Comment: By Rian Whitton.
Since the eighties, missile defence has struggled to fulfil its original role as a counter to offensive nuclear weapons. New technologies like non-kinetic weapons and rail guns could change that but, in doing so, could destabilise the nuclear order.
When Ronald Reagan brought the concept of missile defence to maturity by announcing the Strategic Defence Initiative (better known as Star Wars) in 1983, his ambitions were high. Opposed to the prevailing order of mutually assured destruction (MAD), Reagan saw greater stability in developing countermeasures to ballistic missiles, which in turn would develop into a global infrastructure of satellites and anti-ballistic silos. This, in theory, would end the arms race. It would also relieve the world population of the threat of nuclear holocaust, the Sword of Damocles that had been hanging over their heads since the development of the first thermonuclear devices in the late forties and early fifties.
In practice, Star Wars was shut down in 1993 and replaced by the Missile Defence Agency (MDA). While the US maintains the development of missile defence and withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, there is very little confidence across the defence community that the current set-up could prevent a large number of inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM’s) successfully hitting American cities. As a CSIS video shows, intercepting incoming missiles is one of the most technologically demanding and expensive challenges in national security.
The United States currently employs a highly expensive layered system to protect against missile attacks.
Ground-Based Midcourse Defence is the most complex layer, designed to strike long-range ICBM’s in Space. The technology for these long-range interceptors is unreliable and the last successful test was in 2008.
A second layer covers missiles that are descending from the atmosphere to reach their targets, composed of two platforms. THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) are land-based interceptors designed to shoot down incoming missiles as they enter the terminal phase. In essence this means intercepting them as they come down.
The ship-based Aegis system, prioritised by the Obama administration, is considered the most reliable system in place. Given its greater mobility across the oceans, the number of platforms is likely to be increased from 33 in 2014 to 43 in 2019.
Lastly, Patriot missiles are vehicle-mounted surface-to-air interceptors and the final layer of defence.
This range of capabilities is maintained and harmonised under the Missile Defence Agency (MDA). During the Obama administration, the annual budget for the MDA slightly contracted from $9 billion to $7.3 billion.
Beyond the US homeland architecture, regional defence systems have developed in the context of local issues. The Israeli Iron Dome system, partly funded by the Americans, has proved tactically successful at shooting down a large proportion of the rudimentary Qassam rockets regularly fired by Hamas from Gaza.
The Obama administration has come under criticism regarding its policy on missile defence.
One major point of contention in 2009 was when the US cancelled the expansion of radars and deployment of interceptor missiles to Poland and the Czech Republic. The move was designed to appease Russian concerns, but caused concern among European allies. In hindsight, this move to illicit Moscow’s cooperation in the international arena was misjudged. Being announced on the anniversary of the USSR’s invasion of Poland, it sent a message of indecisiveness to allies, and was interpreted as a political concession by the Kremlin.
8 years later, and President Trump has stated a desire to reinvest in America’s missile defence capabilities. As part of the wider Offset strategy, America’s military apparatus is likely to leverage novel technologies. These could drastically improve the prospects for defending against missiles, both in regional contexts and against strategic inter-continental threats.
Beyond the traditional tensions with Russia, America has built up tension with China and North Korea, as Washington’s allies in Tokyo and Seoul have pushed for deployment of THAAD in the Asia-Pacific.
Outside the European and Asian theatres, Washington defence planners are increasingly concerned by the missile capability of North Korea and Iran. Both have developed their ballistic capabilities, with North Korea openly testing ballistic missiles and nuclear devices.
The technologies with the most game-changing potential for missile defence are directed energy weapons (Lasers). A key driver for the application of lasers to missile defence is that, travelling at the speed of light, these non-kinetic attacks can in principle hit incoming missiles in their early ascending phase. This gives the enemy less time to alter the course of the missile or deploy decoys. Secondly, lasers theoretically possess limitless ammunition, and could conceivably turn the economics of missile defence on its head.
The current balance of economic advantage favours the attackers, as showcased in Iron Dome. This exquisite and sophisticated system is in order of magnitude more costly than the hundreds of cheap rockets Hamas can deploy against Israel. In the American case, the current infrastructure is very costly, and not likely to withstand a major onslaught of enemy precision-guided missiles (PGM’s). The trouble is that anti-ballistic missiles are one-for-one at best, as in they can only cancel out an equal number of opposing missiles. They are essentially the same technology to what they are trying to stop, with the addition of being more expensive.
Directed energy weapons, both ground-based and mounted on aircraft, could replace the need for expensive interceptors,and with greater miniaturization, could be mounted on a range of platforms (aircraft, ground, vessels, satellites) to improve coverage of potential threats.
Directed-energy weapons would also be able to engage missiles earlier. When a ballistic warhead dislodges from the fuselage, a number of decoys are deployed. A further development has been the ability of warheads to alter their course during mid-flight. This makes acquiring the target increasingly difficult. The hope is that directed energy weapons can hit targets before they enter mid-flight. Another way this may be achieved is through the deployment of space-based platforms. From 2000, Washington was considering the possibility of setting up a constellation of space-based lasers, with the hope they could target missiles from any source in the early stage.
The clearest example of applied directed-energy so far is a 30-kilowatt laser on the USS Ponce. Currently this weapon can disable speedboats and incinerate small drones while expending only a few dollars. While much more wattage would be required to bring down a missile, continuously firing lasers into space will be considerably cheaper than launching a diminishing stockpile of anti-ballistic missiles.
A few caveats remain. The prospect of non-kinetic weaponry revolutionizing defensive warfare has been discussed ever since the construction of the first ruby laser in 1975. There have also been a number of failed projects. Most notably, the YAL-1A Airborne laser managed to shoot down a test missile, but struggled to hold the large number of chemicals required for the megawatt laser and had to stay close to the launch site to get successful hits.
While lasers and space-based systems can improve cost-efficiency and hit missiles earlier, electromagnetic rail guns have the ability to preemptively hit platforms launching these missiles. These enormous next-generation cannons work by using a supercharged magnetic field to propel a solid projectile with enormous levels of electricity. This fires the solid metal slug at hypersonic speeds, surpassing the speed of sound and exceeding 4,000 mph. The lack of need for explosives makes ammunition cheap and should mitigate against collateral damage. The hope among generals is that these systems will represent an alternative to missile attacks, in a field where offence is generally cheaper than defence.
These systems, likely implemented on naval vessels, have considerable potential to close the gap on engaging platforms before they fire their missiles. One of the developments in ballistic missile technology has been the evolution of mobile launchers, which make preemptive strikes considerably more difficult. If rail guns can threaten to destroy either North Korean or Iranian weapons before they are launched, this could considerably mitigate the threat of nuclear-armed rogue nations.
To conclude, there are a range of technological developments that could significantly increase the prospects of reliable missile defence for the US. However, this is not likely to lead to greater stability, at least in the short term.
Russia has been particularly concerned by American funding for missile defences, primarily because it threatens to nullify their own doctrine of deterrence. Likewise, smaller actors may respond to new innovations by accelerating their own programmes. Before directed energy could be utilised to upgrade US missile defences into the global architecture Reagan hoped for, there would be a period of acute instability, as adversaries recalibrate their strategies to offset the American advantage.
Rian holds both a Masters degree in science and security from King’s College London and a bachelor’s degree in history and politics from the University of Sheffield. He is a digital writer, focusing on issues relating to technological innovation, security and international relations.