A Closer Look at U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Systems

On December 13, in a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and US Naval Institute co-hosted Maritime Security Dialogue entitled “Ballistic Missile Defense: Evolving Threats and New Priorities,” Rear Admiral Jon Hill (Deputy Director of the Missile Defense Agency) discussed some of the most critical considerations regarding the United States’ ballistic missile defense systems (BMDS). Outlined below are some of the most noteworthy takeaways from the insightful conversation.

Threats: Why is the BMDS So Important?

It should come as no surprise that North Korea was cited early on in the discussion, and repeatedly throughout, as one of the most critical threats that the BMDS is aimed at protecting against. Three sea launches in 2016, evidence of solid propellant long range missile capabilities in 2017, and a general commitment to improved long range missile technology, combined with the inflammatory rhetoric that has been highlighted in mass media, have (rightfully so) made North Korea the main point of focus.

Of course, they are not the only region that has attracted the attention of military and intelligence minds. Iran has also been developing advanced missile capabilities, although the country was not a primary focus of this discussion.

In these regions and others, the BMDS is generally aimed at not only protecting the local, forward-deployed forces, but also at homeland defense for the United States. It was Rear Admiral Hill’s belief that while the systems are fully prepared to meet today’s threats, continuous work must be done at an increasingly rapid pace in order to keep up with the threat of tomorrow‘s advances in ballistic missile capabilities.

Trajectory Problems

One interesting challenge that Rear Admiral Hill noted was the shift away from the traditional “Keplerian trajectory” that almost all ballistic missiles have taken in the past. In other words, prior ballistic missiles were much more predictable in terms of the steady parabolic arc that they would take from the launch point to the landing. This predictability in trajectory made the task of intercepting a missile (relatively) easier.

Now, however, ballistic missiles are not as uniform with regard to their flight trajectory. For instance, some missiles may enter space on the traditional parabolic arc, but may extend their flight pattern in more of a straight line while in space, before returning back to the more traditional downward arc towards land. With this confusion in trajectory comes a greater difficulty in determining the target, or “defended area.”

Emerging Technology

Another point that was made in the “threats and challenges” category was regarding the development of hypersonic glide vehicles. While this development was not elaborated on much in the discussion, a bit of research shows that this type of vehicle is capable of speeds between 3,800 and 7,700 miles per hour, and can deliver long-range missiles. One type of hypersonic glide vehicle has been tested at least seven times by the Chinese.

Missile Defense Agency Priorities

With the threats and challenges of regional advancements, changing trajectories, and emerging technology in mind, Rear Admiral Hill described the Missile Defense Agency’s priorities as follows:

  • Increasing system reliability and, in turn, building warfighter confidence
  • Increasing engagement capability and capacity
  • Addressing the advanced threat

While the first and third priorities are fairly self-explanatory, the second warranted some further elaboration in Rear Admiral Hill’s presentation. Increasing engagement capability and capacity requires three separate improvements to the BMDS. The systems must improve their ability to (1) detect, (2) control, and (3) engage targeted missiles. The ability to shoot down missiles cannot be maximized without also maximizing the ability to detect such missiles and efficiently control the BMDS itself.

What Makes Up a BMDS?

After the crash course on threats, challenges, and priorities, Rear Admiral Hill went on to provide a high-level overview of some of the components of the US BMDS. One of the most apparent characteristics of the BMDS is the “layered” or “integrated” nature of it. Ground, air, and ship-based systems each coordinate with each other in order to provide effective defense, and this coordination has improved drastically over the last 40 years. Various types of sensors (satellite surveillance, forward-based radar, sea-based radar, etc) and defense mechanisms/weaponry (ground-based, sea-based, etc) work together depending on the flight stage (boost/ascent, midcourse, or terminal) of the targeted missile. Missiles in different stages of flight will trigger different sensors and different defense mechanisms. For example, space-based radar could be more critical at the midcourse flight stage, while sea-based radar becomes equally critical in the terminal flight stage. Command Control, Battle Management and Communications, or C2BMC, is what ties each of these elements together.

Along with several brief mentions of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems, which are already deployed in at least two “key areas” and are rapidly deployable in other areas, Rear Admiral Hill extensively described Aegis ballistic missile defense as the key cog in the BMDS in whole. Aegis systems can provide both regional and homeland defense by offering long-range surveillance and tracking functions that are useful in the early ascent phase of a missile launch. More specifically from a regional defense standpoint, Aegis systems can offer both ascent and midcourse engagement capabilities and can defeat short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles. From a terminal defense (i.e. last stage of the missile flight path) standpoint, Aegis can defeat shorter range missiles as well. Additionally, Aegis ship-based surveillance can pass data to ground-based defense systems for homeland security purposes.

Aegis ship-based systems are also complimented now by Aegis Ashore, ground-based systems that are comparable to the ones found on the decks of destroyers. Aegis Ashore is now operational in Deveselu, Romania (as of 2015), and is slated to become operational at Redzikowo Base in Poland in 2018. Preliminary talks regarding Aegis Ashore are also underway with Japan and other (unnamed) countries.

Strengths and Developments

Generally speaking, processing power has improved vastly on warships. “Military standard” ships, without Aegis capabilities, are becoming less common, while hybrid and COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) ships, with significantly increased Aegis functionality, are becoming more of the norm. Furthermore, Aegis has strength in its modularity, meaning ships can get the appropriate Aegis systems in place instead of relying on a single cookie-cutter option.

Off-board sensors are also evolving rapidly. In other words, the ability for a ship at sea to receive tracking data either from a satellite or from another ship is improving. These sensors outside the ship can detect a missile launch and relay information to the ship’s on-board BMDS. In some cases (“cue on remote”), the off-board sensor only acts as a notification to the on-board BMDS – no outside action is taken from off the ship. In other cases (“launch on remote” or “engage on remote”), the off-board sensor can actually trigger the ship’s BMDS to act, potentially targeting a missile far earlier in its flight pattern than would have been previously possible.

On a related note, while Rear Admiral Hill did note the much improved capabilities of the SPY-1 radar systems over the last 40 years, he spent much more time discussing the development of the new and improved SPY-6 radar, which will take the lead “for the next 40 years.” Under development for certain classes of destroyers, the SPY-6 Air and Missile Defense Radar will provide the following capabilities:

  • Ballistic Missile Defense
  • Integrated Air and Missile Defense
  • Anti-Air Warfare Self Defense
  • Anti-Air Warfare Area Defense
  • Surface Warfare

The Baseline 10 Combat System, under development for the Navy, will integrate SPY-6 capabilities with the overall Aegis system, resulting in more power and detection sensitivity. Other work is being done, often in partnership with the intelligence community, in order to better integrate air and missile defense and deal with advances such as the shift away from the Keplerian trajectory.

Regional Cooperation

As with any endeavor with such international ramifications, regional cooperation with allies is critical. Rear Admiral Hill discussed several ways in which such cooperation is taking place.

In Asia-Pacific, THAAD deployments have taken place in South Korea in order to address regional threats. SM-3 interceptor missile tests have also been carried out in a partnership between the US and Japan. Additional joint analysis activities are also ongoing.

In Europe, the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), aimed at improving NATO’s missile defense system, is set to begin Phase 3 in 2018. Phase 3 will include the deployment of Aegis Ashore in Poland, as well as several other advancements in interceptor missiles and radar capabilities.

In the Middle East, foreign military sales of THAAD systems have been executed with the United Arab Emirates, and various missile defense related programs are underway with the Israelis.

Finally, Rear Admiral Hill discussed the successful completion of Formidable Shield 2017, a multinational joint integrated air and missile defense exercise in which 8 countries, 14 ships, and 3,300 personnel participated in a range of drills off the coast of Scotland. In the exercise, a variety of targets (US-made, French-made, Italian-made, etc) were successfully intercepted.

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