US and UK Theater Missile Defense: Options and Challenges

First published: 8th December 2015 | Damen J. Cook


The United Kingdom and the United States face growing and challenging ballistic missile threats. The UK and US navies face their gravest threats in the Western Pacific and the Persian Gulf, where they work together to secure important trade routes. Near-peer competitors like China and Russia — as well as not-at-all-peer-but-still-formidable competitors like Iran — improve their ballistic missile capabilities each year. American and British forces need effective theater missile defense systems to remain secure in these contested environments.

Iran and China both maintain potent conventional ballistic missile capabilities. In the offense/defense dynamic between ballistic missiles and their interceptors, offense holds truly tremendous advantages. Hitting one bullet with another bullet presents a much more daunting task than successfully slinging a warhead at a city or ship. Current ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems still struggle to accomplish a success rate higher than ninety percent, and a one hundred percent success rate is technically impossible. Even if a BMD system were to somehow boast a one hundred percent success rate, it could still only field a finite number of interceptors. Mathematics then provides the offensive power with an advantageous certainty: there exists a specific quantity of missiles that will definitely overwhelm even the most capable of ballistic missile defense systems. And, as ballistic missiles cost significantly less than their interceptors, the offense can more easily afford this quantity.

This dynamic proves rather detrimental to the security of British and American navies. Both can be mighty forces for power projection; that is, if their ships can stay afloat long enough to unleash their arsenals. The UK and US must continue to invest in effective theater missile defenses to secure their military assets during conflict.

The United Kingdom’s new Type 26 Frigates and Type 45 Destroyers both possess some notable missile defense capabilities. For its part, the Type 45 Destroyer specializes in anti-aircraft and anti-missile warfare, using Aster 15 and Aster 30 missiles to shoot down enemy targets. The Aster 30 provides cover within a ~32 kilometer radius and can engage enemy missiles with a range of up to 120 kilometers. (Interestingly, the Aster’s two developers publicly disclose different ranges. MBDA lists the range at “in excess of 100km,” while Eurosam lists the range as “up to 120km.”) [1] The Type 45 can carry forty-eight Aster 30s and could empty this entire payload in about one minute. [2] (Though, notably, the Type 45 most commonly carries only sixteen Aster 30s and thirty-two Aster 15s.) [3]

The Type 26 Frigate, also known as the Global Combat Ship or Future Surface Combatant, will operate the new Common Anti-air Modular Missile (CAMM). The full extent of the CAMM’s abilities has yet to be proven, as it has not yet undergone the rigorous testing of other modern BMD systems. That said, none of these models are as capable as the American SM-3 — the Aster 30 travels at ~1.4km/s, the CAMM at ~1km/s, and the SM-3 Block IA at 3km/s. [4]

The United States Navy’s current ballistic missile defense capabilities are the best that money can buy. And they ought to be — each Aegis-equipped, Arleigh-Burke class destroyer costs about $2 billion [5] and each RIM-161 Standard Missile 3 (Block IB) costs approximately $13 million. [6] The US Navy also deploys X-band radar platforms, powerful sensors that could detect a Chinese ballistic missile launch during its early boost phase. [7] America’s navy works in concert with other US military branches, which field Patriot interceptor batteries, radar facilities, and THAAD missile defense systems.

Theater missile defense for carrier strike groups is of paramount importance, particularly in the high-threat environments of the South and East China Seas. While their American counterparts can still check Chinese naval and air force capabilities, China’s arsenal of ballistic missiles has grown positively monstrous — “at least 1,200” — and continues to increase. [8] A Chinese coastline dotted with hundreds of ballistic anti-ship missiles could make it quite difficult for the US and Royal Navies to operate freely and safely throughout the region. So difficult, in fact, that some security analysts have questioned the longevity of the carrier strike group as the primary platform for power projection. [9] Fortifying their missile defenses would provide the US and UK navies more flexibility of action. Fortunately, both countries have realistic, if expensive options available.

The most obvious method for improving US naval missile defenses in either the Persian Gulf or the Western Pacific is to increase the presence of Aegis-equipped destroyers. Each Aegis-equipped, Arleigh-Burke class destroyer adds a formidable and important layer to the US Navy’s theater defense system: Aegis ships can carry 256 medium-range Sea Sparrow and 32 long-range SM-3 interceptors. [10] Pulling the Arleigh-Burkes from where they are less needed and pouring them into the Western Pacific is advisable, and steps have already been taken in this direction: As part of the American strategic rebalance, the US Navy is reallocating many of its platforms to the Western Pacific. [11] Still, as China nurtures its arsenal, the pressure to add more destroyers increases accordingly. Purchasing additional Aegis destroyers would be an obvious improvement — though funding to that end has been comparatively grudging. [12]

The sheer quantity of enemy missiles that can be launched at once undoubtedly represents the biggest challenge facing British and American theater missile defenses. China can somewhat easily stockpile thousands of offensive missiles on its own shores, but Western ships usually hold only a few dozen interceptors each. (Though US destroyers can hold nearly 300, they often fill some of those slots with other missiles, such as the land-attack Tomahawk.) While adding more Aegis destroyers helps mitigate this problem, it is not a solution. Chinese ballistic missiles cost only a small fraction of the American or British interceptors. At roughly $2 billion apiece, each Aegis destroyer carries Sea Sparrow and SM-3 interceptors, which cost $2 million and $13 or $24 million respectively, depending on the variant. [13] The ship’s BMD armament alone, then, if fully stocked, costs nearly another billion dollars. Consider, too, that nearly 300 interceptors does not indicate 300 interception attempts; US military doctrine prescribes firing two interceptors per incoming missile. [14] For $3 billion, China could purchase more than enough ballistic missiles to overwhelm that additional Aegis destroyer.

Another, more potent way to counter the Chinese missile threat is to preserve the “offensive” capability to seek and destroy Chinese missile launch sites and stockpiles before they are used.

Specifically, the United States should purchase many more F-22s and investigate how best to “team” its fifth-generation planes with wider offensive assets. The stealthy F-22 already illustrated its intelligence-gathering abilities and its capacity to "spread that intelligence to the fighters moving in to strike targets on the ground." [15] In short, the US should develop the F-22's capacity to work with other standoff systems (such as the Virginia-class submarine or Ticonderoga-class cruiser) in striking Chinese ballistic missile sites — both actively in joint attacks and passively as a stealthy ISTAR (Intelligence Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) asset.

While the F-22 could certainly perform this mission, there are far too few in the US arsenal to deploy for such a task without leaving critical gaps elsewhere. [16] Although obviously effective planes, restarting the assembly lines and purchasing more F-22s is unfortunately deemed prohibitively expensive. To compensate, the US Navy plans to use its F-35Cs in just such an ISTAR capacity, using “standoff jamming” to better penetrate Chinese airspace. [17] There are nevertheless valid concerns that the stealthier F-22 would still be needed to allow such operations in a “follow-on” capacity — to that end, resumption of F-22 production must be considered, irrespective of cost. [18]

Blending these defensive and offensive BMD approaches would indirectly but dramatically improve the capacity of the United States to protect its Pacific naval platforms from a ballistic missile attack.

The United Kingdom also has a strong economic interest in maintaining free passage through the Western Pacific. As mentioned above, UK Type 45 destroyers possess capable BMD systems, ones that will only be improved upon as new Aster variants are introduced. (France and Italy are currently funding Aster models with an extended range.) [19] Short of recommending that the United Kingdom refit all of its Type 45s with Mk41 Vertical Launching Systems and purchase an arsenal of SM-3s, my recommendation is short, oft-heard, and thus: Buy more Type 45 destroyers. Buy many more.

As has been rightly said before, by the Phoenix Think Tank and others, the Royal Navy is too small to maintain a fleet of “specialist” vessels. As the UK Government has opted for highly-capable specialists, it ought to enjoy them as components of a large fleet. Instead, the UK Government has been unwilling to fund a large fleet and provides only for a very small fleet of specialists. As such specialists have already been designed, built, and purchased, arguably the most immediate option to fill the gaps in the Royal Navy’s capabilities is to buy more of these ready-made models — in this case, the Type 45 Daring-class destroyers. As with restarting F-22 production, however, a cost-averse UK Government would likely baulk at the expense. Continuous upgrades, investment, and training as part of the Maritime Theater Missile Defense Forum must instead be a priority.

The United Kingdom and the United States have also demonstrated considerable interest in securing the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. Millions of barrels of oil flow through this strait every day. [20] Iran has, in the past, threatened to close this trade route with underwater mines and its arsenal of anti-ship missiles. [21] Such behavior would temporarily but significantly destabilize the global energy market and, if left unchecked, would seriously harm the economies and credibility of the UK and US. Iran has prepared for this potential battle, predictably preferring an asymmetric strategy. Iran plans to swarm British and American navies with hundreds of small boats equipped with anti-ship missiles and launch hundreds of ballistic missiles from their shores. These tactics infamously destroyed US carrier strike groups in the 2002 “Millenium Challenge” Pentagon war games. [22]

As part of its deep engagement in the region, the United Kingdom is currently constructing a new naval base, christened HMS Juffair, in Bahrain. [23] This facility faces a greater and more immediate threat than most deployed UK forces, as Iran operates many short- and medium-range ballistic missiles from just across the Gulf. While the Royal Navy regularly sails Type 45 destroyers through the Persian Gulf, these ships project a protective bubble of only ~32 kilometers. Needless to say, the Type 45s will not always be within 32km of HMS Juffair.

Nor would naval missile defenses be ideal for this mission, as the Royal Navy should preserve as much flexibility of action as possible. If the new naval base relies exclusively on naval platforms for its missile defense, then the Royal Navy would be obligated to keep a BMD-capable ship within a certain radius of Bahrain. This would be undesirable if the Royal Navy possessed ten more Type 45s; it is nigh unthinkable with the current fleet of six. The United Kingdom ought to equip HMS Juffair with a land-based missile defense system. Conveniently, its NATO allies offer several options.

The Aegis Ashore missile defense system, which operates the Standard Missile-3 Block IIA, provides the widest area of coverage. It intercepts intermediate-range missiles at a distance of up to 1,050 kilometers. [24] Based on how much it costs the US to base these systems in Romania and Hawaii, purchasing and stationing this system in HMS Juffair would cost the UK at least £500 million. [25] Putting this system in Bahrain would protect the entire host country as well as most of Saudi Arabia and parts of Iraq and Yemen. To some, this intuitively feels like overkill, as the Aegis defense system is primarily designed for regional defense rather than theater defense.

Although the SM-3 has also proven itself capable of intercepting short-range missiles and has successfully done so since 2008, [26] a recent high-profile test failure might make UK decision-makers hesitate over the £500m price-tag. [27] (It is worth noting that the SM-3 recently failed a medium-range intercept, not a short-range one. However, any recent test failure is likely to sow doubt in the minds of potential buyers.) Problematically, however, the Aegis Ashore system houses just twenty-four interceptors. While this would be ideal for protecting HMS Juffair from a small volley of intermediate-range missiles launched from northern Iran, a small volley of IRBMs from Tehranian suburbs is not the most likely threat that Juffair would face. In fact, a small volley of anything seems distinctly at odds with Iran’s preferred strategy.

America’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system would also be made available to the United Kingdom upon request. The US has sold THAAD to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, and is in talks to sell THAAD to South Korea; it would gladly sell this capable system to the United Kingdom. THAAD would protect HMS Juffair for a 200km radius –– plenty of protection for the naval base and Bahrain alike. [28] THAAD destroys short- and medium-range ballistic missiles (missiles with a range of up to 3,000km) and can attempt to intercept intermediate-range missiles during their “terminal,” or final phase of flight. Each THAAD battery consists of forty-eight interceptors and, as such, can better defend HMS Juffair from the type of salvos Iran would be most likely to launch. THAAD batteries also come with their own radar, command, control, and communications systems. All told, it would likely cost the UK anywhere from $1.96-3.25 billion per battery, given that the US sold it to the UAE for the former price and to Qatar for the latter. [29] Again, the UK Government would likely not be willing to stomach such cost.

The United Kingdom might also consider the popular — and less costly — Patriot missile defense system. Each Patriot battery contains sixteen interceptors and costs roughly £158 million each. [30] The Patriots exclusively defend against short- and medium-range missiles and only cover a roughly 20km area. They are designed to protect deployed troops in theater from enemy missiles; Patriots first achieved note in successfully defending the US Army from Scud missiles during both Gulf Wars. It is the most proven theater missile defense system on the market, tested time and again both on the range and in the battlefield. However, the Patriot also requires a heavy degree of saturation to provide best coverage. Due to this and the low capacity for interceptors per battery, the UK would need to purchase several Patriot batteries to adequately defend HMS Juffair.

The Aster missile system perhaps constitutes the UK’s most likely option for defending its new naval base. As the United Kingdom already uses Aster missiles at sea, deploying them on land would be presumably easier for UK personnel than adopting an entirely new missile system. France and Italy already operate Aster variants from a land-based platform. The Aster Block 1, a model not purchased by Britain, can defend against missiles with a range of 600 kilometers. [31]

France and Italy have both invested in a new Aster variant called Aster 30 Block 1 New Technology (or Block 1NT), with the goal of increasing the range to 1,500 kilometers. [32] The United Kingdom would be wise to join Italy and France in investing in this new variant. Once completed and tested, this missile could prove itself capable of effectively defending HMS Juffair. While the Block 1 NT will not be operational any time soon, the threat of an Iranian missile salvo against HMS Juffair is currently rather low. Expected to open in late 2016, [33] the HMS Juffair would likely survive a “gap” in missile defenses if the UK chose to wait for the new Aster variant.

The United Kingdom would be best served by layering its new base (and, indeed, any military assets stationed nearby) with several of the options described above. However, investment in new Aster variants would realistically serve many of Britain’s missile defense interests while also likely meeting cost priorities.

Preferably, the UK would do well to purchase two THAAD batteries and station them within the boundaries of HMS Juffair. This would effectively defend the base and its surrounding ships from up to ninety-six short-, medium-, and possibly intermediate-range missiles. The new Aster variant will only be able to defend against missiles of 1,500km ranges, whereas THAAD can intercept missiles with double that range. Additionally, THAAD defends a larger area. Spending four or five billion dollars on THAAD batteries is a high price, but not as high as building a new naval base and buying new ships to replace those lost in an Iranian volley.

While I advocate that the UK provide its own layer of missile defenses over HMS Juffair and the surrounding area, I expect Britain to continue to lean heavily on the United States. American missile defense systems dot the Persian Gulf and Bahrain; Britain likely expects US BMD shields to defend HMS Juffair if it is ever fired upon. (And rightly so.)

The United Kingdom and United States face grave ballistic missile threats in the West Pacific and Persian Gulf. As navies are still the primary force for power projection, defending surface vessels from missiles is of the utmost importance. Often this can be partially accomplished by moving more ships into theater — Type 45s for the UK and Aegis destroyers for the US, respectively. In some instances, such as with the UK’s new naval base in Bahrain, the best option for defending ships in theater is with land-based missile defense systems. When geography and technology favor the first strike as heavily as they do in the West Pacific, effective missile defense means maintaining the capability to destroy an enemy’s missiles before they launch. To that end, the US must purchase more F-22s and strengthen its fifth-generation fighters as ISTAR assets for more effective “joint” attacks on ballistic missile sites. Similarly, the UK should persist with robust investment in its limited Type 45 fleet.

Perhaps above all, the United Kingdom and United States must prioritize secure shipping routes highly enough that they spend a great deal, and spend it wisely.


[1] “Naval Systems,” Eurosam. (Accessed 7 November, 2015.)
“Aster anti-missile datasheet,” MBDA. (Accessed 7 November, 2015.)

[2] Commander Graham Edmonds, Royal Navy, “Ballistic Missile Defence – Britain’s Missing Shield,” Phoenix Think Tank. (Published 30 March, 2015. Accessed 8 November, 2015.)
“Naval Systems,” Eurosam. (Accessed 7 November, 2015.)

[3] Ben Lombardi and David Rudd, “The Type 45 Daring-Class Destroyer,” US Naval War College. (Accessed 7 November, 2015.), p 103

[4] “Aster anti-missile datasheet,” MBDA. (Accessed 7 November, 2015.)
Nicholas de Larrinaga, “UK orders next-generation air defence system from MBDA,” IHS Jane’s 360. (Accessed 7 November, 2015.)
Jaganath Sankaran, “The United States’ European Phased Adaptive Approach Missile Defense System,” RAND Corporation. (Accessed 7 November, 2015.), p. 4

[5] Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy DDG-51 and DDG-1000 Destroyer Programs: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service. (Published 19 April, 2011. Accessed 7 November, 2015.) p. 1

[6] Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service. (Published 25 September, 2015. Accessed 7 November, 2015.) p. 36

[7] Wu Riqiang, “China’s Anxiety About U.S. Missile Defence: A Solution,” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, Vol. 55, No. 5, (October-November 2013), p. 34-35.

[8] US Department of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015.” (Accessed 7 November, 2015.)

[9] Zachary Cohen, “Report: U.S. aircraft carriers could become ineffective,” CNN. (Published 4 November, 2015. Accessed 7 November, 2015.)

[10] Ben Lombardi and David Rudd, “The Type 45 Daring-Class Destroyer,” US Naval War College. (Accessed 7 November, 2015.), p 103

[11] “Leon Panetta: US to deploy 60% of navy fleet to Pacific,” BBC. (Published 2 June, 2012. Accessed 7 November, 2015.)

[12] Grace Jean, "Pentagon budget 2016: Reconciled authorisation bill bolsters USN's shipbuilding", IHS Jane's Defence Weekly. (Published September 2015. Access 22 November, 2015.)

[13] US Department of Defense, “Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Request: Program Acquisition Cost By Weapon System,” (Published March 2014. Accessed 7 November, 2015.)
Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service. (Published 25 September, 2015. Accessed 7 November, 2015.) p. 36

[14] Mark Gunzinger with Chris Dougherty, “Outside-In: Operating from Range to Defeat Iran’s Anti-Access and Area-Denial Threats,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. (Published 2011. Accessed 7 November, 2015.) p. 67

[15] Lolita C Baldor, "F-22 Raptor Ensures other War-Fighting Aircraft Survive Over Syria," (Published 21 July, 201. Accessed 22 November, 2015)

[16] Dave Majumbar, “Yes, America’s F-22 Raptor Can Be Defeated: There’s Just Not Enough of Them,” War is Boring. (Published 15 October, 2015. Accessed 7 November, 2015.)

[17] Guy Plopsky & Fabrizzio Bozzato, "The F-35 vs. The VHF Threat", The Diplomat. (Published 21 August, 2014. Accessed 22 November, 2015)

[18] Dr. Carlo Kopp, “Assessing the Joint Strike Fighter,” Air Power Australia Think Tank. (Last Updated April 2012. Accessed 7 November, 2015.)

[19] Pierre Tran , “MBDA Positioned to Score Big in 3 Deals,” Defense News. (Published 12 May, 2013. Accessed 7 November, 2015.)

[20] Jeremy Bender, “These 8 narrow chokepoints are critical to the world’s oil trade,” Business Insider UK. (Published 1 April, 2015. Accessed 7 November, 2015.)

[21] Yeganeh Torbati, “Iran renews Hormuz closure threats,” Reuters. (Published 16 July, 2012. Accessed 7 November, 2015.)

[22] Thom Shanker, “Iran Encounter Grimly Echoes ’02 War Game,” New York Times. (Published 12 January, 2008. Accessed 7 November, 2015.)

[23] Bauke Schram, “HMS Juffair: Britain's Bahrain naval base first military presence in Middle East in over 40 years,” IB Times. (Published 1 November, 2015. Accessed 7 November, 2015.)

[24] Peter Roberts, “UK Ballistic-Missile Defence: Drivers and Options,” Royal United Services Institute. (Published August 2015. Accessed 5 November, 2015.), pp. 12-13

[25] Peter Roberts, “UK Ballistic-Missile Defence: Drivers and Options,” Royal United Services Institute. (Published August 2015. Accessed 5 November, 2015.), pp. 17

[26] Missile Defense Agency Public Affairs, “Successful Sea-Based Missile Defense Intercept.” (Published 6 June, 2008. Accessed 5 November, 2015.)

[27] Geoff Fein, "SM-3 fails to engage ballistic missile," IHS Jane's Missiles & Rockets. (Published 11 November 2015. Accessed 22 November 2015)

[28] Peter Roberts, “UK Ballistic-Missile Defence: Drivers and Options,” Royal United Services Institute. (Published August 2015. Accessed 5 November, 2015.), pp. 12-13

[29] Peter Roberts, “UK Ballistic-Missile Defence: Drivers and Options,” Royal United Services Institute. (Published August 2015. Accessed 5 November, 2015.), p. 19

[30] Peter Roberts, “UK Ballistic-Missile Defence: Drivers and Options,” Royal United Services Institute. (Published August 2015. Accessed 5 November, 2015.), p. 19

[31] Pierre Tran , “MBDA Positioned to Score Big in 3 Deals,” Defense News. (Published 12 May, 2013. Accessed 7 November, 2015.)

[32] Pierre Tran , “MBDA Positioned to Score Big in 3 Deals,” Defense News. (Published 12 May, 2013. Accessed 7 November, 2015.)

[33] AAlex MacDonald, “New UK-Bahrain naval base takes colonial-era name,” Middle East Eye. (Published 19 June, 2015. Accessed 6 November, 2015.)

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