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Ballistic Missile Defence - Will the Shield Get Better? by Arjun Subramanian

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Author: Arjun Subramanian P
In the modern era, weapons that offer asymmetric advantage are ballistic missiles. A ballistic missile has certain characteristics that make it hard to intercept. There are three options for intercepting it: Boost phase interception, midcourse interception and intercepting the missile at its terminal stage. At present, terminal BMD systems have attained some level of technological maturity compared to other options. But how reliable is this technology in negating the threat? This is a major question under debate.


Asymmetry has since time immemorial been a most sought after strategy as it offers a high chance of victory with lesser capability and resources. Several battles in history stand out as examples where lesser capable forces defeated a powerful adversary by employing strategy that were asymmetric in nature. In the modern era, weapons that offer this asymmetric advantage are ballistic missiles, which are famously described as the poor country’s air force. A ballistic missile has certain characteristics that make it hard to intercept. It travels at very high velocity which makes it extremely difficult to intercept with another kinetic weapon. Hence, the best defence against this weapon would be to destroy it on the ground. However, this presents its own set of challenges like the requirement of persistent surveillance capability covering a wide area and the need for a strike platform in the vicinity of the detected target. The complexity involved in this task is highlighted by the low success rate achieved in the operation to hunt Iraqi Scud missiles during the Gulf War (1991).  This task of identifying, tracking and targeting gets further complicated due to the advancement made in ballistic missile technology. Most of the ballistic missiles, at present, use solid fuel and are increasingly mobile leaving only a small strike window.

 

Post-launch Intercept

The other option is to intercept the missile after it is launched. Here, there are three options for intercepting it: Boost phase interception, midcourse interception and intercepting the missile at its terminal stage. At present, terminal BMD systems have attained some level of technological maturity compared to other options. Ballistic missile defence involves complex technology at every stage from surveillance, detection to interception. For the final stage ie interception stage, the preferred method is to achieve hit-to-kill capability which offers better probability of warhead destruction compared to the use of fragmentation warhead detonated through a proximity fuse. This is like hitting a bullet with a bullet for which all the systems in the kill chain have to function effectively as there is no room for error.

The proliferation of ballistic missile technology has resulted in many countries acquiring this asymmetric weapon. Even economically and technologically backward country like North Korea has managed to develop long-range ballistic missile capability. These developments have forced some developed and developing countries to invest in ballistic missile defence systems. Countries like United States, Israel, Russia, India and China have active ballistic missile defence programmes as the ballistic missile capability of their adversary presents a major threat. Other countries facing similar threats like Saudi Arabia, Japan and Turkey have acquired BMD systems off the shelf from the US. But how reliable is this technology in negating the threat? This is a major question under debate.

Patriot BMD

The Gulf War of early nineties saw the operational deployment of the Patriot BMD system. After the war, it was announced that the Patriot batteries deployed intercepted 80 per cent of the Scud missiles launched against Israel and Saudi Arabia. But later analysis based on the data available on the Patriot’s performance proves it wrong. A group of MIT physicists, led by Professor Theodore A Postol, closely scrutinised the video evidence of Patriot-Scud engagements and found the army’s claims of Patriot accuracy unfounded. One other example would be the Iron Dome system (technically it is built to defend against crude unguided rockets. However, the basic technology involved is same as any missile defence system). In the operational employment of the system during Operation Pillar of Defence, the system is said to have achieved 90 per cent success by engaging 479 rockets fired against Israel. Independent analysis done later reveals a different picture. According to Nathen Farber’s calculations, less than half the incoming rockets reported by the IDF actually reached populated areas. At the same time, he says that the number of incoming rockets that successfully hit was more than double the 58 reported by the IDF. This led Farber to call the IDF’s claim of a 90 per cent successful interception rate “exaggerated,” at best. 

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