The Necessity and Caution for Theatre Missile Defence

Ben Sheppard

Originally published in 1996/1997, Issue 1

In March, 1996, Mrs Thatcher reinvigorated the debate over ballistic missile defence in a speech at Fulton, USA, where she conveyed an urgent message that “acquiring an effective global defence against ballistic missiles is a matter of the greatest urgency”. It has been estimated that by the year 2000 there will be some 20 countries with ballistic missiles and some 25 countries will possess and will be developing weapons of mass destruction. While there is an apparent need for ballistic missile defences, there should be, however, caution in pursuing this policy with regard to the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty and the implications this could have. In this article I will first examine the threat ballistic missile proliferation poses to the West and future power projection operations, followed by the constraints of non-proliferation policies. Secondly, discussion will focus on the need and caution that should be warranted for Theatre Missile Defence (TMD).

Ballistic missiles armed with anything from conventional to nuclear, chemical or biological weapons threaten to recreate the balance of terror from which the world has just escaped. Threat of missile proliferation was not widely appreciated until Desert Storm, when Iraq launched almost 90 Scud missiles against Israel and Saudi Arabia. While surface to surface missiles were used extensively during the Iran and Iraq war of the cities in 1988, the Gulf War demonstrated how militarily ineffective ballistic missiles carry political weight far out of proportion to their effectiveness, that is to say their use as “terror weapons.” Their use in this fashion not only threatened to bring Israel into the war which at the very least would have brought down the Arab coalition, but of equal importance the Iraqi Scud attacks illustrated the actual and potential threat regional adversaries could pose for Western military operations abroad (power projection operations).

Ballistic missiles with conventional warheads are too expensive for much of the Third World to use in significant quantities to be militarily significant, but they can cause severe disruption among both civilian and military areas especially with the threat of these weapons containing chemical, biological or nuclear warheads. As was feared but never realised in the Gulf War, small numbers of missiles with chemical warheads could be used to cause panic among the civilian populace and to force military personnel into their bulky, hot, protective gear, thus degrading their effectiveness and eventually their morale. The constant threat of chemical attack even with only a few weapons available to the adversary can cause reactions far out of proportion to the actual destruction they may cause – as was readily evident in both Saudi Arabia and Israel which were never hit by a single Iraqi chemical weapon but where normal life literally ceased for many days.

A further concern regarding the impact ballistic missile proliferation will have on the West’s ability to conduct power projection operations is the prospect of large numbers of casualties from missile attacks and the general destruction to allied forces. Twenty-five percent of US combat fatalities in the Gulf War were the result of a single Scud attack against a makeshift American barracks in Dharan. With the potential for dramatically higher levels of western casualties coupled with the increasing US sensitivity to losses in power projection operations, future operations that were reasonable in the past may be seen to be too risky for the US and its coalition partners to undertake. As General Philippe Morillion, a French Commander of the UN forces in Bosnia observed, “Desert Storm left one awful legacy: it imposed the idea that you must be able to fight the wars of the future without suffering losses. The idea of zero-kill as an outcome has been imposed on American generals, but there is no such thing as a clean, risk-free war. You condemn yourself to inactivity if you set that standard.”

A further realisation of the Gulf War is the vulnerability of allied troop concentrations to missile attacks. It is questionable whether Desert Shield or Desert Storm would have been feasible had Saddam Hussein used missiles and weapons of mass destruction to strike the sea and airports used by the coalition forces. Clearly the six month build up of coalition forces would have been extraordinarily risky, perhaps impossible, in the face of weapons of mass destruction strikes on regional airports, seaports and troop concentrations. The potential for regional aggressors with missile capabilities, deterring Western power projection can be supported by Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower’s observation in World War II: Eisenhower stated that had Germany succeeded in perfecting and using the V-1 and the V-2 missiles six months earlier, the Allied invasion of Europe would have proved exceedingly difficult, perhaps impossible. This could become even more problematic for power projection operations should future confrontations involve adversaries with relatively accurate ballistic missiles.

One of the principal worries of NATO planners during the Cold War was the “one-two punch” where an attack by fighter-bomber aircraft was immediately preceded by a wave of ballistic missiles targeted on defending air fields. Gene Myers, who was chief of ballistic missile defence planning at US European Command in Stuttgart, Germany comments that the aim of such tactics would not be to destroy the airfield with non-nuclear missiles – a difficult task – but to keep defensive aircraft on the ground just long enough to allow aircraft attack formations through to their targets and out. This is a plausible task for an adversary able to plan and execute air operations with precise timing, and while such operations were clearly beyond Saddam Hussein’s forces, this may not be the case in future confrontations. Faced with the turmoil ballistic missiles could pose for the West’s military operations against rogue states, destroying these weapons on the ground will be of great importance, as was demonstrated during Desert Storm.

However, the dismal Allied efforts during the Gulf War in locating and destroying Iraqi Scud launchers even with air supremacy questions the viability of this strategy. A considerable amount of the Allies military effort was devoted to “Scud hunting”, with 2493 aircraft sorties dedicated towards this effort. With so many competing and lucrative targets remaining on a future battlefield, many air commanders may be reluctant to pursue this objective with much vigour. With the prospect of continued proliferation of ballistic missiles, diversion of valuable military resources towards missile busting is likely to become increasingly problematic in future military operations against adversaries with sizeable arsenals. In the light of the difficulties faced by this strategy, there is a clear need for policies to prevent rogue states from acquiring ballistic missiles.

Non-proliferation policies such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) do provide a limited scope in dealing with the proliferation of ballistic missiles. The MTCR was established in April 1987 by the US, Britain, France, Italy, West Germany and Japan with an agreement on common export policies. These controls are intended to limit the spread of technology that would enable other countries to acquire missiles that could deliver a payload of more than 500 kg to a ranger of more than 300 km. While there have been some notable successes of the MTCR, such as the termination of the Condor missile programme in 1990, the control regime does have severe limitations. The Condor Ballistic missile project, which involved extensive technology transfers from several European countries, was developed by Argentina, and later Egypt and Iraq when a West German aerospace group which had directed the programme pulled out in 1985. Keith Payne highlights three main draw backs of the MTCR.

Firstly, it is unlikely that all potential supplier countries (or private enterprises), whether in or out of the regime, will comply with the restrictions. Some countries unwilling to join, like North Korea, are capable of producing ballistic missiles and are willing to transfer technical know-how, missile technologies, and even complete missile systems to any country who seeks them. Moreover China, even though a member of the MTCR since 1992, has exported complete missile systems and is generally suspected of selling to Pakistan the M-9 missile with a range of 800 km. Second, transfer of missile technology is extremely difficult to monitor and the spread of ballistic missiles generally follow hidden routes that are hard to trace and interdict. Third, any attempt to control missile exports will also encounter the “dual use” problem where missile technology intended for peaceful purposes can be adapted for military use. Kathleen Bailey highlights India’s space launch programmes as providing the technology and infrastructure for its ballistic missile programme.

As James Nolan has commented, missile proliferation is deeply rooted in international politics and for now the greatest impediment to proliferation stems from constraints within developing countries themselves. For states that are insistent upon developing ballistic missiles, non-proliferation policies including sanctions are unlikely to have any significant effect. Iraq is typical of this case where it has been willing to give up oil export revenues of some 75 billion dollars since the Gulf War, rather than cooperate with the Security Council which imposed trade sanctions to force Baghdad to scrap its missile technology. UN weapons inspectors estimate Iraq may still have as many as 16 Scud-type ballistic missiles armed with biological warheads with a range of 600 km. Furthermore Iraq, now prohibited from possessing missiles with a range greater than 94 miles, was caught late in 1995, smuggling sophisticated gyroscopes for its new generation of missiles engines with a range of 1,875 miles. Western officials say the gyroscopes intercepted were apparently sold on the black market after being taken from Russia’s SSN-19 submarine-launched ICBMs, dismantled under the START treaty, and can guide a missile for up to 5000 miles. Iraq, which revealed in Autumn 1995 that before the Gulf War it had been working on a new generation of ballistic missiles, could with this weapon put almost all of Europe under threat of a devastating biological attack.

The case of Iraq clearly demonstrates that despite various non-proliferation measures from export control regimes to sanctions, states determined to develop ballistic missiles will do so regardless. This coupled with the threat proliferation poses, counter-proliferation policies need careful consideration.

The Gulf War demonstrated both a clear need for Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) in such conflicts and the limitations of the capabilities currently in existence. Following the 1991 Missile Defence Act, US priorities for developing Ballistic Missile Defence are, first, to provide protection for deployed US forces and their regional allies (TMD) and second, to maintain the potential, through research and development, for a national missile defence capability to counter future threats to the US. Of particular interest regarding TMD is the Theatre High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) component. This TMD system is designed to provide a far wider defense capability in terms of both altitude (60 miles) and range compared to the Patriot improvements (PAC-3) and the Navy Area Defense Aegis weapon system. THAAD is being developed to intercept ballistic missiles with ranges up to 3,500 km (peak velocity of 5 km/sec). The postulated threat of a 3,500 km missile, which generated the 5 km/sec criterion is apparently based on the Chinese CSS-2 missile which has been sold only to Saudi Arabia. This criteria will cover all current ballistic missiles among the developing countries including potential developments in the near future. However, developing THAAD could have significant strategic implications. One important lesson of the Patriot PAC-2 performance during the Gulf War is that demonstrated missile defense capabilities do not degrade catastrophically immediately beyond their tested capabilities during development. As figure 1 shows the PAC-2 was designed to intercept targets with ranges of about 300 km, or whose peak velocities approached 1.7 km/sec. However during Desert Storm the system apparently engaged Iraqi-modified Scuds with ranges of about 600 km (peak velocity 2.7 km/sec). When transcribing PAC-2’s increase in peak velocity demonstrated in the Gulf War to THAAD, the latter system (which will have the capability to intercept reentry vehicles with a velocity of 5 km/sec, which corresponds to a missile range of 3,500 km), would also have a significant capability against strategic reentry vehicles with reentry velocities of 6 or 7 km/sec, corresponding to ranges of 7,000 to 10,000 km. While there is debate over the number of Iraqi Scuds successfully intercepted by Patriot, the gradual decreasing capability of THAAD is further reinforced by the fact that the defended footprint (the area on the ground that could be protected) of THAAD is generally comparable in size to the footprint of a defense system for use against strategic missiles.

Bearing this in mind the ratification of the new ABM treaty proposals to allow the development of THAAD would make, as shown in figures 2 and 3, the strategic forces of Britain, France and Russia vulnerable to varying degrees. Consequently the credibility of Britain’s nuclear deterrence could diminish, especially when Trident becomes the sole platform for delivering the nation’s nuclear weapons, and Russia’s assured second strike capability might be seriously at risk. This problem is further aggravated due to the operating nature of this defence system. THAAD’s exoatmospheric interceptors can be fully effective only if targets are tracked for some time in space before they reenter the atmosphere. This will be made possible by the development of 25-40 low orbiting satellites as part of a system called “Brilliant Eyes”. Consequently the next generation of early warning radar required for THAAD to enhance and enable mid-course tracking of ballistic missiles and anew generation of high- acceleration interceptors, would form the basis of a system that could be transformed into a nationwide strategic defense system at relatively short notice.

Even without the problem of “theatre defence upgrade,” the implications of TMD on nuclear deterrence against actual and potential nuclear adversaries could be quite significant in affecting both missile proliferation and US interests. For example, would a future Russian sale of advanced TMD systems to Japan, Ukraine or Israel contribute to stabilizing the Middle East or Europe? Would US sales of advanced TMD systems to Japan, Ukraine or Israel contribute to regional stability in Asia, Eurasia or the Middle East, or would they initiate new arms competition? Future procurement by such countries could adversely affect the credibility of Britain and France’s limited nuclear weapons capabilities.

The technical characteristics of high altitude TMD make conflict with the ABM treaty a certainty if these systems are developed and deployed. At present the development, testing, deployment and transfer abroad of a system such as THAAD would violate at least four articles of the ABM treaty, because the THAAD clearly has ABM capabilities, as understood in 1972. Currently, Russia and the US are renegotiating the ABM treaty to allow the development of THAAD. If such an agreement cannot be reached, the development of THAAD would not only violate the ABM treaty, but more ominously, US-Russian cooperation on a whole range of strategic issues could be adversely affected.

In such a situation, START II, which at the moment faces strong opposition in the Russian Parliament, will most likely be abandoned by Russia. Furthermore one may see the unravelling of much of the existing arms control frame work including the unresolved issue over the Conventional Forces Europe (CFE) talks. The Republican Party has often urged President Clinton to go ahead with TMD even if Washington and Moscow fail to reach an agreement on renegotiating the ABM treaty. Furthermore future arms control initiatives, like START III which aims to reduce strategic weapons to 1000 on both sides, may not be feasible due to the TMD systems potential capability. START III would be more involved than previous agreements because of the necessity to incorporate British, French and Chinese strategic forces who would themselves be concerned, in the light of TMD, by the effect reductions could have on their nuclear capabilities.

Even if an agreement were to be concluded on the ABM treaty and the consequences of deploying TMD were resolved, the THAAD’s effectiveness could be counteracted by a nuclear weapon design known as a “salvage-fused nuclear warhead”. Rogue nuclear states may be able to design a nuclear warhead that, when launched, can “sense” it is about to be hit by an interceptor and detonate before it is attacked. The Pentagon is even more concerned that nations with chemical and biological weapons have perfected designs for “canisterised” chemical and biological submunitions that are extremely difficult to destroy. In canisterised warheads, large numbers of submunitions are individually packaged in reinforced material and then placed in the warhead. Although the warhead might be destroyed by an interceptor, it is likely some submunitions would survive and fall on friendly territory. US weapon designers state Third World proliferators such as North Korea, China, Iraq, Iran and Libya could master the designs for salvage fused and canisterised warheads, possibly with outside assistance from scientists of the former Soviet Union.

Clearly the difficulties in pursuing nonproliferation and counter proliferation policies demonstrate that there is no simple solution to ballistic missile proliferation. The case of Iraq demonstrates states that are determined to develop ballistic missiles will do so regardless of strict international controls which in this case are quite unprecedented. Development of TMD is required for future allied power projection operations and may well be required for Europe and later the US when rogue states develop long range ballistic missiles. But pursuing BMD in the face of Russian opposition, especially if hard-liners were to come to power, could have serious strategic implications. Consequently the West, in cooperation with Moscow, should pursue a dual track policy of nonproliferation and counterproliferation, the former with more vigour and the latter with caution


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Modification of the 1972 ABM Treaty, March 10 and May 3, 1994

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