Missile Defense Experiences in Gulf Help Spur Innovations

By Kevin Mooney | August 11, 2008 | 7:56am EDT
(CNSNews.com) – Anti-missile interceptors deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom have helped lead the way to modifications and improvements in existing defensive networks that can be applied against conventional and asymmetrical threats, military experts say.

The U.S. Army’s Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) is a surface-to-air guided missile defense system that was deployed in Kuwait to protect against Scud attacks directed against U.S. and allied forces at the outset of the war.

U.S. Defense Department officials say they were pleased with the system’s performance in the Gulf, particularly as it related to “hit to kill” technology.

The PAC-3 was nine for nine in terms of successfully intercepting and destroying Scud missiles launched at U.S. forces, according the U.S. Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The successful integration of the PAC system with sea-based Aegis technology was another point of encouragement.

The USS Higgins was one of 10 Aegis-equipped ships located in the Persian Gulf region during the war. It provided tracking data on Iraq’s ballistic missiles that was fed into the Patriot systems, Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, a former director of the Missile Defense Agency, explained in congressional testimony.

However, the Patriot’s performance did come under criticism for friendly fire incidents. On March 23, 2003, a British Tornado warplane was shot down near the Kuwait border, and the following April a Patriot battery shot down a U.S. F/A-18 Hornet. All told, three airmen died as a result of the friendly fire incidents, the DOD has reported.

The U.S. military’s experience with missile defense in the first Gulf War and again in Operation Iraqi Freedom must be put into proper perspective because most of the Patriot missiles were not initially designed as interceptors, Riki Ellison, president and founder of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance (MDAA), pointed out in an interview.

The PAC-2 missiles, for instance, use an explosive device that detonates when they get near the target, whereas the PAC-3 missiles collide directly with an incoming target making use of “kinetic energy,” he explained.

Only two of the successful intercepts during Operation Iraqi Freedom involved PAC-3s, while the other seven were PAC-2s. Looking ahead to the near future, the U.S. military plans to more emphasis on PAC-3s, especially for ground-based systems, Ellison noted.

“You have to remember that in the 1990s, missile defense was still a science project,” he observed. “We were still in the research and development stage. This changed after withdrawing from the ABM Treaty [Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972] and we had to a do a lot of adapting with what was currently in inventory.”

The ABM Treaty signed between the U.S. and former Soviet Union placed restrictions and limitations on the development and deployment of anti-missile systems. President Bush withdrew from the treaty in 2002, a decision that will be heralded in history, said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) who described Bush as an “audacious” and “prescient” leader in an interview. 

The potential marriage of radical Islam with missile weaponry makes it difficult to overstate the need for an effective multi-layered ballistic missile defense system that should ultimately include outer space assets, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) told CNSNews.com.

Franks is particularly keen on using laser technology to attack missiles while they are still in their boost phase. He cited the airborne laser as an example of what should be prioritized going forward. (See related story)

In the near term, Franks strongly supports efforts designed help existing ground- and sea-based systems evolve beyond what was used at the outset of the Iraq War in 2003.

Another problem connected with the use of explosively charged interceptors during the Iraq War involved the debris that fell onto populated areas, Ellison said. These experiences remain one of the main driving forces behind the evolution over to PAC-3’s, he added.

Out over the ocean debris is less of an issue for the U.S. Navy’s sea-based system since any fallout from a destroyed scud would simply plunge into the ocean, Ellison explained. For this reason, the conversion of explosive missiles into interceptors is less of an issue for the Aegis-equipped vessels, he said.

Successful tests

Another successful test of anti-missile technology took place this past June when the crew of the USS Lake Erie fired two Standard Missiles (SM-2 Blk IV) at an incoming Scud-type missile launched off the USS Tripoli 250 miles off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii.

The destruction of the target marked 10th successful missile intercept of the U.S. Aegis Sea based system and the 27th successful missile defense test since 2002, according to the MDA.

The SM-2 missiles were not initially designed for the purpose of missile defense but their utility has been validated in the recent testing, Ellison pointed out. There are roughly 100 SM-2 missiles in inventory now configured for surface-to-air capability, which the Navy now plans to convert into a short-range missile defense system.

“This development and testing success is a win-win for the United States and the international community because it means we have an additional layer that is mobile throughout the oceans of the world makes our armed forces, allies and populations around the globe safer,” Ellison said. “This near term naval system can also be used if necessary to defend the cities and areas near the coastlines of the United States from asymmetrical container or barge ship threats with short range ballistic missiles.”

The specter of an asymmetrical assault on the U.S. homeland should provide policymakers with a greater sense of urgency over the need for missile defense, Baker Spring, a national security expert with the Heritage Foundation said in an interview.

“We are worried here at Heritage about a Scud or cruise missile launched from a ship, say, 300 miles off the U.S. coast,” he observed. “The primary issue is the sensor question and having a mechanism in place that can detect such a launch very quickly and bring forces to bear that can knock it down.”

The Patriot Pac-3, which saw limited use in the Iraq War, and the Aegis fleet could play a role here in defending U.S. territory, Spring suggested.

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