The Magic Bullet Theory

US BMD efforts are gathering pace with the activation of the so-called ‘Aegis Ashore’ facility in Romania declared operational this May. (US DoD)

As Armada was going to press, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) launched three ballistic missiles off its eastern coast towards the Yellow Sea on 4 September. Such actions indicate that Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) will continue to be in demand.

The DPRK government under its Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has a fondness for ballistic missiles. Like his father the ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong-il, who tested three ballistic missiles of varying shapes and sizes during his time in office between 1994 and 2011, his son has continued this family tradition. Since assuming leadership of the hermit kingdom, he has performed two ballistic missile tests, claimed to have test launched a submarine-launched ballistic missile, launched a satellite as of August, and claims to be in possession of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capable of hitting targets in the United States from the DPRK. As always, the DPRK’s claims are peppered with hyperbole and are thus nigh-on impossible to verify. However, what is indisputable is that the country is working hard to obtain the technology needed to build ballistic missiles which can threaten the United States, her allies around the Asia-Pacific, and other countries within and without the region.


The DPRK is not alone in its ballistic missile machinations. Other so-called ‘Rogue States’—a term coined by Anthony Lake, President Bill Clinton’s National Security Advisor in a 1994 article for the journal Foreign Affairs—or nations falling under the more hipster-friendly ‘countries of concern’ epithet are also said to be working on such technology. The Islamic Republic of Iran has maintained a ballistic missile programme despite agreeing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the European Union, France, Germany, the People’s Republic of China, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom on 14 July 2015. This pledges Iran to eliminate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons, cut is low-enriched uranium stockpile by 98 percent, and reduce by two-thirds the number of gas centrifuges it has in operation, among other requirements. The latter equipment is essential for the separation of the isotope Uranium-238 from Uranium-235, both of which are vital ingredients in nuclear weapons. In response, a significant number of sanctions which had been imposed on Iran as a response to its nuclear weapons programme by the international community will be lifted.

Nevertheless, the conclusion of the Iranian nuclear deal has not stopped the Islamic Republic from investing into rocket technology which can be used as a precursor for ballistic missile development. On 30 August, it was reported that Iran was planning to launch its Dousti (Friendship) satellite into space by late March 2017. Furthermore, in early August, the US Department of Defence (DoD) partially published a report which warned that Iran retained “a substantial inventory of missiles capable of reading targets throughout the (Middle East) region, including US military bases and Israel.” The forthcoming satellite launch will concentrate minds in the US, and US allies throughout the Middle East and the wider world once again, given that space launch vehicles (space rockets to the rest of us), can be used as ICBMs which typically have a minimum range of circa 2969 nautical miles/nm (5500 kilometres/km).

It is against this backdrop of continuing investment into ballistic missile technology by the Iranian and the DPRK governments that Ballistic Missile Defence activities are continuing in the United States, and around the world. In the US, BMD efforts are coordinated by the Missile Defence Agency (MDA), itself part of the DoD. The MDA described its work in a written statement to Armada stating that its mission is, “to develop and deploy a layered, limited ballistic missile defence system to defend the United States, its deployed forces, allies and friends from ballistic missile attacks of all ranges in all phases of flight.” At the heart of this are three flagship initiatives which the MDA leads: the employment of the Lockheed Martin Aegis Combat Management System (CMS) used onboard the US Navy’s ‘Arleigh Burke’ and ‘Ticonderoga’ class destroyers and cruisers, and for the so-called ‘Aegis Ashore’ facilities discussed below; the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) system produced by the same company; and the Boeing-lead Ground-based Midcourse Defence (GMD) effort which also employs SAMS.

As noted above, the Aegis CMS is used both on US naval vessels and at shore facilities. Over the past twelve months, work has continued at two sites, one in Romania and the other in Poland, to active a SAM facility equipped with the Aegis CMS and Lockheed Martin’s AN/SPY-1D S-band (2.3-2.5/2.7-3.7 Gigaherz/GHz) radar at each facility, and with Raytheon’s RIM-161 Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block-1A SAMs to protect Europe from ballistic missiles launched by Iran. The Polish facility will be located at Skupsk-Redzikowo airbase in the north of the country, which is expected to be operational in 2018. The second site, already declared operational this May, is at Deveselu airbase in southern Romania. This latter facility will be equipped with RIM-161 SM-3 Block-1B SAMs, and expected to upgrade to the RIM-161 SM-3 Block-2A missile before 2022, with this weapon possibly being replaced by the RIM-161 SM-3 Block-2B SAM after 2022. Moreover, on 11 August, Lockheed Martin announced that it has received a contract worth $36 million to commence the installation of the Aegis Ashore equipment for the facility in Poland, with the completion of work expected by 2018. In tandem with the development and fielding of the Aegis CMS, work continues on refining the SAMs which will equip these facilities and US Navy warships capable of performing the BMD mission.

As this article was being written, news reached Armada that the first test firing of Raytheon’s RIM-161 SM-3 Block-2A SAM may occur in October. During the test, the missile is expected to engage a Medium-Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) target. The RIM-161 SM-3 Block-2A SAM can be fired from both naval vessels and the land facilities discussed above. In design terms, one of the key differences between this weapon, and legacy RIM-161 SM-3 family weapons is that the RIM-161 SM-3 Block-2A SAM includes larger second and third stages to increase the missile’s range, and give it the velocity needed to hit MRBMs. Modifications to the missile’s software will assist in this regard. Production of the RIM-161 SM-3 Block-2A SAM could commence in 2017, with its deployment on land occurring from 2018.

US BMD efforts are gathering pace with the activation of the so-called ‘Aegis Ashore’ facility in Romania declared operational this May. (US DoD)


As noted above, the THAAD system represents an important part of the MDA’s efforts. This July, the governments of the Republic of Korea (RoK) and the United States agreed to deploy a THAAD battery, operated by the US Army, to the RoK to provide protection against any DPRK ballistic missile attack against its southern neighbour. However, the DoD has announced no timeline as to when this deployment could occur. The missile employed by the THAAD has a range of 108nm (200km) and is capable of reaching an 81nm (150km) altitude, with target detection and fire control provided by the THAAD’s accompanying AN/TPY-2 X-band (8.5-10.68GHz) radar. Reports earlier in the year in March stated that the US Army’s Space and Missile Defence Command, which commands THAAD, was considering deploying batteries in Europe and the Middle East, which could presumably provide protection against Iranian ballistic missile launches, with the Japanese government announcing in November 2015 that it was also considering the deployment of a THAAD system from the US Army to counter DPRK ballistic missile launches.


Boeing’s GMD effort provides the third part of the MDA’s missile defence activities. As with the THAAD and Aegis Ashore systems, work has been continuing on the GMD programme during the last twelve months. It was revealed in media reports in mid-August that the United States Air Force’ Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR) which is being constructed at Clear airbase in central Alaska will commence service in 2020, following an award to Lockheed Martin for $784 million to this end in October 2015. The LRDR will provide the detection of incoming ballistic missiles launched by Iran or by the DPRK. The radar, as the written statement from the MDA notes, forms a key part of US BMD efforts: “The agency is taking steps to improve sensor discrimination (to distinguish ballistic missiles from decoys) to better enable (soldiers) to determine the lethal payload in a target cluster (which includes both real and decoy warheads) and assess whether (the missile) has been hit (during its interception). Development of the Long Range Discrimination Radar … will improve system target discrimination and assessment capabilities.”

Clear airbase in Alaska already forms a key part of the US GMD initiative. This site will soon receive the new Long Range Discrimination Radar, intended to enhance ballistic missile detection and discrimination. (US DoD)

The GMD is intended to protect the Continental United States (CONUS) against limited intermediate and intercontinental range missiles. The former have ranges of between 1619nm (3000km) and 2969.7nm(5500km). The GMD employs SAMs and radar to detect and then engage incoming ballistic missiles following their launch. This occurs when they are at an altitude of around 647nm (1200km). The ballistic missiles are then intercepted using Raytheon’s Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) mounted on an Orbital Sciences Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) SAM. Two versions of the EKV currently exist: the Capability Enhancement-1 (CE-I) and CE-II. Deliveries of the CE-II to equip the GMD launch sites commenced in early 2015. The CE-I and CE-II represent different interceptor standards. Development of the CE-I commenced in 2002 as a prototype design with some upgrades to address obsolescence. In 2004, the MDA embarked upon the development of the CE-II to address CE-I obsolescence and other problems noted during the ongoing flight test programme of these interceptions. Further improvements were made as a result of the CE-II Block-I development which commenced in 2010, with additional upgrades as a result of lessons learnt during the CE-II flight test programme commencing in 2011. The CE-II design has since been redeveloped as the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV) which should commence production in 2020, following an initial flight test in 2018.

Non-US Efforts

Away from the activities of the missile defence agency, European companies such as MBDA are ploughing investment into BMD efforts. A written statement supplied to Armada by the firm noted that it is currently developing a new version of its Aster-30 SAM, known as the Aster-30 Block-1NT. The firm disclosed that this missile will have a Ka-band (13.4-14/15.7-17.7GHz) radar sensor. Ka-band radar can provide very sharp imagery, and the firm continues that this new sensor “will enable the interception of ballistic missiles equipped with separable warheads at ranges of up to 809nm (1500km).” In particular, the company believe that this new version of the Aster-30 will provide a robust riposte to ballistic missiles which are designed to manoeuvre— a tactic intended to make their interception more difficult. These missiles are being earmarked for the Marina Militaire (Italian Navy’s) new multi-purpose patrol ships, six of which have been ordered with the option for an additional two vessels. A development contract involving France and Italy regarding the Aster-30 Block-1NT was signed by the two countries in June 2016. Moreover, during the Franco-British government summit held in Amiens in northern France this March, the UK declared that this weapon was being considered for the Royal Navy’s ‘Type-45/Daring’ class destroyers, although announced no date as to when the integration of this weapon could occur. That said, the firm revealed to Armada that the Aster-30 Block-1NT could become available in the 2020-2025 timeframe.

MBDA is developing its Aster-30 SAM into the Aster-30 Block-NT which could provide an at-sea BMD capability for a number of European nations including the United Kingdom and Italy. (MBDA)

Much like the United States, Israel is also concerned about the threat from Iranian ballistic missiles. At the forefront of its BMD efforts is the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Arrow-3 SAM system which is being developed with assistance from Boeing. The Arrow-3 is intended to be capable of intercepting incoming ballistic missiles at 53.9nm (100km) altitude, causing destruction by kinetic impact, much like the GMD programme. Since the commencement of the Arrow-3 programme in 2008, the United States has contributed around $449.2 million of funding to the initiative, $74.7 million of which was dispersed in 2015. Amit Haimovich, director of business development and marketing at IAI’s MLM division, told Armada that successful tests of the Arrow-3 SAM have been performed during the last 18 months and that “development is up and running and on schedule. Everything looks very good and we are keeping up the hard work.” The Arrow-3’s latest test occurred on 10 December 2015, when the SAM was subjected to an experiment to ascertain its performance in detecting, identifying, tracking and then discriminating against a real and decoy warhead which was sent into space by a Rafael Advanced Defence Systems Silver Sparrow air-launched target. To date, since 2011, five flight tests of the Arrow-3 have been performed, including this most recent test.

Israel is forging ahead with its Arrow-3 SAM system. To date, this has performed five flight tests, including a particularly complex test performed in December 2015. (IAI)

Short of Iran and the DPRK foregoing their ballistic missile programmes it seems unlikely that BMD efforts around the world will slow any time soon. As the MDA observed in its statement, “The threat continues to grow as potential adversaries are acquiring a greater number of ballistic missiles and making them more complex, survivable, reliable and accurate. As the threat is growing, so is the demand for greater ballistic missile defence capability.” Present day BMD efforts owe much to the former US President Ronald Reagan who launched the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), dubbed ‘Star Wars’, which commenced in 1984 with the aim of developing a ground and space-based BMD system to destroy ICBMs and SLBMs launched from the Soviet Union. One year after launching the SDI, Mr. Reagan stated that “we are not going to tolerate attacks from outlaw states by the strangest collection of misfits, loony tunes and squalid criminals.” Today’s BMD initiatives indicate this to be as true today as it was during the height of the Cold War.