U.S. Military Needs Improved Missile Defense Technology

By Walter L. Sharp and James D. Thurman
For the last decade, the U.S. military and most of the national security hierarchy justifiably have been focused on winning the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the world has not remained static during this period. Iran and North Korea have made significant improvements to their nuclear programs and various delivery capabilities. The United States and its allies now find themselves confronting threats such as cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles and ballistic missiles that can potentially overwhelm the Defense Department’s legacy air and missile defense systems.

It is imperative that the military move rapidly to improve its defensive capabilities against these emerging threats.

The Department of Defense 2010 ballistic missile defense review highlights this growing threat, both qualitatively and quantitatively. The ballistic missiles of potential U.S. enemies are becoming more mobile and accurate while increasing in range. This poses significant strategic and operational challenges to deployed forces and allies. 

Improved missile defense capabilities are needed to counter enemy capability to strike nearly simultaneously and from any direction with cruise missiles and unmanned aerial systems. The United States needs systems that include rapidly deployable, 360-degree sensors and shooters paired with advanced network architectures that provide integrated fire control and increased mass-raid defense capability.

The current U.S. integrated air and missile defense systems must be thoroughly assessed for operational sufficiency, sustainment cost and manpower requirements in order to understand what improvements should be pursued.

The Army recognized the obsolescence and capability gaps of the current sectored architecture in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom, when U.S. forces were shown to be vulnerable to ballistic and cruise missile threats approaching outside the field of view of the existing radar. The current generation analog sensors suffer significant non-operational periods because of antiquated electronics. They require significantly more manpower than a modern system to operate and maintain.

Legacy systems, additionally, lack strategic and tactical mobility, thus making them less expeditionary and responsive. These are two capabilities that will be absolutely essential for the Army of the future.

While today’s budget pressures may prevent complete replacement of the legacy system in the near term, it is possible to introduce modern air and missile defense capability in “expeditionary sets” for employment in the most dangerous threat areas.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has emphasized that the service must become lighter and more expeditionary. As force structure is reduced, units must become more responsive and capable.

To overcome the tyranny of distance in the Pacific theater and to respond rapidly, the Army requires lightweight, expeditionary air and missile defense systems that provide expanded 360-degree defense against a wide range of threats. These systems need to operate on a network, possess modern electronics with high reliability and short repair cycles.

Unfortunately, the latest Army 30-year modernization plan will not address these critical operational requirements for more than a decade and no independent cost assessment of the plan has been performed to determine if it is affordable. The plan fails to address the existing modern threat in a timely manner.

The Army has invested approximately $2 billion over the last 10 years to modernize obsolescent legacy air and missile defense capabilities but stopped short of integrating them into the force. The operations and sustainment costs of maintaining the legacy capabilities have exceeded $1 billion a year. These costs have been masked from normal budget scrutiny by using overseas contingency operations funding.

The Army eventually will discover through an independent cost analysis of alternatives that integrating already-developed modern air and missile defense components makes the force immediately more capable and affordable than sustaining an aging system of 1970s technology.

The threats from theater ballistic missiles and cruise missiles are here today and growing. The Defense Department must soon address this expanding threat by improving integrated air and missile defense systems if it hopes to successfully confront Iran or North Korea in the future.

Walter L. “Skip” Sharp and James D. Thurman are retired U.S. Army generals who served as commanders of U.S. forces in the Republic of Korea.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Policy, Missile Defense, Science and Engineering Technology

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