The Difficulties of Ballistic Missile Defense

Jul 15, 2013 | 19:50 GMT

On July 5, the United States unsuccessfully tested its Ground Based Midcourse Defense Interceptor, which failed to destroy a simulated intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. In fact, this comes as part of a string of failures, with the last successful test of this particular system dating back to 2008. While frustrating, this emphasizes the reality of ballistic missile defense as a fledgling technology. Compared to the offensive technology of ballistic missiles, these defense systems are immature, making them less effective and cost efficient. It will, at a minimum, take several more years, costly investment and failures before ballistic missile defense platforms are a reliable strategic deterrence that operates effectively across all spectrums. This is especially the case for dealing with the longer-range and more sophisticated ballistic missiles. Because ballistic missiles have a variety of ranges and capabilities, they are classified by the distance the missile can travel, such as short, medium, intermediate, long and intercontinental. These classifications are important because the farther the missiles travel, the faster and higher they fly, meaning the longer-range missiles leave and then re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. It is best to visualize these different ballistic classifications as operating in different layers. In order to counter a specific layer, you have to design a ballistic missile defense system that matches that layer. There is no technology that allows for a one-size-fits-all approach. Conceptually, the defense against ballistic missiles is basic. Ideas for how to do it have been sought throughout the Cold War, one of the most public examples being the Star Wars system floated by President Reagan. All you have to be able to do is see it launch, track it and then send your own weapon out there to intercept and destroy it. In practice, however, this has turned out to be enormously technically difficult and cost prohibitive. Only in the last few decades have systems come online that can reliably intercept ballistic missiles, such as the Patriot Advanced Capability III missile operated by the U.S. Army. The constraints on this system are numerous, though, as it can only defend a very specific area, has limited mobility and can only engage the lower end of the ballistic missile spectrum. The U.S. Navy operates the Standard Missile III, which is considered the most effective system of its type and are operated from Arleigh Burke destroyers. But it, too, is limited to intercepting intermediate ballistic missiles. The Ground Based Midcourse Defense Interceptor system mentioned in the very beginning is the U.S. attempt at a defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles, but these are the highest, fastest and most sophisticated platforms out there and have been in development for decades. It should not be surprising that this particular defense system has had regular failures, as it is very early in its development and enormously expensive. The U.S. only operates a very limited number, and would only be effective against a state that could launch a very limited number of long-range missiles. Countries with much larger arsenals, such as China and Russia, could easily overwhelm the U.S. defensive system currently, even if these defenses were 100 percent accurate. To add to this, it is much cheaper for a state to develop ballistic missiles in the millions of dollars, than for a state to further pioneer ballistic missile defenses in the billions of dollars. It is no coincidence that the U.S. leads in this technology, since it is one of the few that can afford to do so. In the end, it will take several more decades for the defensive technology to come into some form of parity with ballistic missiles.