Hamas Rockets, Iranian Drones, Syrian SCUDs, A Korean Missile And Missile Defenses

The last month has been an important one for the future of missile defenses. Over this period the world has been witness to the profound implications of the proliferation of ballistic missile and rocket technologies. The Gaza-based terrorist group Hamas conducted a massive bombardment of Israel employing not only its traditional homemade, short-range rockets but sophisticated longer-range missiles capable of hitting Israel’s major cities. Around the same time, a drone believed to be of Iranian origin was shot down after penetrating Israeli airspace. Just this week, Western intelligence agencies reported that the Syrian regime had begun using SCUD missiles with their 1,000 lb warheads against domestic freedom fighters. After the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, the regime in Kabul employed similar tactics in a desperate and ultimately unsuccessful effort to stave off the Mujahideen guerrillas. And North Korea, one of the poorest countries on Earth, finally had a successful launch of an ICBM-equivalent missile providing an entry card to a club that includes the world’s largest economies and most advanced nations.

The development, deployment and, of greatest concern, use of rockets, ballistic and cruise missiles is becoming commonplace. States intent on circumventing international bans on the transfer of long-range missile technology and know-how have been successful. How long will it be until North Korea trades its new-found capability to build and launch long-range missiles to Iran? The tedious Western debates regarding the role of missiles and rockets in the strategies of rogue states and terrorist groups have been rendered moot. These nations and groups can and have acquired such capabilities and fully intend to employ them as political and military instruments. It is time to accept the reality that we have entered a new age of terror.

Fortunately, there are solutions that can mitigate the terror. First among these is advanced missile defenses. Israel’s Iron Dome system had an unprecedented intercept rate of 85 percent. Equally significant, its advanced sensors and high speed battle management system allowed the defense to ignore potential targets that were projected to impact in uninhabited areas. The ability to selectively engage incoming rockets and missiles based on the severity of the threat they pose, could fundamentally change the balance between offense and defense. Combined with the sophisticated long-range Arrow missile defense system and the soon-to-be deployed David’s Sling, Israel will have a robust multi-layer national missile defense.

The initial elements of the U.S. phased adaptive architecture (PAA) have been deployed. This system uses the Aegis Ballistic Missile defense system in conjunction with the Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) variant IA. The Aegis/SM-3 system has been successful in 16 of 19 intercept tests. The next three phases of the PAA will see more capable, longer-range variants of the SM-3 deployed along with upgrades to the Aegis radar and combat systems and the deployment of Aegis Ashore in Europe and possibly in the Asia-Pacific region. Phase 4 of the PAA, planned for the early 2020s, envisions a new missile (although it is called the SM-3 IIB) that would have the ability to intercept ICBMs such as that tested by North Korea. The U.S. is deploying other, complementary missile defense capabilities including the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and the venerable Patriot PAC-3. U.S., Dutch and German Patriot batteries are being deployed to Turkey’s border with Syria to provide enhanced air and missile defenses.

The U.S. needs to revitalize its relatively moribund National Missile Defense (NMD) system which hasn’t had a test in more than two years. The Obama Administration has allowed NMD research and development to erode while it focused almost exclusively on theater defenses. The current, very limited defense of the homeland provided by the NMD system is likely to be insufficient to address the emerging threat from potential aggressors such as Iran and North Korea. In addition to more and better interceptors, the U.S. clearly needs to consider deploying NMD at additional sites, particularly along the East Coast.