunging into the Sea of Japan. However, it is highly likely that the U.S. GMD system would have been similarly unsuccessful in intercepting the North Korean missile had it approached Alaska or the west coast of the United States. The last successful developmental intercept test of GMD, under artificially scripted conditions whereby the velocity, characteristics and location of the missile were known in advance, was in October 2002; even under similarly scripted conditions, three subsequent attempts have failed.
A series of recent reports from the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service, and even from the Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General and the Pentagon’s own Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, point out that the GMD system suffers from a number of critical deficiencies. These reports make it clear that the system has no proven operational capability; and currently there are no plans for operational tests – tests in actual combat conditions conducted by soldiers – of the system. Moreover, key elements of the system are years away from being fielded and, at this time, there is no prospect of the system’s being able to deal successfully with countermeasures that any state capable of developing an inter-continental missile could easily employ.
Acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by states such as North Korea and Iran, along with missiles capable of delivering them on the United States, poses a threat to U.S. interests. However, the United States does possess the capability to pinpoint the location from which these missiles are launched with its Defense Program Support satellites. It therefore is highly unlikely that any state will risk annihilation by attacking the United States with warheads delivered by ballistic missiles that would identify the attacking state and thereby lead to certain retaliation.
In addition, it would be cheaper and technologically easier to attack the United States by launching a cruise missile from a boat in or near a U.S. harbor, or transporting a crude nuclear weapon in a paneled truck across the U.S. border rather than using expensive and technically complex long-range missile technology. This type of attack would also afford the hostile state or group more protection in terms of the difficulty in identifying the attacking state or group. Thereby, these threats to the United States are more likely than a long-range missile attack and should be prioritized in U.S. defense planning.
Defense against rockets: Unavailable at present
Ballistic missiles are guided in their ascent to high-arch, parabolic trajectories, and can be detected and tracked relatively easily by radar. This is not the case with rockets and cruise missiles.
The Hezbollah militia has launched over 2000 Katyusha-type unguided rockets into Israel. Most have a maximum range of 25 miles, with fewer in Hezbollah’s possession capable of reaching 47 miles. These relatively inaccurate rockets fly low under radar beams and complete their flights quickly, well before current missile defense systems can spot and track the missile and process data quickly enough to launch an interceptor, even if the radar could detect and track the rocket.
The U.S., in cooperation with Israel, attempted to develop a directed energy weapon in the period 1992-2002, the Mobile Tactical High Energy Laser, to protect against rockets, artillery, and mortars. The concept was to superheat the incoming warhead, which would then self-destroy. Due to its bulk, the size of six city busses, high costs, problems with operating under cloudy conditions, the inability to deal with salvos of multiple incoming weapons, and vulnerability to enemy attack, which would release clouds of corrosive acid, the project was abandoned.
To defend against short-range rockets, “Active Protective Systems” are in the early stages of exploration by Israel, the United States, and Russia. The problems of rapid sensor detection and prompt launch of an interceptor to destroy the incoming rocket with a shower of fragmentation are exceptionally difficult to solve.
While details are lacking, the U.S. reportedly is also attempting to develop a hit-to-kill weapon, called the Stunner, to destroy incoming rockets. According to press reports, it will not be ready for operational testing before 2012.
Defense against cruise missiles: Unavailable at present
Hezbollah apparently also has at least a limited number of anti-ship cruise missiles supplied by Iran. It is believed that Iran acquired the Silkworm missile from China, and then produced its own version called the C-802. On 12 July, an Israeli missile ship and an Egyptian commercial vessel were damaged, apparently by anti-ship cruise missiles fired by Hezbollah.
Cruise missiles are similar to small, unmanned aircraft that fly at low altitudes to stay below radar. While an aircraft flying at 10,000 feet can be detected by radar 150 miles away, a ground based radar under optimum conditions will not be able to detect a cruise missile until it is about 20 miles away and even then, because of its relatively small size, the cruise missile is less visible to radar than an aircraft or a ballistic missile.
In addition, detection systems are designed to eliminate slow targets on or near the ground to prevent display and data processing systems from being over-taxed. The Patriot radar did not detect any of the five cruise missiles fired by Iraq during the 2003 invasion.
There currently are some 80,000 cruise missiles in 75 different systems in at least 81 countries. Ninety percent of these are short-range missiles that can travel 100 or fewer kilometers. However, operational anti-ship missiles can be converted easily into land attack cruise missiles (LACM) with ranges greater than 300 kilometers. Nine to ten countries are developing LACMs with ranges of 100 up to 1,000 kilometers. Much of the equipment in these missiles can employ satellite navigation and guidance (GPS), high-resolution satellite imagery available from commercial sources, and digital mapping techniques. North Korea is suspected to be developing a ship-borne missile system with a range of at least 1,500 miles.
A National Intelligence Estimate concluded that the threat of delivering a weapon of mass destruction on the United States with a cruise missile launched from a commercial container ship off its coast is more likely than delivery by a ballistic missile. There are some 125,000 merchant freighters in use, with 70% of them underway at any given time. Of the some 120 freighters that swing within 100 miles of the coast of the United States, none has to report as part of the three day advanced arrival notice for cargo vessels destined for U.S. ports.
Moreover, the steady horizontal flight path of a cruise missile would enlarge the effective lethal area of a biological attack, compared to delivery by a ballistic missile, by at least a factor of ten. Perhaps equally ominous, many countries are developing remote controlled, unmanned, slow and low-flying aerial vehicles capable of delivering weapons against ground targets with great accuracy.
Congress has allocated $10 million in the Fiscal ’06 Defense Appropriations bill for the Missile Defense Agency, in conjunction with Northern and Strategic commands, to analyze “Asymmetric Warfare Initiatives” and recommend to Congressional defense committees options to protect U.S. population centers from cruise missiles.
Means of defending the United States against cruise missiles are only speculative at this time. Lockheed Martin has suggested employing THAAD, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, but the kick stage would need extra fuel for increased thrust and maneuverability. This modification alone could not be accomplished before 2010 at the earliest; and large numbers at substantial cost would be required for coastal defense.
Defense against medium and short range ballistic missiles: Progress, but much work to be done
Along with the failed test of its Taepodong-2 long-range missile, North Korea successfully launched six short and medium-range ballistic missiles early in July. All of these missiles are capable of reaching Japan and threatening the U.S. troops stationed there.
As a result, Japan and the United States are accelerating their cooperation in deploying the sea-based Aegis and land-based Patriot missile defense systems to counter the threat of short and medium range ballistic missile attacks from North Korea.
The Aegis ballistic missile defense system is being developed by modifying a ship-borne system, originally designed to protect against aircraft and low-flying anti-ship cruise missiles, with the objective of defending against short and medium range ballistic missiles.
This necessitates extensive upgrading of the AN/SPY-1 radar. In its original role, this radar could recognize low-flying targets only about 20 miles away due to its inability to search over the horizon. Modifications are necessary to enable it to perform long-range surveillance and tracking functions. By fall of this year, 10 destroyers will have been equipped with modified radar; five more destroyers are scheduled no later than the end of calendar year ’08, for a total of 15, despite recognition that the radar’s power is insufficient and that new software is required. Since late 2004, a U.S. Aegis destroyer has been deployed in the vicinity of Japan to assist in detecting and tracking North Korean missile tests.
The Aegis system’s interceptor, the SM-3, is a three stage missile designed to destroy attacking warheads delivered by single short and medium range ballistic missiles; it destroys incoming warheads by impact in the mid-course of their flight in the atmosphere. At the end of calendar year ’05, one cruiser was equipped with five SM-3 missiles; by the end of calendar ’08, a total of three Ballistic Missile Defense Engagement Cruisers are programmed to have the full complement of 10 missiles each. To correct current deficiencies in the system, plans are underway in cooperation with Japan to develop sensor upgrades and a faster interceptor by 2012.
In November 2005, the Aegis system successfully engaged a warhead separating from a medium range ballistic missile launched from Hawaii. The missile was detected and tracked by radar mounted on a destroyer, which relayed data to a more distant cruiser armed with an SM-3 missile. The interceptor impacted the target 600 kilometers from the launch site at an altitude of about 160 kilometers. However, there have been as yet unsolved problems with the SM-3’s attitude control system that would handicap its effectiveness in intercepting a hostile warhead under more realistic conditions.
A Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) battalion, with 600 troops from Fort Bliss, Texas, will begin deployment next month to Kadena Air Base and a nearby munitions storage area on Okinawa, Japan. It is scheduled to be at least partially operational by the end of the year. Beginning in March 2007, PAC-3 units will be deployed to protect Japanese Self-Defense Forces, first at an air base just west of Tokyo, on other bases by the end of ’07, and on several more through 2010.
Originally designed in the 1960’s and ’70’s to shoot down aircraft, the Patriot system was modified just before the 1991 Gulf War to engage tactical ballistic missiles in the terminal, or last, phase of their flight. Contrary to initial impressions during that war, the Patriot was largely ineffective in that role. New software installed in the system after the war failed to solve identification problems in subsequent tests.
During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it has been estimated that the Iraqis fired 19 short- range ballistic missiles. Eight were reportedly destroyed by 22 Patriot missiles, while 11 were not engaged. On the third day of the war, a British Tornado aircraft returning from a mission over Iraq was downed by a Patriot missile; both pilots were killed. Three days later, on 25 March, a U.S. F-16 pilot received a signal that he was being targeted by radar; and he fired a missile that hit the Patriot site. On 2 April, two Patriot missiles destroyed a U.S. Hornet aircraft, killing the pilot.
Investigations by British and U.S. authorities concluded that the Patriot radar produced false targets caused by aircraft radar jammers, equipment problems and electromagnetic interference and clutter from nearby radars and communications systems; that its computer system was incapable of differentiating between incoming missiles and Identification Friend or Foe systems on aircraft; that its communication equipment was insufficient for awareness of air operations in the region and full integration into the joint battle space; and that training of crews was not realistic. The Defense Science Board noted that shaky identification capabilities had been evident in many training exercises before the invasion, and it questioned in its report why there had not been a robust effort to correct the problems.
There are additional problems inherent in the Patriot system. Its radar tracks airborne objects and the computer identifies the objects and displays them as symbols on a screen. If the symbol for an incoming ballistic missile is displayed, the operator has only a few seconds to override the automatic firing of interceptors. The Patriot’s software is proprietary, meaning that it cannot be linked quickly with other weapons systems. The cost of a PAC-3 missile is well over $2 million. While it would not adversely affect operations from semi-permanent installations in Japan, the Patriot is too heavy and cumbersome to traverse the battlefield quickly.
Other tactical systems
The Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) missile system is a $10 billion program designed to intercept by impact short and medium range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase. During the period 1995-1998, the system missed its target in five successive tests; consequently, the program was suspended in 1999. After a seven-year hiatus, it successfully engaged a Hera ballistic missile target over the White Sands test facility in 2006. However, no decoys or simulated debris were included in the test. In the next test, Army personnel are scheduled to operate the equipment; but even if the test is successful, deployment of the system is not likely for several more years.
The Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) is a developmental NATO project started in 1999, funded by the U.S. (55%), Germany (28%) and Italy (17%). It is a mobile surface-to-air system intended to replace Nike Hercules, a 1950’s anti-aircraft missile, and Patriot. Designed to defend against aircraft, drones and short and medium range ballistic missiles, it has a larger rocket motor than Patriot, larger fins, and greater range and maneuverability capability. It is not scheduled to become operational until 2014.
The North Atlantic Council approved the charter of the Active Layered Theater Ballistic Missile Defense (ALTBMD) program in March 2005. The concept is to integrate tactical missile defense systems such as Patriot and MEADS into a coherent, deployable defensive network for layered protection against ballistic missiles by 2010, well before MEADS becomes operational.
In April of this year, the Missile Defense Agency awarded a $6.7 million contract to Raytheon to modify its Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) to chase down and destroy short and medium range ballistic missiles in their boost or ascent stages. This project is intended to deal with SCUD missiles and similar weapons, and to protect Japan from North Korean NoDong missiles. Among other modifications, it will require adding a second stage rocket motor to the AMRAAM.
Effective systems to defend against ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as rockets, artillery, and mortars, would benefit the security of the United States and its allies. However, there are exceptionally difficult technological problems involved; and despite the huge sums of money spent to date in attempts to develop defensive systems, none has yet proven effective and reliable.
Patriot, the most mature of the systems, has been under development since the 1960’s, but it still has difficulty distinguishing between incoming missiles and friendly aircraft. Other systems, still in the developmental stage, have yet to demonstrate effectiveness under realistic situations.
Bottom line: there is no consistently reliable defense against long-range, medium and short-range missiles, cruise missiles or rockets, artillery and mortars.
Research should continue to try to develop effective missile and rocket defense systems. However, spending large sums of money to deploy such systems prematurely, before operational testing has verified that they will function as intended, should not be undertaken when programs to counter more likely threats to U.S. security continue to be under-funded. Moreover, national priorities for developing missile defense systems are inconsistent with the more likely threats as reflected in National Intelligence Estimates.