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The 2020 ballistic missile attack on the al-Asad and Erbil air bases in Iraq highlighted the threat such weapons pose to western forces and the need for effective defence against them. This article looks at the kinds of threat western allies face from short and medium-range ballistic missiles (SRBM/MRBMs) in current and potential theatres of operation, along with aspects of, and latest developments to, NATO’s latest ballistic missile defence (BMD) strategy.

Five days after the killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) leader, Qassem Soleimani, on 3 January 2020, the IRGC, in reprisal, launched between 16 and 22 SRBMs at the US air bases at al-Asad and Erbil in Iraq. Though some failed during flight, those missiles that did reach their targets delivered conventional payloads containing at least 1,100 lbs of HE with considerable precision. From first launch to final impact, the whole attack lasted 80 minutes.

The Threat in Actuality

The missiles were launched and landed in three waves in the early hours of 8 January 2020; US satellites detected heat and light signatures from the launched missiles and provided the intelligence for final defensive actions at the bases, while earlier intel about the satellite imagery being used by Iran to determine their targeting provided just enough time for the evacuation of troops and materiel. Neither base had defensive anti-ballistic-missile (ABM) capabilities that could deal with this threat nor the majority of troops on the ground, with only minutes to respond to intel of the impending barrage, dispersed to the ‘relative’ safety of the desert. Rear guards, however, remained to protect both bases in case of ground assault, and were protected from the direct impact effects of the missiles by bunkers and shelters. Many did, nevertheless, suffer traumatic brain injury from the concussive effects of the blasts and the bases themselves sustained considerable damage. The attacks were designed to kill the personnel and destroy the materiel seen by the Iranians in the last satellite imagery they relied on prior to missile launch. The intelligent and just-in-time use of intel by US commanders, however, thwarted those intentions and saved both lives and equipment. Since then, PATRIOT missile batteries have been deployed to protect US forces at the bases.

The SRBMs allegedly used in the attacks, launched from at least two sites, were the FATEH-313 and the QIAM-2 SRBMs; the FATEH-313 is a solid-fuel missile with a range of some 500 km and improved accuracy over previous systems – satellite imagery determined it displayed a 12 m circular error probable/CEP. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the FATEH-313 gives Iranians an expanded target set with which Tehran can threaten more regional neighbours, as well as military bases of western forces. Same time, these mobile missile systems can ‘shoot and scoot’ inside Iran, making it difficult for the launchers to be targeted before the missiles are fired. And it is not only land forces that are threatened by Iranian ballistic missiles, but also naval fleets. The CSIS reported that in September 2020, the IRGC’s Aerospace Division displayed a new anti-ship BM (ASBM), the ZOLFAGHAR BASIR missile, with an enlarged booster and a range of some 700 km.

In the European theatre, another threat was reported in ESD’s sister journal, Maritime Security & Defence, in February – the ISKANDER-M (SS-26 STONE) tactical ballistic missile, operational with Russia’s Baltic Fleet. As well as ship-borne ISKANDERs the fleet has a ground-based ISKANDER unit, (a land-based system was deployed in Syria), with the 152nd Guards Missile Brigade. Capable of engaging targets at 500 km, the ISKANDER-M travels at a hypersonic speed of 2,100–2,600 m/s (Mach 6–7), can achieve a CEP of 5-7 m using an optical homing head, (or between 30-70m without), and is intended as a theatre weapon using conventional or thermonuclear warheads. The maximum yield of the nuclear warhead is 50 kilotons of TNT.

Further Threat Considerations

So, while the potential for an SRBM attack to paralyse an airbase is a seriously troubling and real scenario for defensive military planners, (a recent RAND Corporation study estimated a BM attack with 50 missiles would put a base out of action for larger fixed-wing aircraft for at least a week), the threat in the maritime space is also most real. A fleet formation such as a battle group, the US 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf, or the UK’s Carrier Strike Group, which commenced its maiden voyage on 23 May, also face the nightmare scenario of potential decimation, were a single ASBM of short or medium range, with accurate CEP, to be armed with a tactical nuclear warhead and be successful in reaching its target without being destroyed en route. However, whilst today’s ballistic missiles can achieve hypersonic speeds, they do follow predictable parabolic flight paths, which ship-borne defensive systems can track ‘relatively’ easily.

For readers not immersed in all things ballistic missile, let us further clarify the SRBM and MRBM threat. Powered initially by a rocket stage or stages, BMs then follow an unpowered parabolic trajectory to their target. SRBMs have a maximum range of 1,000 km and are also known as tactical ballistic missiles; MRBMs reach ranges between 1,000 and 3,000 km and are also known as theatre ballistic missiles. Both typically carry conventional, HE payloads. [NB: Intermediate-range and long-range ballistic missiles are expected to typically carry nuclear warheads].

Let us now take brief look at aspects of the allied defensive approach and measures underway to address the threat.

NATO’s Defensive Approach and Developments

NATO sees the continuing proliferation of ballistic missiles amongst potential western adversaries as a major threat, increasing the likelihood of future ballistic-missile attacks on allied soil, and/or forces stationed overseas, if a conflict scenario arises. The Alliance’s BMD strategy, first explored in 2002, forms part of its key tenet of collective defence and, as far back as 2010 in Lisbon, NATO members agreed to construct a purely defensive territorial BMD capability in several member states and around the Mediterranean, addressing all BM threats including systems to counter SRBMs and MRBMs. In July 2016, the Initial Operational Capability of NATO’s BMD was announced as a capability to defend Alliance populations, territory and forces across southern NATO Europe against a potential ballistic missile attack, and described as stronger than anything preceding it. This collective defensive capability incorporates assets and materiel commonly funded by all allies, though some voluntary contributions have been added by certain individual members. In addition, several Allies have already offered their contributions or are undergoing development or acquisition of further BMD assets, such as upgraded ships with BMD-capable radars, ground-based air and missile defence systems, or advanced detection and alert capabilities. For its part, through its European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), the US contributes to NATO BMD with deployments of materiel in various member states. In Turkey, for example, a US BMD radar is hosted at Kürecik. In Romania, a US AEGIS ASHORE site is in place at Deveselu Air Base. Indeed, on 12 May, NATO’s Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană marked the 10th anniversary of the agreement between Romania and the US to establish NATO’s land-based BMD system at Deveselu in southern Romania by addressing senior officials at the Romanian Senate, thanking them for hosting AEGIS ASHORE in the town of Deveselu, to provide 24/7 defence against BMs from outside the Euro-Atlantic area. Built and operated by the US on behalf of NATO, the missile defence base forms part of the larger European NATO missile shield, as touched on above, in line with the NATO Lisbon Summit in 2010. Mr Geoană stressed that NATO’s work on missile defence continues, ‘as missiles remain a weapon of choice for potential adversaries’. He stressed that missile defence is ‘purely defensive’.

In Germany, the BMD command centre, under EPAA, is located at Ramstein Air Base. In addition, it was recently reported that Germany’s Ministry of Defence had dropped plans for a next-generation air defence system, the Taktisches Luftverteidigungssystem (TLVS), which had been intended for use against latest ballistic and other missile and airborne threats. Instead, Germany will upgrade its PATRIOT systems starting in 2023, aiming to keep them in-service beyond 2030, though it will invest in other AD tech.
Also under EPAA, Poland will also be operational with another Aegis Ashore site at the Redzikowo Military Base in 2022, following construction delays, and Spain is hosting four multi-mission, BMD-capable AEGIS ships at the Rota naval base.

While all these installations are predominantly the voluntary national contributions, though integral parts of the NATO BMD capability, several allies currently offer further ground-based air and missile defence systems. These systems include: 1) Raytheon’s PATRIOT missile defence system, as deployed in Germany, which comprises radars, command-and-control technology and multiple types of interceptors, all working together to detect, identify and defeat tactical ballistic missiles, as well as other airborne threats; and 2) SAMP/TS, Eurosam’s theatre-level AD system, which is one of only a handful of European-produced systems that can counter ballistic missiles. Fielded by Italy and France, SAMP/TS defends against SRBMs with ranges up to 600km, as well as UAVs, cruise missiles, and fighter aircraft. (Eurosam is jointly owned by MBDA Missile Systems and Thales).

Romania Highlights Strengthening Alliance BMD

Romania actually plays an important part in NATO’s BMD strategy beyond just AEGIS ASHORE. The country is on track to receive new, modernised PATRIOT systems in 2022 to become the first country to field the newest version of the system. Raytheon received the go-ahead in early 2021 after the US Army held a critical design review of significant updates to the air and missile defence system. Romania already has one PATRIOT fire unit in place, delivered last September, in response to its concerns, as a NATO member, about security in the Black Sea region. It is among 17 PATRIOT partner nations whose operational scenarios and data inform updates. The company uses that feedback to ensure the system’s continued reliability, maintainability and capability to outpace the full spectrum of threats, from tactical ballistic missiles and cruise missiles to unmanned aerial vehicles and advanced aircraft. In addition to receiving the latest system, Romania will also take advantage of the configuration’s flexible architecture to upgrade its current unit in alignment with the new ones. When Raytheon sets up the modernised fire units in Romania in 2022, it will do so alongside both the US Army and the Romanian military. That collaboration includes new equipment training where the system’s Romanian operators and maintainers will get hands-on instruction for the new and enhanced configuration with overarching goal for the Romanian military to become self-sufficient.

In Good Hands

This article has only skimmed what is a most complex subject, has only mentioned a handful of actual systems, has only touched upon the defensive-strategy thinking that will, hopefully, keep the world safe from any aggressors electing to use SR and MRBMs in a future conflict. Let us end on a reassuring note, understanding that BMD thinking and strategy in NATO is in good hands and see who those hands belong to. NATO’s Defence Policy and Planning Committee on Missile Defence (DPPC MD) is the senior committee under the North Atlantic Council that oversees and coordinates all efforts at the political-military level to develop and advise on NATO’s BMD capability. There is also the Conference of National Armaments Directors (CNAD), which is the senior committee responsible for steering the BMD programme, so that all necessary technical functionalities for BMD planners and operators are developed. As for responsibilities for overall policy aspects of NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD), this falls to the Air and Missile Defence Committee (AMDC) as senior entity. Several other NATO senior committees address NATO BMD in the context of broader topics, such as civil emergency planning or crisis management, and when it comes to the men in the field prosecuting BMD in the flesh, it is NATO’s military authorities who are responsible for developing a military doctrinal framework for BMD together with related operational planning, training and execution.

Tim Guest