UK and NATO navies take further small steps in developing ballistic missile defence
NATO warships will gather for Exercise Joint Warrior (JW15-2) in Scottish waters from 5th-16th October 2015. This large biannual event has been running for many years and covers the full spectrum naval operations. This month JW15-2 will introduce a unique component with an at sea demonstration (ASD15) of a ballistic missile interception. Networked sensors aboard several NATO warships will be used to track and destroy an Aegis Readiness Assessment Vehicle (ARAV) ballistic missile surrogate with a Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) fired from USS Ross. The exercise is the first of its kind in European waters and will help test and evaluate interoperability between participating warships and provide data for further development.
The Royal Navy is the only arm of the UK forces with any interest in anti-ballistic missile (ABM) capability although funding has limited development to small incremental steps. The Type 45 destroyer was designed primarily to defend ships at sea from air and conventional missile attack but its Sampson radar is highly sophisticated and has the potential to track ballistic missiles in the outer atmosphere. The UK established the Missile Defence Centre (MDC) as far back as 2003 (in collaboration with the US) to work on ABM projects, with a focus on software and radar enhancements for the Type 45. The fruits of this work were seen in September 2013 when HMS Daring successfully detected and tracked two medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) targets on a US-owned test range off the Marshall Islands in the Pacific.
Detecting and tracking missiles is just the first hurdle, destruction requires a powerful long-range missile and sophisticated software. The Aster-30 missiles carried by the T45 for air defence (pictured above) have the range but are not yet ABM-capable. A Franco-Italian project to develop an ABM-capable Aster-30 Block 2 is underway but the RN is looking more likely to go for the proven US missile – the Raytheon SM-3.
In October 2014 the RN started a project to asses the feasibility and cost of installing two x eight-cell MK-41 vertical launch systems (VLS) on the Type 45. Designed from the outset with upgrades in mind, a vacant space was deliberately left between the 4.5″ gun and the main missile silo (currently used as a gym by the ships’ companies). The 16 strike-length Mk 41 cells could accommodate a wide variety of useful weapons including the SM-3s, Tomahawk and possibly the Lockheed Long Range Anti Ship Missile (LRASM).
The Labour government decision to cut the Type 45 programme from the planned 12 ships down to 6 is an ever-increasing source of regret.
Restarting Type 45 construction would be ludicrously expensive and most improbable (as explained here). Apart from the wide range of general tasks they undertake, these highly capable vessels will be required to provide air defence for the RN aircraft carrier. The emergence of the Chinese DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) is a significant threat to carriers and has undoubtedly been a stimulus to ABM technology in the US and is also a consideration for the RN.
To maintain a standing ABM defence for the UK mainland with the 6 Type 45s might be possible but would leave dangerous gaps elsewhere. Nevertheless, there would be huge value to the UK and its allies in possessing ABM-equipped warships. The USN has already ‘forward-deployed’ 4 ABM-equipped destroyers to Europe. There are also French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Norwegian warships that have this potential and any moves that contribute to a European missile ‘umbrella’ are to be welcomed.
Although retaining our own ballistic missile system in the form of Trident is the primary means of deterrence for the UK, developing the capability to destroy enemy ballistic missiles would seem to be a very wise step. The UK is virtually defenceless against attack from cruise missiles and ballistic missiles in particular. Ship-based ABM systems are an attractive option due to their mobility with the command & control, sensors and missiles integrated into a single platform. Destroying ballistic missiles in flight is an extremely challenging proposition. Even with multiple alert and capable vessels, it would be a tall order to completely defeat the bombardment of ICBMs that could occur in a full-scale nuclear war. However, ABM systems offer protection against rogue states in possession of a few weapons, as well as defence for the carrier from ASBMs. Systems that could prevent the destruction of an entire city must be made a priority. The global proliferation of ballistic missiles underscores the need for UK ABM systems which should be given due consideration in the defence review currently underway.
Pictured: NATO warships participating in JW15-2 with Anti-Ballistic Missile capabilities involved in the At Sea Demonstration