Over the past several years, much attention has been focused on efforts by this country’s competitors to create an anti-access/area denial environment (A2/AD) designed to defeat U.S. power projection capabilities. A central feature of the canonical A2/AD threat is an integrated air and missile defense.
Since the 1960s, first the Soviet Union and now Russia has invested in a layered system of sensors and interceptors to counter U.S. airpower. Current Russian air and missile defenses consist of multiple overlapping systems, many of which are mobile, that provide coverage at all altitudes.
Other countries are deploying integrated air and missile defenses as part of their regional or local A2/AD strategies. Russia is proliferating advanced air and missile defenses both through its deployments abroad and by selling some of its most capable systems to allies such as Syria and Iran, as well as to other countries including India and, most recently, Turkey. China is constructing an A2/AD network, including land and sea-based air and missile defense systems, which covers much of the Western Pacific.
Another key feature of the emerging A2/AD threat is the rapid quantitative and qualitative growth in U.S. competitors’ arsenals of rockets, ballistic and cruise missiles. Russia recently deployed advanced short-range precision-guided ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad. It also is improving its longer-range theater ballistic missile systems and has fielded a long-range cruise missile that violates the 1987 Treaty between the Soviet Union and the U.S. that banned intermediate-range missiles.
Like Russia, China has built a large and capable missile force that can conduct massive conventional or nuclear strikes in the Asia-Pacific region at the outset of hostilities. North Korea has a growing arsenal of ballistic missiles of various ranges that threaten U.S. and allied targets across the Asia-Pacific region. A number of these are believed to be deployed with nuclear weapons. Pyongyang is also considered to be close to developing a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile.
For more than 25 years, since the first service personnel were killed by ballistic missile attacks during the Persian Gulf War, the U.S. military has been steadily moving in the direction of developing capabilities for robust theater air and missile defense. Today, the U.S. is on the verge of being able to deploy a layered defense system, similar in many ways to that possessed by our major competitors and adversaries.
Such a system, with elements operating forward in Europe, the Middle East and Asia and supplemented by a national missile defense system in the homeland, is absolutely essential to countering the efforts by Russia, China, North Korea and Iran to hold the U.S. and its territories, friends and allies and forward deployed forces at risk.
The oldest and most mature U.S. system is the Patriot, a mobile system deployed by the U.S. Army and more than a dozen allies for defense against air-breathing threats and as a lower-tier or terminal defense against ballistic missiles. The Patriot system has been used in combat by the U.S. and four other nations with great success.
While no missile defense system could ever be 100 percent effective, the Patriot has racked up an impressive success rate, particularly with the introduction of more capable interceptors, improvements to the radar and better battle management. In recent years, Israeli Patriot batteries have intercepted hostile ballistic missiles, aircraft and drones and Saudi Arabia has successfully engaged dozens of ballistic missiles launched by Houthi rebels.
The U.S. Navy’s Aegis air and missile defense system is deployed on 33 ships as both an air and missile defense system and as a land-based version in Europe. It fires the Raytheon-built Standard Missile (SM) family of interceptors, including the SM-2 and SM-6 anti-aircraft missiles and the SM-3 missile defense interceptor.
While initially designed as a short-range system for fleet defense and as more capable variants of the SM-3 and a new radar are deployed, Aegis will have a capability for area defense against long-range ballistic missiles. A land-based variant of the system, Aegis Ashore, has been deployed in Romania as part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach with a second site planned in Poland. Other possible deployments of Aegis Ashore include Japan and Hawaii.
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system can intercept and destroy ballistic missiles inside or outside the atmosphere. Although these engagements would take place in the final, or terminal phase of flight, THAAD can intercept at greater range and higher altitudes than is possible with either Patriot or Aegis, thereby allowing those systems, potentially, to take a second shot at any incoming missile. U.S. THAAD batteries are deployed alongside Patriot in South Korea and Guam.
The key to an effective anti-access air and missile defense system is the network that connects every sensor and interceptor. The Army’s new air and missile defense cross-functional team has made connecting Patriot and THAAD units a near-term priority. In addition, the Army has an even more ambitious program, called the Integrated Battle Command System intended to tie together air and missile defense radars, command posts, and weapons from across the Army.
The concept is similar to the Navy’s Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air system which ties together ship-based and airborne sensors and interceptors. The Navy has already demonstrated its ability to employ an F-35B as a forward deployed sensor for the launch of an SM-6 missile. The F-35 could also serve as a platform for launching interceptors against ballistic missiles in their early or boost phase of flight.
Soon, the U.S. will have a layered capability that links every sensor with any shooter to create a truly integrated anti-access air and missile defense. Such a system deployed in Europe and Northeast Asia will be a powerful deterrent to Russian or North Korean aggression.
Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.