In case you haven’t noticed, missile defense has become mainstream. Israel has deployed the Iron Dome, a nationwide defense against short-range rockets and ballistic missiles. The Iron Dome system proved remarkably effective in last year’s conflict with Hamas. The U.S. is making steady progress on the plan to equip between 80 and 100 cruisers and destroyers with the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) and progressively more capable versions of the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3). It is also on track to deploy the first part of the land-based version of the Aegis BMDS, known as Aegis Ashore, in Romania this year with the full system scheduled to reach operational capability by 2018.
Events over the past week confirmed the expanding global role for missile defenses. On June 6, Saudi Arabia used a Patriot missile to shoot down a SCUD missile fired by Houthi insurgents from inside Yemen. The Saudi government has long seen missile defense as an essential part of its defense strategy. Kuwait and Qatar also have acquired their own Patriot missile defense batteries. The United Arab Emirates have gone a step further, purchasing the Theater High Altitude Air Defense System (despite the name this really is a very capable missile defense interceptor). You can bet that the growing Iranian missile threat will result in the Gulf States acquiring even more sophisticated missile defense systems.
On June 8, the U.S. and Japan successfully conducted the first test flight of their jointly developed missile interceptor, the SM-3 Block IIA. The first intercept test is planned for 2016 with the operational missile to be deployed on ships and ashore in 2018. The SM-3 IIA’s larger booster and bigger and more capable kinetic intercept warhead will enable it to engage longer-range missile threats.
Yesterday, Germany demonstrated its commitment to missile defense. In a decision certain to reverberate throughout Europe and across the Atlantic, Berlin chose the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) for its next generation defense against both air breathing and ballistic missile threats. Developed by a team headed by Lockheed Martin and MBDA, MEADS provides 360-degree coverage, engagement of low-flying cruise missiles and drones and the ability to simultaneously intercept two targets on different attack courses.
The proliferation of missile and drone threats is likely to stimulate additional investment in air and missile defenses by the U.S. and others. The Obama Administration has warned the Russian government that it could respond to the latter’s blatant violations of the INF Treaty by deploying additional missile defenses to Europe. Another option for the White House is to restart the program it cancelled for the SM-3 Block IIB, a much more capable interceptor that Moscow particularly dislikes. The U.S. Army urgently needs a defense against short-range rockets and ballistic missiles. Buying Iron Dome batteries would be one way of rapidly addressing this operational need. The longer-term solution being pursued by both the Army and Navy is an energy-based system, either a laser or an electro-magnetic rail gun.
The other area that really needs attention is National Missile Defense (NDM), the capability that defends the U.S. homeland. With China and Russia expanding their long-range nuclear arsenals, a nuclear-armed North Korea pressing hard to develop an ICBM and Iran in hot pursuit of a nuclear weapon, the need for a more robust NMD is clear. The current NMD system is limited in terms of sensor capability, intercept geometries and simple numbers. The plan at present is to develop and deploy a more capable ground-based midcourse interceptor and increase the total number of defensive missiles from 30 to 44. In addition, serious consideration needs to be given to expanding the intercept envelope by deploying more interceptors at additional sites, beginning with one in the Eastern United States. There is also the potential for a sea-based option, particularly if the SM-3 IIB program is restarted.
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