Monday, September 20, 2010

Anti Ballistic Missile System for the UK

One area that has been neglected completely in British defence is Anti Ballistic Missile Defence's. With the rise of rouge states possessing ICBM's capable of carrying WMD warheads this policy seems increasingly naive and dangerous.

Going back to the 80's under Thatcher the British Government has used one of two arguments in justifying its case. Principally the British Government states that it believes in deterrents and the Mutually Assured Destruction they provide. The British Governments official position seems to be that any form of ABM system will undermine this.

The second view is that its better to rely on the US to provide this type of system. The British Government has been happy to allow US Radar installations to be based on British soil to feed into the US ABM system. The MOD seems to see ABM defences as too expensive and of too little ability to make any difference other than giving false assurance to the public. Given that the USA has spent $120 billion on ABM systems since the 1980's and achieved very little in terms of capability it is not hard to see why the MOD has this view.

However there have been major strides in the filed of ABM defences in the last few years. Also the Nuclear threat we face has shifted significantly. While a star wars style system designed to deal with hundreds or even thousands of Soviet war heads is likley beyond technology for 50 or 100 years the ability to intercept one or two very bulky ICBMs launched from Iran or North Korea is feasible.

Over the next decade this type of threat posed by the likes of Iran will likley become Europe's greatest security concern. Burning our head in the sand or relying purely on the USA to defend us is the wrong approach.

How to Defend Ourselves?

While the US has spent a massive amount of money on ABM it has really only built one system that is effective. The SM3 missile launched from AEGIS equipped destroyers and cruisers has generated a 90% success rate against ballistic missiles. The best and most cost effective way for the UK to achieve ABM capabilities would be to replicate this system.

The SAMSON radar of the type 45 destroyer can track a ballistic missile in space. The Aster 30 missile is theoretically capable of intercepting a ballistic missile however it is not specifically designed for this and the Aster 30 lacks the altitude and range to be truly effective as an ABM missile.

The US Navy's SM3 missile was derived from the SM2. Additional software a bigger engine and a terminal intercept vehicle were all added to turn a surface to air missile into an ABM system. Total cost of this program was just under $ 1 billion dollars. Each missile costs around $10 million.

To achieve a cost effective easy to deploy missile system we could either purchase SM3 to fire from our ships or develop an ASTER 45. Given the importance that ABM will have in the future I believe a Aster 45 would be the way to go. We could likley share costs amongst the French and Italians.

Shipped Based Solution?

The US has now begun deploying SM3 armed vessels around North Korea. The US intends to begin deploying these vessels in the Black Sea from 2011. However the US is having major problems maintaining enough of these vessels. A ship based solution offers a number of advantages over a land based system.

Firstly the Russians have expressed major concerns and even threatened to attack land based sights for ABM systems in Poland. However they seem to be accepting of sea based systems.

Secondly the great advantage of a ship is that it can be moved. Iran may not always be our principal threat. New missile threat could develop rapidly and being able to move a vessel into the region is much easier than trying to construct a base in someone else's country. Any host nation would likley be worried that it itself would become a target. Also the warhead has to fall some where and may fall on the hosts territory.

A vessel will likley be able to get in closer to a potential threat. This will allow boost phase interception which is much easier and will also result in the missile falling back on the enemies territory.

ABM as a Deterrent

The threat of massive retaliation is probably of little deterrent to the likes of Iran or North Korea. Caring little for their own people the rulers of these countries will not be preterbed by our traditional MAD style strategy. However if you can only build 5-10 missiles and you have to fire them through a shiled with a 90% intercept success rate you would be very put off. If you lost all of your missiles you would loose your ability to threaten the west.

Much better to never use them and keep them as bargaining chips.

Theatre Defence

With China building and marketing an Anti Ship Ballistic Missile the navy will need the ability to defend task forces from this type of threat. Also any forces deploying in land would also likley face ballistic missile threats. A destroyer could also provide this.

Cost of the System

This is very speculative. Using SM3 as an example we could fund Aster 45 for around £600 million. Assuming Italy and France pick up part of the tab we would likley have to expend £200 million. To deploy the system we would need atleast 3 additional Type 45's. Each additional ship in this class would cost £500-600 million. They would need to be upgraded with a Sylva A70 launcher. The other 6 ships of the class would need the same upgraded launcher. A total cost of £ 2 billion for missile and ship seems likley.

Alternatively we could install VLS 41 Strike Launchers and use SM3 missile. This would be a much cheaper system. However it would leave us lacking in technology that is likley to be crucial in 21st Century Conflicts.

Given that we are prepared to spend £20-25 billion renewing trident a cost of just 10% of that to neutralise ICBM threats seems only prudent.


The vessels would be stationed one at a time in the Black Sea. They would work via NATO patrols with US Ships to provide maximum chance of intercept of any missle.


  1. I'm usualy against any form of ABM system, but you do make an interesting case.

    Its my understanding that the ABM arguement was lost in the 80's on the grounds of cost.
    A single Trident missile carries 8 warheads that would have to be intercepted by 8 individual interceptors.
    8 Interceptors cost more than a single Trident, so in an arms race, Trident always costs less.
    Defending ourselves against the vast Soviet arsenals, or even the French one, would be impossibly expensive.

    The Soviets reached the same conclusion, they had, at least in theory, an ABM shield around Moscow, so we built Vanguard to breach it, had they expanded, it would be cheaper for us to deploy 2 CASD Vanguards to breach it again, and if they expanded further, it would be cheaper still for us to deploy a third CASD Vanguard.
    And by this point, we could happily ignore Moscow and 300+ other cities.

    However as you point out, there are other threats coming on line, and they cant afford the arms race (or cant engage in it, I cant imagine anyone would object to bombing Irans production lines if it announced it was building 3000 ICBMs).

  2. "And by this point, we could happily ignore Moscow and *hit* 300+ other cities."

  3. Hi Raging Tory, Interesting point about cold war tactics. I never thought about it like that. In the past I was always against ABM systems. MAD worked well and if it aint broke dont fix it but in the comming centuary with A Symetric threats the MAD concept seems insane.