United States: The Future of Ballistic Missile Defense

6 MINS READJul 8, 2008 | 20:32 GMT
U.S. Missile Defense Agency
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice inked an initial agreement in the Czech Republic on July 8 over the placement of a radar installation for U.S. ballistic missile defense efforts there. STRATFOR examines the future of those efforts.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on July 8 signed an initial agreement on the placement of a ballistic missile defense (BMD) X-band radar in the Czech Republic. Should internal Polish politics continue to delay a similar arrangement with Warsaw over the siting of 10 Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptors, Washington has also secured Lithuania's willingness to serve as a ready alternative. Though internal politics in both Poland and the Czech Republic remain a concern — and, even if all goes well, ground is unlikely to be broken before a new administration takes over in Washington — the United States' efforts to build a European-based component to its BMD system are potentially entering a new phase. STRATFOR is examining the future of those efforts. The GMD system slated to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic was first made operational at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and Fort Greely in Alaska. Though the system was wracked by a long, troubled and expensive development process, the ability to bring down an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was given new urgency with North Korea's 1998 test of its Taepodong-1 ballistic missile. GMD was the most applicable and mature technology, and is now considered operational by the Pentagon (though it remains operationally unproven). With the European BMD initiative, the United States appears to be addressing a similar concern about the potential existence of a nascent ICBM capability in Iran. Indeed, while it will be several years after ground is broken to achieve initial operational capability, the Pentagon will then have the ability in Europe to defend against a small number of a rogue state's ICBMs. (It also has the added geopolitical benefit of encircling Russia. (click image to enlarge) But STRATFOR has long held that U.S. BMD efforts have always been about something at once more ambitious and more fundamental: space. The symmetry of the push into Europe and the deployment of interceptors in Alaska belies a more comprehensive effort to extend skyward the immense geographic buffer of the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean that has served Washington so well. The U.S. BMD system will continue to be molded to the current threat, giving it near-term funding and a certain sense of urgency. But newer technologies will make BMD increasingly mobile and flexible. In Europe, for example, a third fixed installation is less likely. More likely instead is the fielding and deployment of a transportable forward-deployed radar based on the mobile X-band radar used for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system now being brought into service. Such a radar — probably requiring little alteration from the THAAD radar — would allow the United States to increase its situational awareness and reaction speed without the years-long negotiations it has experienced with Prague and Warsaw. It could be deployed quickly (and quietly) to military airbases in the region. This is the future, even though the GMD system will remain a component of a multilayered and redundant shield and some upgrades are likely (one is the potential for mounting multiple miniature kill vehicles rather than the single vehicle it now carries). Next-generation, faster-reacting mobile technologies — particularly those focused on the boost and ascent phases of intercept — ultimately and increasingly will eclipse the GMD system. (click image to enlarge) Technologies to intercept ballistic missiles in the boost phase of flight have been slow to mature — a phenomenon with roots in both historical and technological issues. Boost-phase intercept requires relatively close access to territory or airspace adjacent to missile launch sites (compared to midcourse- or terminal-phase intercepts, which must be farther back). The current BMD renaissance has its roots in the Reagan-era "Star Wars" program, which sought to create a national missile defense shield tailored specifically to Soviet ICBMs. At that time, reliable access to territory appropriate for boost-phase intercepts of ICBMs deep inside the Soviet Union was not realistic. On the technological side, boost phase requires the fastest reaction time, since a missile is in the boost phase for only a few minutes. The ballistic path in this phase is also characterized by a more uneven flight, due to the shifts in acceleration when a stage burns out and separates and the next stage ignites. This also requires a more discerning seeker, as there can be times during boost phase when a discarded stage and the missile are both in the seeker's field of vision. But, for all its difficulty, boost-phase intercept has several attractive aspects. Despite the unevenness of acceleration in the boost phase, this is the slowest phase of flight, as the missile travels against gravity rather than with it as it does later in flight. Also, the missile has the largest radar cross section during boost phase. And the large early stages are not only much easier to track, they are also full of generally very explosive propellants. Furthermore, fragments and debris from a missile destroyed in boost phase will not pepper the target area as they will in terminal-phase intercepts. Thus, the most revolutionary and technically challenging technology the U.S. Missile Defense Agency is pursuing currently is associated with the boost phase: the airborne laser. While we will examine the wide applicability of this system in a later analysis, it is emblematic of two trends in BMD: increased mobility and flexibility, and a move skyward. The way to compensate for reaction time is to reduce the need to boost an interceptor to its target (which is always a game of catch-up). Work toward this solution began with the airborne laser and could continue with the Network Centric Airborne Defense Element program. But there are profound incentives to take this one step farther and place interceptor systems in space. There, the target picture is clearest and the need to boost interceptors into orbit is obviated. While the move to space will be slow, it is also already under way. In the meantime, less revolutionary but nevertheless far more mobile technologies will continue to take the field. These systems will not require the same degree of diplomatic gyrations as the Poland and Czech Republic systems. They will be deployed on demand, either based at sea or delivered by military transports.

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