Ballistic Missile Defence - Britain's Missing Shield

First published: 30th March 2015 | Cmdr. Graham Edmonds RN


Since the 2010 formation of the coalition government, Prime Minister David Cameron regularly reaffirmed his commitment to UK defence requirements. This most strikingly emerged with the Prime Minister's active lobbying for the September 2014 'Wales Pledge' on defence spending across NATO. [1] And yet despite engagements such as Operation Shader - Britain's commitment in the fight against ISIS - we can often see the gap between rhetoric and reality.

Indeed, some raised concerns [2] that Operation Shader leaves Britain vulnerable to jihadist retaliation. The principal threat vector is doubtless posed by hardened combatants returning to their British homes. Yet between ISIS' captured wealth and its seizure of Iraqi arsenals, [3] the layman could be lead to wonder if jihadism can now exploit new angles of attack.

In June 2014, a flurry of excitement arose when ISIS paraded a Soviet-legacy missile system through Raqqa, Syria. [4] Of unknown origin, the missile seemingly has not reappeared since then. Absurd as it is to imagine such backwards barbarians as Jihadi John deploying ballistic missiles, it briefly drew public attention to Britain's missing shield - Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD).

Certainly, the Middle East is awash with a variety of missile systems in hostile hands. Hezbollah, the terrorist organisation, operates modern, short-range cruise missiles [5] and medium range (theatre) ballistic missiles. [6] Syrian military forces under Bashar Al-Assad have apparently deployed ballistic missiles - designs similar to that captured by ISIS - in their civil war. [7] Above all, the Islamic Republic of Iran operates a vast missile arsenal and has reportedly shown willingness to deploy it - allegedly firing "salvos of Scud-like missiles [against targets in Iraq] as late as 2001." [8] Iran continues to grow this arsenal, with units already capable of 2,200 km range, and upgrades to ranges of 3,700 km possible. [9] Each threatens longstanding UK allies such as Jordan, and critical UK interests including the free flow of hydrocarbons via the Straits of Hormuz. What defence can Britain deploy against these threats?

The principal long-range UK air defence (AD) system is the Sea Viper Missile, carried by the six Type 45 Destroyers of the Royal Navy. Designed for both anti-aircraft and anti-missile warfare, the ships combine two radar systems that can track more than 1000 targets at ranges of up to 200 nautical miles. This allows them to target and destroy a variety of high performance air threats, including very low altitude (sea skimming) supersonic cruise missiles, fighter aircraft and UAVs. Against saturation attacks, it can launch 8 missiles in under 10 seconds while simultaneously guiding up-to 16 missiles to designated targets at any one time. With only 48 missiles onboard it could – in theory – empty its silos in about a minute.

Critically, tests have shown the Type 45's ability to track ballistic missiles, [10] but funding for further such tests is not due until late 2015. Moreover, the Royal Navy’s core mission for the Type 45 model is to shield the Fleet from air attack. With high-value assets like the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers due to come online by the end of the decade, this role will only grow with time.

But why does that matter?

Britain is not only exposed to missile threats in the Middle East. To take only the most ostentatious example, the Russian Federation resumed Cold War habits of loitering near UK and NATO airspace, following continued escalation in Ukraine. [11] Frequently deploying the iconic Tu95MS (dubbed the 'Bear') to probe air defences and reaction times, Russia is wielding an important asset. While aging, the Bears continue to show their use as a strategic launch platform, [12] capable of carrying several air-to-ground cruise missiles for use on targets on land or sea, at ranges of around 1600 nautical miles. Most significantly, such missiles can carry nuclear weapons.
With only a handful of Type 45s, what other systems could the UK conceivably use to deter this kind of threat?

Britain has notably failed to invest in land-based anti-ballistic-missile (ABM) systems. Instead, national air defence is the "primary role" [13] for the Royal Air Force. By 2020, the RAF will operate 107 Multirole Combat Aircraft (the 'Typhoon'), and an as-yet-unknown number of F35B Lightning II aircraft, the latter set to be shared with the Fleet Air Arm. Yet these aircraft have a limited capability against cruise missiles, and no illustrated capability against wider ballistic missiles threats. Put simply, their main potential value is limited to timely intercepts of launch platforms.

On the ground, the primary UK air defence system is 'Rapier.' In service and regularly updated since 1971, it was tried and tested in conflicts as diverse as the Falklands and the First Gulf War. It is nevertheless a point defence weapon with a range of just 4.1 nautical miles, best used for protection of limited areas - military sites and key installations.

The UK continues to make sound investments in new area-defence systems, [14] with plans to replace Rapier with a land based version of the 'Common Anti-Air Modular Missile', (CAMM). Already selected for service aboard the Royal Navy’s frigates under the title 'Sea Ceptor,' CAMM has a range of 13.5 nautical miles. But despite the increased range, this remains geared to destroy aircraft or anti-ship cruise missiles, not ballistic threats.

Our NATO partners take the ballistic missile threat more seriously. The American 'Patriot' missile enjoys a proven BMD record [15] and is operated by Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Greece. With Russia's continued aggression in Ukraine, Poland is also weighing its choices in BMD systems, [16] and working to assure interoperability with NATO's BMD headquarters in Ramstein, Germany. [17] The United States not only invested in a pair of 'Aegis Ashore' BMD systems in Poland and Romania, [18] but the US Navy's newest strategy document also directs that four BMD-capable destroyers will deploy to Spain by the end of 2015. [19]

Even despite vast investment, the heavy operational tempo of US BMD forces leaves doubts on their sustainability. [20] With UK BMD capabilities seemingly bound up in the future of its Type 45 destroyers, few in number and in-demand already, these assets will doubtless face serious strain.

In June 2014, six days before ISIS paraded its captured Scud through Raqqa, former Chief of the General Staff Sir Peter Wall warned ballistic missile attack was a key threat facing Britain in the years ahead. [21] In this he is no doubt right - Britain has a missing shield, and reliance on its allies can only do so much to cover the gap.



'Wales Summit Declaration', September 5 2014 '
Shashank Joshi, 'British Options in Iraq: Capabilities, Strategies and Risks', August 13 2014

Jeremy Bender, 'ISIS Militants Captured 52 American-Made Artillery Weapons That Cost $500,000 Each', Business Insider, July 15, 2014

Raf Sanchez, 'Does Islamic State have a Scud missile?' The Telegraph, June 30 2014
Barak Ravid, 'Hezbollah moved advanced anti-ship missile systems into Lebanon, US officials say' Haaretz, January 3 2014

Anne Barnard & Eric Schmitt, 'Hezbollah Moving Long-Range Missiles From Syria to Lebanon, an Analyst Says' The New York Times, January 2 2014
'Syrian army 'continues to fire Scud missiles' Al Jazeera, December 21 2012

Michael Knights, 'After Tikrit' Foreign Affairs, March 16 2015

Michael Elleman, 'Iran's Ballistic Missile Program' United States Institute of Peace

Richard Scott, 'UK extends Sampson radar experimental BMD research' IHS Jane's Navy International May 15 2014

Ben Farmer, 'RAF jets intercept Russian bomber aircraft off Cornwall' The Telegraph February 19 2015

David Cenciotti, 'Russian Tu-95 bomber launches six cruise missiles during exercise' The Aviationist May 15 2014

'UK Air Defence'

Andrew Chuter, 'UK Seeks to Update Falklands Air Defense' DefenseNews March 17 2015

Ryan Dilley, 'Patriot missile unit stays on target' BBC News Online April 1 2003

Pierre Tran, 'Thales, MBDA Close in on Polish Missile Defense Deal' DefenseNews December 23 2014

Brooks Tigner, 'NATO, Poland up BMD information exchanges' IHS Jane's Defence Weekly February 11 2015

Sam LaGrone, 'Inside Aegis Ashore' USNI News, August 8 2013

Franz-Stefan Gady, 'The United States' New Maritime Strategy: A Quick Look' The Diplomat March 14 2015

Megan Eckstein, 'Navy Officials: Currrent BMD Strategy 'Unsustainable'; Greenert Asked Hagel for Review' USNI News March 19 2015

Ben Farmer, 'Gen Sir Peter Wall: Britain may need its Army 'sooner than some would have us think' 24 June 2014 The Telegraph

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