Sunday, 1 September 2013

August 2013 Thoughts: Ballistic Missile Defence

Ballistic Missiles are not a new threat any more, they have been a part of warfare since the V-2 first roared into the sky on a pillar of fire, smoke and anger at a world which refused to fit a dictator’s vision for it. Ever since that event the evolving forms of ballistic missiles have maintained a sort of sinister hold on the world and the public’s interpretation of international relations & global strategy. Even today the debate about them and their role as the method of delivery for Britain’s strategic deterrent; the only thing that cannot be doubted is there effectiveness as a method of delivery – in fact though the arguments for it’s continuation and the construction of a new class of Ship, Submersible, Ballistic Missile, Nuclear Powered (SSBN) to succeed the Vanguard class. However, whilst this funding is rightly being spent on this strategic deterrent; the procurement of a defence against these weapons is stagnated. 

Which is a problem as Britain has a lot to defend, and a lot to defend it against: America is not in range of Iranian missiles but the UK is, furthermore more nations are procuring them and as that happens there becomes greater risk of them falling into the hands on non-state actors (e.g. terrorists) who may not be deterred by theory of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) which works so well against state actors. Whilst such a system might not be the most deadly weapons a terrorist could use, the very ability to get hold of one and fire it would inflict a tremendous level of terror. This is a risk magnified when states with such weapons have internal conflicts erupt as it’s difficult to predict not just the winner, but who will control the weapons and what will happen to them. This is why it’s necessary to do a two pronged approach to Ballistic Missile Defence, maintaining the deterrent but also developing an intercept capability – for which there are multiple options.

The proposed defences against ballistic missiles are varied, using a laser fired from a Boeing 747, land based missiles (of course) and sea based missiles – the difference between all of them being the point  at which the aim to intercept the missile. The Boeing 747 is orientated dealing with the missiles in, although it’s still under development; the ground based missiles are mostly focused on either terminal or mid phase interception, and the sea based missiles are theoretically boost phase and terminal phase – but they are mainly focused on the latter. The sea based systems are currently the most proven, in that one of the systems, Standard Missile 3 (SM-3)/AEGIS,  have been used to intercept satellites & practice targets successfully and are based on a legacy design which is as close to a proven program as can be found in modern defence systems[1]. So which system would best fit Britain; well conceivably any of them, but as there are now existing land based long range air defence batteries within the UK armed forces, and the costs are still mounting on the airborne laser…furthermore there already in service capabilities which could be built upon.

For the sea based system there are the Type 45 Daring class Area Air Defence (AAD) Destroyers, these have two radars, a long range search radar, the S1850M  L-Band system which provides it with excellent long range warning; but it’s the other radar which is something special. The Royal Navy (RN) has possibly what is the best radar in service in the field of sea based Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD), the Sampson radar, it is a two plane solid state phased array radar that rotates 30x a minute so that even without electronic steering of the beam (which it can do) no sector will escape scanning for more than a second. Therefore it builds a very accurate image of the world around it; well the over half a million kilometres squared. So with such a set of radars mounted on a vessel which also includes a very stable power supply and an extremely powerful set of computers; the RN would seem to have Britain in a position half way to the finish line.

There are problems though, the Type 45s are fitted for but not with 16 Strategic length Vertical Launch System (VLS) cells[2] – these are the length required to support a missile big enough to intercept Ballistic Missiles. There are two options for that VLS that would be compatible; the European Sylver A70 and the American Mk41/Mk57 VLS – however these systems themselves generate a further problem, as each system comes with it’s own range of other missiles that can be operated from it – not just BMD missiles, but also cruise missiles and more.

The Sylver A70 VLS would seem the obvious choice as it is the A50 which the Type 45s are already fitted with. However, it is only in service with one navy on one class of ship, the French FREMM Frigate, meaning that it isn’t widely tested nor widely resourced – making it more expensive long term as parts will be more specialist to procure. The biggest problem though is the fact that the BMD system that goes with it, doesn’t matter if it’s called Aster 45 or Aster 30 Block 2 BMD is still under development and everything is categorised as ‘potential contributor’ – it could be a really good system, but by the time it may enter service the Type 45s could have already served half their expected life… However, until then the RN could share a the 500km/270nautical mile range SCALP Naval (the surface launched version of the Storm Shadow which is expected in service with RAF Typhoons in 2014 – it’s already in service with RAF Tornadoes) to provide them with a tactical land attack capability. In summary, it’s a lot of promise, a lot of potential, a very big chance to spend money to not get much back…

In contrast the Mk41/Mk57 VLS (Mk57 is supposed to be its new & improved successor, it’s currently looking like a Fairey Albacore situation, better than its predecessor but not by enough to be really desired) is possibly the widest employed VLS in service today, serving 13 countries & 22 different classes of ship. Furthermore, it’s the system which has always been given as what the Type 45 had the space for – something which is not just due to its credentials for launching the SM-3 BMD system, which as has already been discussed is in service with two nations, has shot down satellites (a very useful secondary capability considering the reliance modern warfare has on them) and is in use by two navy’s with another looking into it, so the RN would not be left to carry the costs on its own…and there would be other nations with which to pool supplies in emergencies. The reason it was in the frame from the beginning was because the Mk41/Mk57 brings flexibility, it brings the RUM-139 Vertically Launched - Anti-Submarine Rocket (VL-ASROC) which can assist tremendously with Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) as when the helicopter runs out of torpedoes, instead of it having to fly back and loose the target in order to reload, the ship launches the torpedo using the data from the helicopter. Most importantly though the Mk41/Mk57 is the system that launches the 1,700 km/900nautical mile ranged Block IV Tomahawk cruise missile (that’s over 3x the range of Storm Shadow), a system which is already used by RN submarines. Simply put the MK41/57 would turn the Type 45 from an AAD into a General Purpose Missile Destroyer (GPMD).

Even if 16 cells are all that can be fitted the Mk41 VLS would be useful, as 16 cells could be translated into 6 SM-3’s, 2 ASROCs and 8 Tomahawk TLAMs which would be a very good addition to the Type 45’s already capable 48 SAMs; something which could also be changed should CAMM replace the Aster 15, after all four CAMM can fit in the same cell as one ASTER 15 meaning the missile load could become 37 Aster 30, 36 CAMM for the same 48 cells. However, this would not be it’s only form/load; if going to sea as UK Patrol ship (where the vessel would be unlikely to use TLAMs) the destroyer might be loaded as a BMD/ASW vessel with 10 SM-3s and 6 ASROCs alongside the 37 Aster 30s & 36 CAMMs; or alternatively she might be part of a task group being sent to launch a strike, in which case whilst one vessel might carry 12 SM-3s and 4 TLAMs, the others would carry 16 TLAMS[3]. Finally, there is the black scenario – a RN destroyer operating in the pacific far from resupply uses up all it’s missiles, with a MK41 VLS that’s already fitted for SM-3 missiles she could be reloaded (conceivably with minor modifications) with SM-6 missiles the new standard missile air defence system. It’s not a full proof solution, but it provides an option for worst case scenarios. This is why that while Sylver does offer some capability, the Mk41 beats it as a strategic VLS for procurement by the RN because of the diversity of weapons.  

The radars & design make them perfect vessels for BMD – which would give them another role they could excel at; the choice of VLS could make the Type 45s so much more. The Sylver locks it in, whereas the MK 41 allows it to evolve. Furthermore it would set a precedence and maybe that would help with future arguments over escort numbers, because with 6 ships for AAD/BMD/Strike it could well seem sensible to expand building plans and at least provide more extensive numbers for AAD & Strike; perhaps increasing the Type 26s, or building a lot more general purpose Type 45s. Britain is an island nation, so often that is left as some de-facto reason to invest in a navy; not in this case though, the sea is Britain’s strategic depth, we don’t have Marshal Winter we have Admirals Storm & Wave – BMD making use of that depth is the best way to provide Britain and our overseas territories which depend upon us (as we benefit from the resources within their domain) to provide security for Britain.

Further Reading:                             

[1] The system is already in service with the United States Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force, with Turkey considering it.
[2] This would be in addition to their 48 Air Defence length Sylver A50 Cells + some sources have said in the past it was up to 24 cells – whatever the truth, between the current VLS and the superstructure where currently the Harpoon SSMs would go, but conceivably they could be moved, and in fact two of the class already aren’t fitted with them.
[3] if just 3 Type 45s were present that would be 44 TLAMs or more than the collective TLAM load out of the RN submarines

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