The United States has to confront the 360-degree drone, cruise, and ballistic missile threat Iran has recently demonstrated in the Middle East to provide the best defense of its forces stationed there and for the allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Iran demonstrated an effective use of a raid strategy with multiple, over 20, fixed wing Shahed series drones and Quds-1 cruise missiles flying as low as 100 feet above the ground to precisely pinpoint the same spot on multiple Saudi Arabian oil refineries in their destruction, overwhelming the defense designs and capabilities of the missile defense systems currently deployed in the Middle East. Also adding an exponential complexity to the Iran cruise missile and fixed wing drone overmatch challenge, is Iran’s new precise Qiam short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) it has launched from Iran into Syria, which adds to Iran’s complete layered capability threat to U.S. forces recently based in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the other GCC countries. Iran in its self-survival and exporting terror amongst its neighboring Arab states, as well into Israel, is leading the world in a complex and effective layering of missile and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for combat raids and from tremendously less resources while under Western economic sanctions. North Korea is competing with Iran on its ballistic missile development and monitoring, learning and in partnership with Iran. Iran’s missile threat is a perplexing problem that has to be defended against, deterred, and solved by a system that can be rapidly acquired, rapidly integrated, and rapidly deployed. If left unsolved, there is no doubt Iran and its proxies will continue to effectively use these systems and tactics, and the near peers and others will duplicate the strategies and proliferate the technology around the world.
The cruise missiles and fixed wing UAVs and their debris that struck Saudi Arabian oil and gas infrastructure at an Aramco facility on September 14 have been released to the press. The range of the Quds-1 cruise missiles launched against the Saudi Arabian facilities is too short to have been able to originate from Yemen to the south of KSA and instead attacked from the north, where launch points in Iran are within the Quds-1 range. None of the flight paths of the cruise missiles and UAVs were from the south and a number of the Quds-1 cruise missiles fell before arriving at their target.
In Iran’s ballistic missile development, on two separate occasions, Iran has used its new SRBM to strike targets in Syria in June 2017 and Iraq in September 2018. During these attacks, Iran used a UAV to do reconnaissance for the strikes and then launched one Qiam SRBM and six Zulfiqar / Fateh 110 ballistic missiles. The second strike in Iraq saw an increased accuracy of the strikes, but in both occasions, there was not severe damage to the targets, indicating there were small warheads on the missiles. Combining these Iranian SRBMs with cruise missiles and fixed wing drones presents a very complex integrated air and missile defense challenge, which increases exponentially as they are used in raids to overmatch the capacities of deployed defense systems.
Defenses Against the Threat
GCC allies and the U.S. currently field U.S. missile defense systems in the region that can easily defeat Iranian SRBMs and high-flying UAVs that Iran demonstrated during both Gulf Wars and relatively recently in Iraq and Syria. However, these missile defense systems were not intended to defend against targets over the horizon flying low to the earth in 360 degrees towards the defending area, as the curvature of the Earth’s surface limits a land-based radar’s coverage where the radars lose roughly 5% of coverage from the surface for every 10 miles out. Air and missile defense radars on land can also have even greater visibility gaps caused by nearby structures or hills and mountains.
Last month in response to the attacks on Saudi Arabia, the United States deployed additional missile defense systems, that included a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery, three Patriot batteries, and four Sentinel radars to defend 2,000 plus U.S. Service Members, two U.S. Fighter Squadrons, and a base in Saudi Arabia. The THAAD and Patriot systems were not developed or designed for 360 degree low to the ground cruise missile and fixed wing drone defense nor fusing nonorganic sensor firing solutions. The United States Army is developing the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS) that will solve this problem and has recently successfully tested a Patriot Radar with a Sentinel Radar. THAAD can only defend against ballistic missiles while Patriot is capable of defending against both ballistic and cruise missiles depending on the interceptor but are limited by their land-based AN/MPQ-53 and AN/MPQ-65 radars, which don’t have 360 degree coverage. A new Army radar, the Lower Tier Air and Missile Defense Sensor (LTAMDS), will be deployed in 2022. Sentinel Radars are separate 360 degree sensor that is commonly used with Avengers, Stingers that were developed to intercept helicopters and low and slow flying aircraft.
A major impediment to solving the challenge is the lack of a persistent overhead sensor for fixed sites that can provide both better and over the horizon detection and tracking to warn and target low flying, fixed wing drones and cruise missiles. Persistent overhead sensors would provide the necessary increased battle space and time to engage the low and slow or fast and small cross sections of these fixed wing drones and cruise missiles. The U.S. Air Force E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and U.S. Navy E-2 Hawkeyes have sensor capabilities to provide overhead sensor coverage for cruise missiles. But there is a limited number of these aircraft which are expensive to operate and man and have many other missions with extremely high demand, and therefore would be highly unlikely to be restricted to patrolling above land or an air base for the best use of their capabilities. The Army developed the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) overhead aerostat that had two blimps, one warned and the other provided targeting information. The JLENS has been disbanded and suspended due to an accidental release of one of the blimps during a weather situation during its testing for the Washington DC area.
The U.S. Army, which provides point defense for key ground-based logistical and air projection bases, has capabilities deployed; the 360 degree National Advanced Surface Air-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS), the Patriot’s Missile Segment Enhancement (MSE), and the Patriot’s Guidance Enhanced Missile-C (GEM-C) to defend against cruise missiles. The newly deployed MSE interceptor has 360 degree capability but needs a 360 degree launcher to enable against 360 threats. The United States Army is also vigorously pursuing an Indirect Fire Protection Capability (IFPC) cruise missile defense capability of a variety of interceptors that would be integrated with its new LTAMDS 360 degree radar, linking all of it together with its new IBCS. The LTAMDS is scheduled to be out in 2022 and IBCS to be out in 2024, while the IFPIC has not been exactly defined as of yet since the cancellation of the Multi-Mission Launcher (MML).
There are also plenty of U.S. developed, deployed, and in production shooters/effectors other than the Army’s inventory. The world’s best cruise missile defense system today is the Navy’s Aegis air defense system. Aegis ships are equipped with the Close-In Weapon System (CIWS), Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM), Standard Missile-2 (SM-2), and the SM-6 which are designed for and great at defending against cruise missiles and drones. The Air Force’s AIM-120C-7 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAMs) for cruise missile intercepts and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles can also be fired from an F-35 Lightning or other fighter aircraft to defend against these threats.
Solving the Gap
The United States Congress knows there is a problem – a gap – between now and when IFPC reaches Initial Operational Capability (IOC) and with its National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 mandated the Army to deploy cruise missile defenses. The Army chose two Israeli Iron Dome batteries by 2020 over the deployed NASAMS. Two weeks ago, Brigadier General Brian Gibson, the Air and Missile Defense Cross Functional Team Director –said Iron Dome was not the long-term answer, “As a long-term enduring solution, absolutely not.” It “would be fundamentally wrong” to keep buying Iron Dome and would go against “everything we’re trying to achieve.” Between now and the IOC as early as 2024 for IBCS, LTAMDS, and IFPC, the only developed, designed, and deployed 360 degree cruise missile defense system is the NASAMS, which all U.S. systems are commanded by the National Guard and defend the National Capital Region (NCR) along with Avengers.
Today, we have the services doing the same mission with different interceptors, different sensors, and different command and fire control systems. The Navy’s Hawkeye and the Air Force’s Sentry conduct airborne early warning and F-35s, F-22s, and F-16s armed with AMRAAMs have the weapons to do it if the fighters are in the correct position. The Army has Guidance Enhanced Missiles-Tactical (GEM-T) and Missile Segment Enhancement (MSE) missiles out there today for Patriot, that will be 360 degree when the IFPC, LTAMDS, and IBCS deploy.
Section 1686 of the NDAA for F.Y. 2017 stated “The Director of the Missile Defense Agency is the technical authority of the Department of Defense for integrated air and missile defense activities and programs, including joint engineering and integration efforts for such activities and programs.
The solution for the gap needs to go beyond the current integration of NASAMS, Patriot, Sentinel, and THAAD and waiting until IFPC is operational. To integrate these systems and sensors, and to find a solution to fill this gap, is the role of the executive agent for integrated air missile defense designated by Congress, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).