Still a Hole in our Defences?

First published: 13th March 2015, revised 10th October 2017 | Cmdr. Graham Edmonds RN


This is an update of the article A Hole in our Defences’ written 13 Mar 2015

The Prime Minister, Mrs May, has been less forthright than her predecessor about the Government’s first duty being the defence of the United Kingdom. During the 2017 election campaign, however, she stated that "As Prime Minister, I always have and always will put Britain's national security first," Mrs May said in her statement. "Under my leadership, the Conservatives will ensure that the brave men and women of our armed forces have the equipment and resources they need to keep our country safe - and that we meet our obligations to the world."

She also said: "If elected on June 8, I will ensure that the UK continues to spend at least 2 per cent of gross domestic product on defence and that the budget rises every year."

As the MoD approaches the ‘mini SDSR 17’ and rumours abound of further cuts in front line combat forces and equipment her election promises do not appear to hold water. Not long after she made these statements both North Korea and Iran launched ICBMs and IRBMs respectively. Iran’s new missile, part of Project Koussar[1] , was launched in mid September and is said to have a range of 1,200nm and can carry a load of 4,000lbs which could include multiple (nuclear) warheads.

North Korea conducted two launches, one in July and the other in September, of a Hwasong-14 ICBM that can carry a thermo-nuclear warhead. With a range of 3,700nm it could reach the western seaboard of the USA and also the UK and Europe. A successor missile, the Taepodong-2, is reported to have a range of more than 5,400nm. That North Korea could so quickly ‘leap forward’ from relatively short range ballistic missiles to truly intercontinental missiles indicates a possible transfer of (Russian) engine technology, the RD-250, from a ‘missile state’ such as Ukraine and it very likely that Iran and North Korea have been colluding on nuclear weapon and missile technology.

Three years ago the concern was that ISIL and al Qaeda terrorists would acquire by force intermediate range ballistic missiles that could reach western Europe and the UK and which might be fired in retaliation for coalition and Russian missile and air attacks. Now two member states of the UN, who are not declared Nuclear Weapon States (NWS), nor who have signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, have access to nuclear weapons and the means with which to deliver them by ICBM and IRBM. A recent prediction in an article by Harry J Kazianis is that Iran will have ICBMs armed with nuclear weapons made by North Korea and, with its current range of Ballistic Missiles, will be able to attack targets world-wide.[2]

The UK has done little since the days of the V1 and V2 to protect its homeland, islands and overseas territories from attack by ballistic missile, or indeed from ship, submarine and long range aircraft launched land attack cruise missiles. It is very likely that the Treasury driven MoD has staked the country’s ‘hard kill’ protection on NATO’s comprehensive provision of a Ballistic Missile Defence system for Europe. NATO leaders declared at the Chicago Summit in 2012 that the NATO missile defence system for Europe had reached interim capability.

This capability merely meant that a command and control centre had been tested and installed at NATOs Headquarters Allied Air Command in Ramstein in Germany, that the allies provided sensors and USN Aegis equipped ships capable of intercepting ballistic missiles. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said “Our system will link together missile defence assets from different Allies – satellites, ships, radars and interceptors – under NATO command and control. It will allow us to defend against threats from outside the Euro-Atlantic area.”

By the early 2020s NATO should have merged these missile defence components provided by the Allies into a coherent defence system to ensure ‘complete’ protection against ballistic missiles for all NATO European countries, their inhabitants and armed forces. The hard kill element of this defence is provided currently by four US Aegis warships, based at Rota in Spain and two ‘Aegis ashore’ sites, with SM-3 SAM, in Poland and Romania. NATO’s European BMD defence architecture has reached development as shown at Fig 1.

Fig 1 – NATO BMD Architecture as of 2017[3]

It is encouraging that Exercise Formidable Shield that took place in October off the west coast of Scotland on the MoD’s Hebrides Ranges (on which £76m[4] has been spent upgrading the range facilities) set out to prove the next step in NATO Europe’s BMD shield. Under the 2012 Chicago agreement this exercise should have been conducted by 2015. Its purpose is “to improve allied interoperability in a live-fire integrated air and missile defence (IAMD) environment, using NATO command and control reporting structures. Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States participated in this exercise."[5]

The exercise conducted ‘successful’ live firings against a short range ballistic target and supersonic and subsonic cruise missiles and it was concluded that the exercise met its objectives. Although all the participating ships are capable of tracking both missile types only those of the USN have, as yet, a ‘hard kill’ weapon system with the SM-3 / 6 missile. It is reported that Air Defence ships of the Dutch, German and Spanish navies are seeking to upgrade their Standard missiles from the SM2 to the BMD capable SM3. Aster 30 (Sea Viper) in the RN’s Type 45 destroyers, with investment, could have a hard kill BMD capability, but no decision on this upgrade has been made, although it is reported that ‘ministers are keen to provide this capability’. It is believed that French and Italian Air Defence ships, also fitted with Aster 30, will be upgraded to a BMD capability.

Dramatic improvements in North Korean and Iranian ballistic missile reliability, range and accuracy have spurred the testing of NATO BMD for Europe as well as the United States. However Formidable Shield is also tested capabilities against long range land attack cruise missiles. The Russian armed forces, as well as bringing into service new intermediate range and highly mobile tactical ballistic missiles, such as the Iskander, have also introduced excellent long range land and ship attack cruise missiles, particularly the Kh101 and Kh 55 Raduga. These missiles form part of the Russian ‘conventional strategic deterrent’[6] and these cruise missile systems and tactics have been tested by the Russian armed forces in Syria in recent months. Russian conventional deterrent has continued the Soviet tactic of overwhelming defences by multiple massed missile attack. According to the Guardian newspaper Britain’s main threats are from Russia and jihadi terrorists – our defence policy should reflect that.[7]

The Tu95MS (Bear H) aircraft that has ‘probed’ UK air defences in recent months can launch up to 18 Raduga KH55 subsonic cruise missiles; the missile has a range of 1350nm. A high success rate against UK key targets can be expected if KH55s were launched from a wide are in mid Atlantic. With a mere six Type 45 Air Defence destroyers, no land based AD missiles and the launch area being beyond the Combat Air Patrol (CAP) stations of UK land based air defence aircraft, whose combat radius (there and back to base) for one minute of combat with external fuel tanks is half that of the KH55 range.

The KH55 has been exported to China and Iran, where it has been developed into the ‘Soumar’ cruise missile.

All the participating ships in Formidable Shield have point / self defence systems capable of shooting down cruise missiles, although as missile speed increases from supersonic just before impact towards hypersonic, advances in very rapid response self defence systems will be needed. The RN is bringing into service the Sea Ceptor missile, which is one such system. It has a Land based version for defence of key points, political, military and logistical.

The USA, threatened with attack by North Korea, has been testing national BMD systems against ICBMs. Earlier this year the US tested its defences against a ballistic missile launched from the Marshal Islands. Using the US Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system (GMD), which comprises a constellation of sensors and 36 silo-based missiles, the warhead was destroyed (‘smashed to smithereens’) by an interceptor missile launched from Vandenberg Air Force base. It is noteworthy that there has been a recent submission by the Executive Office of the President – the Office of Management and Budget – that covers an amendment letter request to the value of $4 billion in respect of the 2018 Fiscal Year DoD Budget, the basic detail of which is a request for supplementary based funds to the current year budget to support urgent ballistic missile defence enhancements in order to counter the threat from North Korea.

This November a short range Ballistic Missile was launched from the Yemen at Riyadh. It was destroyed by a Saudi Patriot missile. NATO’s European BMD system has both Patriot and SM3 missiles but not a system akin to the GMD in the USA – a system which has shown only a 50% success rate in 18 exercise firings since 1999.[8]

The threat from all types of missile systems grows; they are faster, have longer ranges, have subtle flight paths, decoys to confuse defences so as to ensure they reach their targets and can have either ballistic or cruise trajectories. NATO’s BMD structure for Europe is comprehensive, but looks primarily eastward, ie overland. Some NATO European nations can deploy land based hard kill (eg Patriot) and all will be protected by the ‘Aegis Ashore’ systems in Poland and Romania. USN and, eventually European, warships provide a mobile BMD weapon system. Unfortunately there is little cover to the west (the Atlantic) from which such weapons can be launched and Patriot and SM3 are proven only against short range ballistic missiles and are, as yet, unproven against ICBMs. The UK has no plans for land based missile defence systems against either ballistic or cruise missiles and no plans to upgrade the Sea Viper in the RN’s T45 Destroyers to provide and form a BMD system for the UK. Had the original plan to build 12 destroyers been executed then the situation might have been less dire.

At least we will know when the missiles are coming......


1. Project Koussar, is an alleged intermediate range or intercontinental ballistic missile program of Iran

2. Harry J. Kazianis, Fox News | 22 July 2017 -

3. NATO BMD 11 July 2016 -

4. MoD Press Release 24 Sep 2017 -

5. StrikforNATO / 6th Fleet Press Release 18 Aug 2017 -

6. See Russian Long Range Aviation and Conventional Strategic Strike by Dr James Bosbotinis | 30 March 2015 |

7. Paul Mason, The Guardian 9 Oct 2017 -

8. The Verge, Rachel Becker, 1 Jun 2017


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