This week an article in the Hebrew language newspaper Ha’aretz reported that Israel had agreed to the use of the Iron Dome missile defense system at US bases in the Persian Gulf. Iron Dome is a joint Israel-US project, so both sides need to approve sales. However, it isn’t clear that this arrangement applies to the use of Iron Dome systems by the US military (it does not). Ha’aretz may have been trying to stir up controversy; there is no evidence the US intends to deploy the two Iron Dome systems it purchased, except for testing.
But the Ha’aretz article has ironic importance because it illustrates that the US has a very limited, almost non-existent capability to protect US bases in the Middle East or elsewhere.
It is remarkable and distressing that despite China’s competently executed anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) program, which could shut down US air, naval and Marine abilities to strike China or Chinese assets, the US has done almost nothing to build a layered air defense system to counter Chinese or Iranian missiles.
The US invests hundreds of billions of dollars in stealth fighters that may not be able to get off the ground in the event of a swarm missile strike, which would undoubtedly happen if China was behind the attack. For example, US bases in Japan and Okinawa could be decimated by missile attacks as a number of simulations and war games consistently point out.
The responsibility for this failure falls on the Pentagon and Congress. The only country with a layered defense system worthy of the name is Israel, which aims to protect its military bases and critical infrastructure as well as its civilian population from missile attacks.
By contrast, the US cannot protect its military bases, critical infrastructure or civilian population.
The US has long taken the view that the most likely kind of missile attacks would come about in a nuclear exchange. The US Cold War strategy was based on a doctrine called MAD – mutually assured destruction, which meant that if an enemy (then the USSR) attacked the US with nuclear missiles, the US would decimate the USSR with its nuclear missiles. The MAD doctrine did not take into account other threats, such as China or North Korea.
Beyond the MAD doctrine, which only applied to a nuclear exchange (the US needed to survive a first strike to allow the launch of its ballistic missiles hidden in deep underground silos, of course leaving tens of millions of Americans incinerated), the US developed only a limited air defense capability. The old Nike and Nike-Zeus systems were dismantled 50 years ago; the MIM-23 Hawk air defense system (there were only a few in the US, one in Florida) became obsolete, so the US went with the Patriot Air Defense system MIM-104).
The original Patriot was not designed to deal with missiles – like its immediate predecessor Hawk, it was an anti-aircraft system. But the second broad iteration (known as PAC-2) had some ability to deal with missiles, and its successor PAC-3 was supposed to be better. The first time they were used was in the first Iraq war (aka the Gulf War) where the Patriot system was supposed to defend Saudi Arabia and Israel. The main missile threat was Scud missiles, fired by Iraq at US and Israeli targets.
Here are the results from 1991: “After a 10-month investigation in 1992 by the House Government Operations Subcommittee on Legislation and National Security, the subcommittee concluded there was little evidence to prove the Patriot hit more than a few Scud missiles launched by Iraq.”
Another 1992 investigation done by the General Accounting Office found that only 9% of the Patriot-Scud engagements “are supported by the strongest evidence that an engagement resulted in a warhead kill.” Except in 9% of the cases, the GAO report said the Army could prove only that “the Patriots came close to the Scuds, not that they destroyed them.”
That was 30 years ago. While the Patriot has steadily been modernized, with better radars and improved interceptor missiles, one would have thought that the US would have built up a tactical air defense system and positioned them at every vulnerable overseas base at minimum.
But no such thing happened.
Outside of the Patriot, the only US system positioned at a few US bases is called C-RAM, which has the impressive name of Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar System. It is an Army-adapted version of the CIWS last resort gun system used on US Navy (and some foreign navy) ships. The idea for ships is that if its air defenses don’t work, CIWS can try and kill incoming threats at the last minute.
There are three problems with C-RAM (and with CIWS). Firstly, it has to hit the incoming threat. Anyone who has ever watched World War II film of the US Navy trying to shoot down Japanese Kamikaze pilots can plainly see that despite thousands of rounds fired, many of the Kamikaze planes hit their targets. C-RAM is really no better and may be worse because it uses smaller rounds. In World War II the US had rapid firing 37mm and 40mm guns. By contrast, CIWS and C-RAM use only 20mm guns, suggesting that a single hit may not destroy an incoming missile. Secondly, a single hit on a high-speed missile may not stop it – the projectile has sufficient kinetic energy to continue on unless a precise hit manages to explode it. (A number of Patriot missiles with a much larger 90 kg warhead failed to destroy Scud, Houthi and other missiles). Thirdly, the effective range is only 1,486 meters.
Other than the Patriot (the few that are available) and the C-RAM (even fewer available, roughly 12 units), the US ability to protect its overseas bases, not to mention the US homeland, is unsatisfactory.
The US Army is working on an Interim Maneuver-Short-Range Air Defense system (SHORAD) system that will be mounted on the Stryker combat vehicle. The system will use Raytheon’s Stinger missile launcher. This is a vehicle-mounted version of the Stinger MANPADS, the missile the US once supplied to Afghan rebels who used it against Soviet fighter jets and helicopter gunships. It has no counter-missile capability.
The Army is also working on an Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD) Battle Command System (IBCS), which will connect all of the service’s sensor and weapons systems into a single network. But the problem is that so far the Army will only be integrating what it has.
A dispute has arisen between the US Department of Defense and Israel over the Iron Dome system which should be part of an integrated US system. The dispute has two components – the issue of source codes, which Israel has been reluctant to provide, and the ability to integrate Iron Dome into IAMD. The Army has been under pressure from Congress which has given bipartisan support to Iron Dome (and other Israeli missile defense systems such as Arrow).
Another way for the US to enhance its air defense capability is for the US Army to acquire MEADS – the Medium Extended Air Defense System – jointly developed by the US, Germany and Italy. The US originally planned to obtain 48 MEADS launchers with 1,528 missiles. However, in 2011, the Pentagon decided to cancel the procurement. The reason was political: MEADS is a Lockheed project in the United States; Patriot is built by Raytheon. The US Army has been joined at the hip to Raytheon and, after extensive in-fighting, Raytheon and the Army were able to block US procurement of MEADS, but not US participation in the program itself. Meanwhile, MEADS has been successfully integrated into NATO’s missile defense system.
Unfortunately, US prejudice against Patriot (with its spotty record) and failure to develop alternative and supplementary systems is not helping the US to fulfill its responsibilities in NATO, in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, and in countering China’s A2/AD significant missile forces. As a result, the lack of US layered air defenses invites adversaries to attack US bases and cripple the US ability to strike back.