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Backing Ballistic Missile Defence


American plans for a Son of Star Wars missile-defence shield have been in the news since 2000, and gained extra prominence after President George W. Bush entered the White House in January 2001. His predecessor Bill Clinton was at best half-hearted in his enthusiasm for a missile defence system to protect the US from so-called rogue states while Bush made the early deployment of defences a central plank of his election campaign.

The national missile defence (NMD) system has attracted a lot of international attention. The most frequently voiced grounds for opposing NMD are the risk of a new arms race, damage to relations with Russia and China, the financial cost, the technical feasibility of an effective defence and the fear that if missile defence does work, the US will act in an increasingly unilateralist manner in its dealings with the rest of the world. By contrast, polls show many Americans believe that the US already has such a defence system (it does not), and that support for missile defence extends right across the political spectrum.

Ballistic missiles have been around since the early 1940s. Britain was the first country to come under ballistic-missile attack when, on 8 September 1944, a German V-2 landed in Chiswick, west London, killing three people and injuring several more. Since then between five and six thousand ballistic missiles have been used. Over 3,000 V-2s were fired at targets in south-east England, Belgium and northern France, particularly London and Antwerp.

Others have been mainly variants of the Scud of Gulf-war fame, itself a descendent of the V-2. Missiles were used in the 1973 Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur war; by Libya against a US installation on the Italian island of Lampedusa in 1986; in the 1987-88 Iraq-Iran war; the Gulf war in 1991; the Afghan and Yemen civil wars in the mid-90s and most recently by the Russians in Chechnya. China fired a few missiles into the waters around Taiwan in 1995 and again in 1996 in an attempt at political co-ercion.

An estimated 38 countries possess ballistic missiles of one type or another, most of the short-range theatre ballistic missile (TBM) type, but also including long-range systems such as Trident and Minuteman that are the basis of the nuclear powers’ strategic deterrents. Efforts to limit nuclear proliferation generally have been fairly successful, notwithstanding India and Pakistan, but missile proliferation is an established fact. Most of the usual suspects such as Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Libya have active ballistic missile programmes.

A ballistic missile is virtually identical to a space rocket, except that it returns its payload to Earth instead of into orbit. Simply a delivery system, the ballistic missile can carry a variety of warheads including nuclear, chemical, biological and high explosives. To date only the latter have been used, but since the 1960s ballistic missiles have been the principal means of delivering nuclear warheads.

BMD has been studied actively in several countries since the 1950s. During the cold war, defence against ballistic missiles meant, in effect, nuclear defence. When the threat is nuclear, numbered in the hundreds or thousands, the usual mathematics of what constitutes an effective or worthwhile defence no longer apply. Even a 95 per cent effective defence, if indeed such could be achieved, would have been to no avail in the face of the nuclear capabilities of both sides during the cold war. The response to the hopelessness of defence against ballistic nuclear threats was therefore the mutual-assured-destruction (MAD) deterrent posture. Even limited defences came to be seen as de-stabilising because they might undermine each side’s confidence in its ability to inflict massive retaliation. The 1972 anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty was a direct consequence of this strategic rationale.

The problem was further complicated by the view that only a nuclear-tipped defence could be effective against ballistic missiles, whose speed is measured in kilometres per second. That promised to make the cure almost as bad as the illness because it entailed exploding one’s own nuclear warheads over one’s own territory. For that reason, the US deployed only the limited system allowed under the ABM Treaty for a few months in the mid-70s, though Russia has maintained a nuclear-tipped defence system around Moscow ever since.

What then has changed the previously accepted wisdom that BMD is at best futile, and at worst de-stabilising? The answer is two-fold. First, defence technologies have matured to the point where a non-nuclear defence is becoming feasible. This is achieved mainly through so-called hit-to-kill techniques. Instead of trying to destroy an incoming warhead with an explosion, nuclear or not, hit-to-kill, as the name suggests, entails a direct hit on the warhead by a small interceptor. The sheer kinematics of such a hypersonic collision would destroy the warhead, often outside the Earth’s atmosphere. The interceptor missile is guided by a mix of ground-based, high-power radars, infra-red satellites and its own infra-red terminal seeker.

Second, the threat itself is no longer mainly nuclear. Even when third-world states such as North Korea and Iran do produce nuclear weapons and manage to marry them effectively with their developing missile forces, the threat will be a numerically limited one that cannot simply overwhelm defences in the way that a Soviet/Russian strategic arsenal could. It is worth recalling that a single Scud hit on an army barracks in Dharan in 1991 accounted for almost 20 per cent of all US combat deaths in the Gulf war employing a conventional high explosive warhead.

Defence against ballistic missiles therefore has become more of a technical and tactical issue than a nuclear strategic one. Theatre missile defence (TMD) seeks to protect deployed forces against short-range Scud-type threats in much the same way as existing conventional air defences protect them against air-breathing threats ­ manned aircraft, UAVs and cruise missiles. Many TMD systems such as the American Patriot, add a BMD capability to an existing air- defence system.

Even national missile defence (NMD) systems such as the US ground-based mid-course defence system now in development or the Israeli Arrow system that are more obviously strategic, are not part of a superpower strategic nuclear confrontation. Much of the controversy that surrounds NMD has more to do with a bygone era ­ the cold war ­ than today’s strategic realities. Neither Russia nor China are in a position to engage in an arms race with the US, and negotiations between presidents Bush and Putin indicate that further nuclear reductions are likely, notwithstanding US and Russian BMD deployments.

The US, Russia and Israel are not the only countries developing BMD capabilities. Japan, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are all acquiring limited TMD systems that are intended for the protection of national territory.

In Europe, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Italy and Greece all have TMD programmes and Spain and Turkey are considering such acquisitions. NATO as a whole is conducting a TMD feasibility study that is examining the defence of deployed forces and also the defence of NATO territory itself ­ in effect NMD, although the alliance does not call it that.

Where does this leave the UK? There are three related BMD issues for Britain; defence of deployed forces (TMD), defence of the UK (NMD) and UK participation in US NMD. The 1998 strategic defence review (SDR) said little about BMD and adopted a wait-and-see approach but since then thinking has moved on.

The TMD requirement is no longer regarded by the MoD as contentious and is competing for funds with other projects within the equipment capability directorates. Unlike most other NATO countries, the UK does not have a land-based medium-range surface-to-air missile system, the RAF’s Bloodhound was retired several years ago without replacement. So a BMD adaptation of the Royal Navy’s new Type 45 air- defence destroyers is a possible option. The Type 45’s radars are particularly well suited for a BMD role and its Aster missiles are being adapted for BMD by France and Italy.

Defence of the UK makes sense only in a NATO-wide context. Many other European countries face non-Russian ballistic threats already (mainly from the middle east). NATO’s approach is likely to be to add BMD to the new air command and control system (ACCS) now being developed for the air defence of NATO Europe, with a deployable component. This would see national assets such as fighters, missiles and radars integrated into a multi-national command-and-control structure similar to the existing air-defence ground environment.

The UK already plays host to one of three ballistic missile early warning stations at Fylingdales, the others are in Alaska and Greenland. BMEWS will be an early-warning component of US NMD, as will the new space-based infra-red system (SBIRS), the European Ground Relay Station that presently is being constructed at Menwith Hill near Harrogate.

Initially Britain was sceptical about the need for and technical feasibility of a missile defence system to protect North America that is thousands of miles from north-east Asia and the middle east where threats could originate. But the UK government appears to be coming to terms with the fact that the Bush administration is going to deploy an NMD system. Many of the concerns about arms control and the international stability implications of NMD are abating, especially as the Russians are indicating that they are susceptible to a deal. Britain would not want to see a rift in transatlantic relations caused by a British refusal to let UK-based, but US-funded, facilities play a role in NMD.

After lagging behind many of its allies, the UK is now addressing the asymmetric threat posed by ballistic missile proliferation. A TMD capability would be a significant programme, though not on the scale of Trident or Eurofighter.

However, finding the money within a defence budget that is continuing to decline as a share of GDP may be the biggest BMD challenge of all.

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