Missile Defense Madness: Myth Of Perfect Patriots, Magic THAAD, And The ICBM Shield

The reliability and capability claims attributed to anti-ballistic missile systems are getting way out of step with reality.

Lockheed Martin

With peer state competitors China and Russia in the periphery, along with an emboldened Iran, the looming threat posed by North Korea's long-range ballistic missiles has resulted in a frenzy of missile defense messaging that is often as wrong as it is in fashion. Emanating from the very tip-top of the America's government, the notion that missile interceptors are some sort of perfect panacea to ballistic missile wielding foes, even rogue states with relatively limited resources, is a lie. And despite the inaccurate claims made by the President on down the line, these systems do offer some form of defense against limited, low volume attacks and the more advanced the enemy missile is, the less reliable American interceptors would likely be under real-world conditions.

The War Zone has gone into detail about just how challenging shooting down a long-range ballistic missile is, and how rickety America's defenses really are when it comes to counter such an attack. But as we enter into a new political environment where hawkish rhetoric is en vogue, the misunderstandings surrounding missile defense and its limitations are snowballing, and the mainstream media isn't innocent in this phenomenon either. 

Just today Reuters published a highly circulated article about the possibility of installing a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor battery at a new site on America's west coast. The report states in part:

The U.S. agency tasked with protecting the country from missile attacks is scouting the West Coast for places to deploy new anti-missile defenses, two Congressmen said on Saturday, as North Korea’s missile tests raise concerns about how the United States would defend itself from an attack...

...West Coast defenses would likely include Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missiles, similar to those deployed in South Korea to protect against a potential North Korean attack...

...Congressman Mike Rogers, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee and chairs the Strategic Forces Subcommittee which oversees missile defense, said the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), was aiming to install extra defenses at West Coast sites. The funding for the system does not appear in the 2018 defense budget plan indicating potential deployment is further off...

...When asked about the plan, MDA Deputy Director Rear Admiral Jon Hill‎ said in a statement: “The Missile Defense Agency has received no tasking to site the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense System on the West Coast.”

The MDA is a unit of the U.S. Defense Department.

Congressman Rogers did not reveal the exact locations the agency is considering but said several sites are “competing” for the missile defense installations...

...Rogers and Congressman Adam Smith, a Democrat representing the 9th District of Washington, said the government was considering installing the THAAD anti-missile system made by aerospace giant Lockheed Martin Corp, at west coast sites...

...In addition to the two THAAD systems deployed in South Korea and Guam in the Pacific, the U.S. has seven other THAAD systems. While some of the existing missiles are based in Fort Bliss, Texas, the system is highly mobile and current locations are not disclosed.

A Lockheed Martin representative declined to comment on specific THAAD deployments, but added that the company “is ready to support the Missile Defense Agency and the United States government in their ballistic missile defense efforts.” He added that testing and deployment of assets is a government decision."

Big problem here—THAAD isn't capable of defending the country against incoming ICBMs. It is a system developed to counter theater ballistic missiles. In other words it is meant to swat down short to medium-range missiles, and at the high-end of its envelope, intermediate-range ballistic missiles, not long-range, fast and high-flying ICBMs. 

The first test of THAAD against a simulated IRBM occurred just last July, and its developmental past had plenty of issues. Additionally, THAAD isn't capable of defending continent sized areas like America's high-flying Ground Based Missile Defense (GMD) interceptors. THAAD batteries based on the west coast of the U.S. would be nearly useless as they are built to intercept less capable missiles during their terminal phase of flight. 

If eventually future iterations of THAAD become capable of swatting down fast and high-flying intercontinental ballistic missiles as they make their final descent towards their targets, such a system may be able to protect key cities on the west coast. But considering North Korea's latest missile, the Hwasong-15, is capable of hitting anywhere in the United States, and its range is likely to only grow greater in the future, deploying some sort of advanced THAAD battery that doesn't even exist now to the west coast would mean the North Koreans would just target somewhere else.

Really, the whole report is likely based on a misunderstanding of America's BMD capabilities by head lawmakers and on Reuters and other outlets not having anyone with the knowledge base to question those statements. Sadly, this is an all too common occurrence.

US Army

US Army THAAD battery troops in front of a launcher and interceptor. 

The Pentagon and the Trump Administration look to expand America's Alaska-based GMD arsenal from 44 interceptors to 64. Those missiles are claimed to be capable of providing a midcourse intercept screen for the U.S., supposedly including Hawaii. Vandenberg AFB in California also has GMD capability, but for testing purposes, and it is not an active ballistic missile defense site. If anything, more GMD interceptors deployed to Vandenberg AFB in an operational format would seem like a much better investment than deploying useless THAAD batteries to locations on the west coast.

Regardless, the fact of the matter is that none of these systems have been proven effective in combat. Even their testing conditions remain questionable and likely don't really simulate real-world conditions where a missile can be fired at a moment's notice. This is especially true in regards to a situation where multiple enemy missiles are launched over a short period of time. All told the complexities of America's missile defense systems, and especially of its long-range GMD system and the rickety command and control, communications, and sensor architecture that goes along with it, make its effectiveness outside of scripted test scenarios questionable."

Even the long-running MIM-104 Patriot missile system, which has a controversial past dominated by false statements and metrics as to its anti-ballistic missile effectiveness, has once again turned into a perceived missile shield with almost mythical powers. The PAC-3 variant of the system, which is specially adapted for intercepting short-range tactical ballistic missiles, along with the earlier PAC-2 variant has seen success in Saudi Arabia as of late. UAE has also used the Patriot to swat down incoming missiles. Israel, another operator of the Patriot, has had positive results with the system in recent years as well, even against diminutive drones. But a New York Times article published today paints a different and likely far more realistic picture of the Patriot's effectiveness when it comes to intercepting increasingly more capable missiles fired by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in western Yemen. 

Israel Government

A February 12th, 1991 Patriot missile launch targeting Iraqi Scud short-range ballistic missiles. At the time the Patriot was described as one of the biggest successes of Desert Storm, but it turned out the missiles intercepted few if any enemy targets. 

Analyst Jeffrey Lewis noted in the piece exactly what we at The War Zone have been saying about the Trump Administration in particular for some time now:

“Governments lie about the effectiveness of these systems. Or they’re misinformed... And that should worry the hell out of us.”

The bottom line here is that missiles of all types, even the finest the West can produce at any cost, fail for a variety of reasons. These can include manufacturing faults, software glitches, environmental factors, wear and tear, and especially operator error. And in many cases multiple missiles are fired at a single target in hopes of overcoming the odds, but even then there is no guarantee they will work, especially if the malfunction is not in the missile itself. 

And this inconvenient reality isn't just present in super high-end anti-ballistic missiles, but also in those that are deployed in the air on a daily basis around the globe. Take the AIM-9X Sidewinder failure during the shoot down of a Syrian Su-22 by a US Navy Super Hornet over Syria last June. Reports of the failed Sidewinder missile were turned into ridiculous conjecture by even seasoned defense writers. It seemed as if many people just couldn't believe that a heavily tested and widely deployed AIM-9X could be a dud or could have failed due to the engagement parameters of the incident or other unforeseen circumstances. Talk of "dirty flares" used by Russians and a story from decades ago about an anomaly with the AIM-9L/M, which has a totally different class of seeker, ran rampant. The whole reaction was surprising as people's basic understanding of expendable ordnance seemed to have changed entirely over the past two decades. 

The idea that a missile costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even millions each, and hundreds of millions or even billions to develop, could fail to accomplish its mission in the age of iPhones may sound unbelievable to many. But it isn't a strange phenomenon, although it may be attributed somewhat to the greater trust we place in technology and the assumptions that go along with it. 

USAF

The air-to-air missile technology that the USAF bet on big ended up having miserable probability of kill metrics during the Vietnam War. These have slowly improved since, but even in Desert Storm, highly evolved variants of the same missiles used in Vietnam proved far from highly reliable. The quest for reliability of missiles of all types has continued over the last 25 years, and great improvements have been made, but no missile is totally reliable even against canned targets, let alone an enemy who is doing everything they can to survive. You can read a recap of air-to-air missile reliability during Vietnam and Desert Storm here

The public sees military technology usually in its most sensationalized form—in big Hollywood movies, video games, or flashy Department of Defense and defense industry paid for commercials. Through this unrealistic lens, one missile means one kill. But in reality, that just isn't true. Often times people will argue about the air-to-air effectiveness of say the F-22 Raptor, stating that it can take down eight aircraft with its eight missiles, versus say and F-35 that can take down four aircraft with its four missiles. Once again, this isn't accurate. Depending on the situation, two missiles or more would be fired at a single target in order to help up the probability of a kill. With this in mind, the magazine depth of an aircraft or an air defense battery, whether it is shipborne or land-based, looks much smaller. 

Even during the anti-ship missile attack on US Navy ships patrolling the Red Sea off Yemen, multiple missiles were fired at the incoming anti-ship missile, including supposedly two SM-2s and a RIM-166 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, in addition to advanced decoys. Even after all these munitions were expended, the Navy still didn't know if the ship actually shot down the anti-ship missile or if it just crashed on its own accord. Keep in mind that this was a relatively low-threat environment where a non-state actor had possession of rudimentary anti-ship missiles, not a high-end threat environment where a layered missile barrage was possible.

Soaring talk of the Patriot's successes in Saudi Arabia, which could be at least partially inaccurate, has helped lead to the sale of more Patriot batteries to new customers including Poland, Romania, and Sweden. Other Arabian Gulf countries and Japan are also looking to upgrade or greatly expand their missile defense capabilities. 

Most notably Japan is moving forward with two Aegis Ashore sites stocked in part with SM-3 Block IIAs to help protect from incoming North Korean missiles. But in the meantime, Japan's key population centers and military installations are being guarded by PAC-3 Patriot missiles. The PAC-3 can provide defense against short-range ballistic missiles during their terminal phase of flight, but North Korea could unleash long-range missiles that fly a steep parabolic arc to overcome these defenses, which are imperfect even when targeting missiles flying within their core engagement envelope as we have already discussed. 

USN

Arleigh Burke class destroyer firing an SM-2 missile.

Considering what is at stake, both journalists and our political leadership need to separate myth from reality when it comes to the limitations of our ballistic missile defense capabilities. Shooting down a "bullet with a bullet" is a very complex task, and although the American defense-industrial complex has improved the chances of success of doing this across multiple platforms in recent years, the cold and honest truth is that the "ballistic missile defense" concept still remains very much a work in progress.

There are some anti-ballistic missile concepts being developed on the dark horizon of defense technology that could add new "layers" of more effective ballistic missile defense, and thus increase the chances that an enemy missile will be neutralized before it can execute its dastardly deed. These include the possibility of introducing a long awaited "airborne laser" capability, albeit in unmanned form, aimed at busting ballistic missiles during their vulnerable boost stage. 

This is more or less the "holy grail" of BMD as it doesn't rely on costly interceptors, relies on less infrastructure to work, and it acts as a deterrent in its own way as the missile would fall back down on the country it was launched from. It can also be redeployed with ease. The possibility of a space-based anti-missile layer is also enticing. But these capabilities remain largely conceptual or partially experimental at best, and it will take years to mold them into an operational form, and there is risk that they will never make it to that point at all even after great investment. Considering the finite dollars available for missile defense, competition for bolstering existing capabilities or developing new ones will be intense to say the least.

What is important is that the myth of a "missile shield" gives way to realistic talk about the benefits and shortfalls of the systems that make up such a notion. This is especially important when it comes to policy makers and critical decision making. We have discussed this in the past when it comes to President's Trump's chronically inaccurate blustering on the subject:

"Nobody is saying that the President needs to be a weapon systems expert, but when it comes to missile defense it is critical that he or she comprehends the basic capability types, including their real-world limitations, and how they fit into a larger strategic picture. Just thinking that America is protected by some nearly impenetrable ballistic missile shield and that we can sell something similar to our allies will result in a poor understanding of the overall strategic equation in an entire region. Most importantly it will give a false sense of security to the worst person possible—the individual that will be making major policy and military calls—potentially on very short notice. 

Metaphorically speaking, throughout history, in many cases when a commander's troops are equipped with heavy armor, that commander is likely to have them take more risks on the battlefield. But if that armor is far less effective than the commander understands it to be, what would seem like well balanced battle plan can end up being a massacre. The same applies in this case. When you think there is only a three percent chance an ICBM can hit the US, making risky foreign policy and military decisions in regards to the country with the ICBMs is simply more palatable.

These chronic misstatements are also a credibility issue. Why delve into the details if in doing so you are always inaccurate? Whether this is a flaw that can be blamed on the President's advisors or a personal one is immaterial, but the fact that it exists is undeniable. "

AP

A Ground-based interceptor is launched during a test. Roughly three dozen of these missiles are operational at Fort Greely in Alaska. That number is slated to rise to 44, with a request for another 20 missiles being on the table. 

In the end the best missile is the one you never actually have to use. Avoiding conflicts and relying more heavily on diplomacy and strategic compromise, backed by a well equipped and highly trained military, is a far better solution than a myopic march to war that is backstopped by a extreme reliance on questionable defensive systems that are supposed to keep thousands, or even millions safe from incoming missile barrages. And if a war were to occur with North Korea in the coming months or years, the public will be furious over the failed missile shield that they were told was near perfect when it comes to stopping North Korean missiles. 

What people should know is the truth, which is that these systems offer some form of defense from small-scale attacks, but they represent anything but an impervious barrier. And it's very unlikely that a near perfect system will be available anytime in the foreseeable future. This is not just due to technological or financial limitations. It's also because it is so easy for the enemy, even one with highly limited resources, to effectively counter.

 

North Korean State Media

Kim Jong Un inspects the monstrous HS-15 ICBM.

Simply put, it is far easier and cheaper for the enemy to simply build more missiles of advancing capabilities than it is to build an anti-missile architecture to counter all of them. Look how fast North Korea's ballistic missile program has moved along. Within the span of roughly five months, the rogue state went from a highly impressive first iteration of an ICBM to one that is far more capable and imposing, and features a huge nose section that could very likely be filled with multiple warheads and decoys in the not so distant future. 

These are things our missile defense system isn't really ready to deal with, and it isn't clear how many more billions of dollars will be required to make defending against a higher-end threat, and especially a more numerous one, a real possibility. 

Even North Korea's evolving submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capabilities could potentially outmaneuver the THAAD battery deployed to the Peninsula and put other targets in the region at risk on short notice. Based on the rumor chain, we should expect big developments in Pyongyang's SLBM program in the coming year. 

So once again we come back to the reality that diplomacy and even compromise is a far better counter for an existential threat like an ICBM armed North Korea than endlessly trying to perfect a missile shield that will feature diminishing returns as North Korea's capabilities rapidly evolve. Not just that, but there are other ways of delivering nuclear weapon to US shores than atop an ICBM. 

None of this is to say that building better missile defenses is a useless cause, not in the least. For certain applications and scales the technology can be very useful, even if it is imperfect (Iron Dome for instance). But it must be looked at and relied upon as a temporary therapeutic treatment for our strategic ills and not a cure.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com