Paris Air Show

Paris 2011: Is Europe getting serious about missile defense?

 - June 19, 2011, 1:00 AM

Are the nations of Europe serious about comprehensive ballistic missile defense (BMD)? Or are they happy to let America provide the only effective shield over their cities and populations? Despite a ringing declaration of intent at the NATO summit meeting in Lisbon last November, these questions remain unanswered.

Until Lisbon, NATO’s policy was to develop only a Theatre BMD–that is, the means to protect limited areas against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles when, for instance, troops are deployed on operations. A Theatre BMD could be done by networking existing air defense systems that have a potential low-altitude (for example, terminal) BMD capability. Eight European NATO members have acquired such systems–Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Spain and Turkey operate Patriot batteries, while France, Italy and the UK are introducing ship- and land-based systems that fire the co-developed MBDA Aster missile.

NATO is paying for the software to network these national systems at a cost of  €800 million ($1.1 billion). The program is called active layered theatre ballistic missile defense (ALTBMD), and the eight nations listed above are the key participants, plus the U.S. According to NATO, the ALTBMD system “will be the most sophisticated of its type in the world.” After five years of development by a transatlantic consortium led by ThalesRaytheonSystems, an “interim capability” was declared last January. Housed in transportable trailers, it is a communications, command and control battle management system that is capable of protecting a brigade-size deployment. Initially, the sensors and shooters of only five NATO members–France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the U.S.–are being linked­.

At Lisbon, NATO leaders resolved to expand the ALTBMD program to protect European populations and territory against the full range of ballistic missile attacks. This effectively requires the addition of an “upper” layer of defense so that incoming missiles are intercepted in mid-course–also known as exo-atmospheric interception. But the NATO council has not yet authorized the development of a specification for upper layer defense. However, further work to “industrialize” and fully integrate the lower layer networking capability of the ALTBMD system has been scheduled.

In the meantime, only the U.S. (and Russia) has developed a mid-course interception capability against ballistic missiles. Moreover, the U.S. has just begun to deploy such a defense in Europe. The capability resides in the U.S. Navy’s Aegis-equipped cruisers and destroyers, with their SPY-1B radars and their Standard SM-3 Block 1A missiles. The promise to deploy was made by President Barack Obama in September 2009, when he scrapped the Bush Administration’s previous plan for a ground-based BMD shield in Europe.

The Bush plan was to site 10 ground-based missiles capable of mid-course interception in Poland, plus a large guidance radar in the Czech Republic. The scheme would have been similar to the ground-based midcourse (GMD) defense system that the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has already deployed in Alaska and California as a defense against ICBMs fired from North Korea. GMD was America’s first BMD system and has been very expensive. Boeing is the prime contractor. It fires three-stage exoatmospheric kill vehicles (EKVs) after tracking of the threat by large land- and sea-based X-band radars. Two-stage EKVs would have been used for the European deployment.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the GMD system has cost $38 billion to date (in 2011 dollars). Development continues; Boeing made the first flight of a two-stage GMD booster last June, but an enhanced version of the EKV failed two intercept tests last year.

The new plan was termed the European phased adaptive approach (EPAA) and was partly driven by a reassessment of Iran’s ICBM program, which is less advanced than previously thought. However, it allows the U.S. to deploy a limited BMD shield in Europe much earlier than a GMD system, and with the added flexibility that a ship-based system brings. Moreover, the Aegis/SM-3 capability is proven after 10 years of development and eight successful intercept tests. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor and Raytheon builds the missiles, which each cost $15 million.

The MDA is planning upgrades to the SM-3 interceptor and has recently awarded contracts to define and plan a Block IIB version of the SM-3 that can defend against longer-range ballistic missiles. The EPAA will also be enhanced by adding ground-based versions of the Aegis system in Romania (2015) and Poland (2018). Development of this version has not yet begun, however. The terminal high-altitude air defense (THAAD) system (see below) may also be incorporated into the EPAA.

At the time of writing, however, many questions remain. The U.S. has not announced which southern European country will house a powerful but transportable X-band radar–the Raytheon AN/TPY-2. This radar is deemed essential to augment the SPY-1B radars aboard the Aegis ships. (In BMD, the more radars that can detect and track the approaching missiles, the better. They have a complicated task of distinguishing between the separating missile boosters and the continuing re-entry vehicles, and must also discriminate between actual warheads and decoys. That’s why the U.S. has also upgraded its ballistic missile early warning radars, including one in the UK, so they can contribute to the BMD network).

Although the U.S. Navy has begun deploying single Aegis ships to the Mediterranean, it’s not clear how many will deploy to Europe to provide a territorial missile shield. Three may be the minimum for proper coverage, but they are in demand elsewhere–in the Gulf and the northern Pacific. There are 21 Aegis ships in the fleet today, with another 17 due by 2015.

Also to be decided: whether they will be stationed in northern European waters as well as the Mediterranean; whether they will home-port in Europe and, indeed, whether they will maintain continuous coverage, or be deployed only on occasions of heightened tension. Nor is it clear when or to what extent the U.S. will allow command and control of the Aegis system to be incorporated into NATO’s ALTBMD system. NATO says the latter is already designed to communicate with AN/TPY-2 radars and Aegis ships, although “full interlinking” is not scheduled until 2017.

THAAD was the first intercept system designed specifically for BMD. Conceived in 1992, it has been under development by Lockheed Martin for the past decade, with at least $16 billion spent to date (in 2011 dollars). It is a deployable system that can defend against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles during their late midcourse and terminal phases.

According to Lockheed Martin, THAAD “fills the gap between low-exo and high-endo with a high, single-shot probability.” So, THAAD is a supplement to the Patriot PAC-3 and SM-3 Block 1A, and is interoperable with those systems.

The THAAD radar sensor is the same Raytheon AN/TPY-2 that supplements the Aegis shipboard coverage from land. There are eight THAAD interceptors per launcher, with rapid reload capability, and up to nine launchers per battery.

The hit-to-kill vehicle separates from the single-stage booster after launch. Terminal guidance is by infrared seeker. After a successful series of flight tests, some design and production issues have delayed acceptance of the first two THAAD batteries, but the MDA plans to buy another five to seven batteries for the U.S. Army. THAAD is available for export, with the UAE a likely first customer.

Since its creation in 2002, the MDA has spent $7 billion to $10 billion on BMD each year. In addition to Aegis, GMD and THAAD, the MDA is responsible for developing the airborne laser test bed (see box) and satellites with infrared sensors that can provide an early cue to the radars by detecting ballistic missile launches. MDA has also put BMD sensors on airships and aerostats. Europe cannot possibly compete with this level of activity.

However, two major air defense programs with BMD capability are being funded in Europe at the moment, although one of them–the NATO medium extended air defense system (MEADS)–is under threat. The MEADS is a tri-national development involving Germany (a 25-percent share; main contractor LFK), Italy (16.7 percent; MBDA Italia) and the U.S. (58.3 percent; Lockheed Martin).

MEADS was conceived in the mid-1990s and a development contract worth $3.4 billion was signed in 2005. The plan was to take the proven Patriot PAC-3 missile and add new surveillance and fire control radars, plus a new launcher and command-and-control system. Key selling points for MEADS included 360-degree coverage, air transportability by C-130J or A400M aircraft, a netted distributed architecture that uses open standards and capability against next-generation air and missile threats. Other types of intercept weapons, such as the surface-launched version of Germany’s IRIS-T air-to-air missile, can also be added.

Flight tests of MEADS are scheduled for next year. But the U.S. Army has now recommended against production, claiming that it is too expensive and does not meet U.S. requirements. The Pentagon has not yet endorsed the Army’s decision, which has surprised the European partners. MBDA chief executive officer Antoine Bouvier recently described MEADS as an “emblematic transatlantic cooperation. We have a contract, and the German and Italian governments strongly support us,” he continued. Lockheed Martin described MEADS as “the first all-new air and missile defense system of its kind in decades.”

Last October, the MBDA Aster 30 Block 1 missile became the first European weapon to successfully carry out a ballistic intercept. The target represented a medium-range ballistic missile and was intercepted at 300-km (186 miles) range by a missile launched from a French Army Mamba battery. Mamba was previously known as the SAMP/T (Sol-Air Moyen Portee Terrestre) system, which comprises a Thales Arabel radar, a command-and-control system and up to eight vertical launch units.

The Aster is a very agile hit-to-kill missile that employs an active radar seeker for terminal guidance. France and Italy combined to develop the SAMP/T and its ship-based counterpart, the SAAM (surface-to-air anti-missile), which also uses Aster 15 missiles. The UK subsequently adopted the Aster 30 as the Sea Viper for six new warships, with guidance from a BAE Systems radar called Sampson. Italy has also employed an indigenous radar–the Selex Empar.

In test-firings, Aster missiles have also successfully intercepted various other missile and air-breathing threats, but its potential for BMD is what most excited Bouvier. “This is Europe’s own missile defense program; it’s so important,” he said. MBDA is proposing a Block 2 development of the Aster with two missile stages that could intercept at much higher altitude using an infrared seeker. It could therefore defend larger areas, perhaps approaching the coverage offered by THAAD. It’s worth noting that six THAAD batteries can defend the same area as 100 batteries of a terminal intercept system, such as the PAC-3 or Aster Block 1.

Bouvier suggested that Europe should resolve to develop the Block 2 Aster, partly out of obligation to contribute more to its own defense after the Lisbon decision, but also as a hedge against the U.S. cooling on the whole EPAA plan. Given the current defense spending environment, though, he is also realistic. “We are proposing to work with a minimum budget until 2015, and then proceed,” he said.

One final piece of the puzzle is beyond the scope of this article: that is Russia’s anti-missile capability and whether it could be deployed to protect part of Europe. Talks about that possibility have been going on within the NATO-Russia Council, most recently in April.