Volatile conditions – tensions rise in Asia
As the Sep/Oct issue of Shephard’s Digital Battlespace went to press, it was reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was on the brink of firing missiles towards the US territory of Guam. That has not happened, yet, but it is another sign that the unhinged leader of North Korea continues to be a threat to the region and, as his missile and nuclear technologies advance, to countries outside the region.
This year has seen North Korea’s ballistic missile capability go from strength to strength and by July the country had carried out at least 14 firings of various domestic-built missiles. The 14th was possibly the most significant, with the firing of a intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could have hit the US west coast (which was instead was fired 2,300 miles into space).
Add to that already dangerous situation the development of a possible nuclear warhead for an ICBM and the situation becomes almost apocalyptic. If it’s any comfort, it is believed that North Korea still does not possess the capability to miniaturise a nuclear warhead or even the technology for the warhead to survive re-entry. Yet despite these limitations, and an international community grouping together to impose harsh sanctions, Pyongyang still manages to achieve successes.
Another volatile leader to add to this combustible mix is Donald Trump. In his short time as president, he has shown himself to be unstable and irrational – two character traits that do not bode well for international diplomacy and dealing with despotic regimes. His response to North Korean missile tests was to promise ‘fire and fury’ if the country made any more threats to the US.
Addressing missile threats
Ultimately, it will be patient diplomacy that brings the two countries back from the brink of all-out war. But what lessons can we learn from this? First and foremost, it should act as a wake-up call – if it hasn’t already – that governments have to invest in ballistic missile defence (BMD) technologies for the protection of not just soldiers in theatre, but also citizens going about their daily lives.
Admittedly, that is easier said than done.
BMD is a huge and costly endeavour that requires significant investment, often in the billions. It necessitates a host of early-warning sensors (on land and sea, and in air and space) and for those sensors to be networked so that data can be fed into complex C2 systems. Highly capable, highly manoeuvrable interceptors must be acquired to shoot down the missiles, a feat that has often been compared to shooting down a bullet with a bullet.
The US is the only country in the world that can field multiple BMD systems, including the homeland Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, which in May achieved its first-ever intercept – probably not by coincidence considering recent events – of an ICBM fired towards the US from deep in the Pacific.
However, the GMD programme has been notorious for its significant cost – its yearly budget is around $1.5 billion – and the fact that before May, it failed eight of 17 tests.
To reduce costs, NATO has pooled resources to offer a territorial BMD capability, which achieved initial operating capability last year. It includes ship-based radars as well as ground-based systems, such as Aegis Ashore, based in Romania and soon in Poland. The US also works closely with its Asian allies to provide BMD systems, including THAAD in South Korea and possibly Aegis Ashore in Japan in the future.
Another way BMD will become more cost-effective in the future will be the increasing effectiveness and reliability of sensors, particularly next-generation radars that can detect, track and provide fire control data for interceptors. Industry is particularly focused on how it can ensure lifecycle costs remain low, by increasing a sensor’s reliability and keeping repairs to a minimum, which is especially important at sea.
In this edition of DB, we look in more detail at naval radars, with several of the systems outlined now featuring some kind of BMD function or growth potential. With industry utilising the advances in commercial electronics, these systems are rapidly evolving in terms of capability – particularly with the onset of active electronically scanned array systems and Gallium Nitride technologies – allowing for longer detection ranges and greater kill rates for interceptors.
Of course, challenges remain, not least when it comes to funding, but the alternative of having no effective defence against ballistic missile threats does not bear thinking about.