Since the days of German V-2 missiles hitting London with impunity during World War II, nations have sought ways to defend against such attacks. That was the impetus for creation of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) during President Ronald Reagan’s administration. SDIO became the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) in 1994, then the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) in 2002, but its primary mission remained the same: Defend the United States, its deployed forces, and its allies from missiles of all types.
As the United States moved through multiple programs and technologies in search of an anti-missile system that was both effective and affordable, other nations began their own programs. For most, their efforts were intended to lessen a potential threat; for others, it was to protect their cities, infrastructure and citizens from real attacks.
While many program details are partly or wholly classified, what is available on U.S. and Israeli theater missile defense (TMD) demonstrates the known state-of-the-art in radars, launchers, missiles, and warheads in a layered defense configuration.
The current U.S. scheme includes a phased, adaptive approach for missile defense in Europe, centered on the installation of land-based Standard Missile 3s (SM-3), as part of Aegis Ashore in Poland and Romania. The main purpose is to defend Europe from a possible missile attack from Iran, also considered one of the most likely threats to the United States.
Israeli TMD, however, is actively engaged on an almost daily basis, creating a constant push to upgrade and advance anti-missile technologies, especially as enemy forces continue to do the same offensively.
MDA cites that endless cycle of threat, counter-threat as the reason why the United States must maintain its lead in missile defense: “Increasing technology transfer and missile proliferation could render traditional deterrence and diplomacy ineffective against a future missile attack on the U.S., our deployed forces, or our allies. Through its capabilities for defending critical nodes, military assets and seats of government, missile defense enhances existing non-proliferation activities. Missile defenses can provide a permanent presence in a region and discourage adversaries from believing they can use ballistic missiles to coerce or intimidate the U.S. or its allies.”
MDA’s layered approach to ballistic missile defense (BMD) covers the three primary stages of a long-, intermediate- or medium-range missile attack:
- Boost/Ascent Defense – This includes the Air-Launched Hit-to-Kill (ALHTK) initiative, which would enable fighter aircraft to carry and launch Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles to intercept hostile ballistic and cruise missiles early in their flight regime.
- Mid-Course Defense – The leading component in this layer today is the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system, which has been certified for tactical deployment.
- Terminal Defense – The last chance to block or diminish the effects of an attack, this layer comprises an array of current or potential TMD systems, including Aegis, ALHTK, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), and PAC-3 missiles.
While those are potentially the most destructive threats, especially if carrying CBRN (chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear) warheads, actual attacks to date have involved cruise and short-range missiles and rockets, as well as weaponized unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), carrying conventional explosives.
While land-based TMD covers all of those, the most common focus for currently fielded systems is on low-flying UAVs, cruise missiles, and short-range rockets, but also exoatmospheric kills of medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
Kinetic (hit-to-kill) defenses require sophisticated radars, guidance systems, and sensors. Directed-energy weapons have similar basic requirements, plus the technology and massive power needs inherent in high-power lasers. All are areas in which the United States currently holds a significant edge.
“High-energy lasers complement kinetic energy systems and have unique attributes, including very low cost per engagement, a virtually unlimited ‘magazine’ and minimal collateral damage,” Doug Graham, vice president of Advanced Programs at Lockheed Martin Strategic and Missile Defense Systems, explained.