Near-term ballistic-missile defense

By Gordon Prather

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld – who has been keeping all his anti-ballistic missile options “open” – has now been contrarily advised by the Defense Science Board to settle on and deploy a system capable of meeting the near-term ballistic-missile threat to the U.S. and our allies.

What is the near-term threat? Basically, it is the Soviet Scud-B missile and its derivatives. The Scud-B is a mobile, liquid-fueled, single-stage missile with a maximum range of about 170 miles. It can carry a payload of about a ton.

The Soviet Union, Peoples Republic of China, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and North Korea have produced Scud derivatives for themselves and others.

At the time of the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranians and the Iraqis each had hundreds of Scuds. The Iranians could reach Baghdad from Iran with a Scud-B, but to reach Tehran from Iraq, the Iraqis had to almost double the Scud-B range by adding more fuel at the expense of payload.

During the seven-week climax of the war in 1988, both Iran and Iraq “went ballistic.” But even though both sides had already used chem-bio agents against each other, all of the Scuds launched by both sides carried conventional high-explosive warheads. Nevertheless, Iraqi Scuds – carrying half the payload of the Iranian Scuds – demoralized the Iranians, killing about 2,000, injuring another 6,000 and causing millions to flee Tehran.

Two years later, during the Gulf War, Iraq launched almost all its remaining extended-range Scuds at Israel and Saudi Arabia. Once again, even though the Iraqis had chem.-bio warheads prepared for the 50 Scuds that were launched at Israel, they didn’t use them.

So much for Iran and Iraq. How about North Korea?

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea has somehow managed to develop and produce improved versions of Scuds and has marketed them, internationally. In particular North Korea sold (a) the 170-mile range Scud-B to Iran, Egypt, Syria, (b) the 300-mile range Scud-C to Iran, Libya and Syria and (c) the 560-mile range Scud-D to both Iran and Pakistan.

So, in terms of the Scud ballistic-missile threat, Iran, Iraq and North Korea really do constitute an axis of evil.

Now, there’s bad news and good news. The bad news is that these mobile Scud derivatives are hard to find. During the Gulf War, even though it takes about 90 minutes to fuel the missile and erect it for launch – and we had fighter-bombers in the air overhead – we never found any of the Iraqi Scuds before launch. The good news is that once we do find a mobile launcher setting up to launch, we can preemptively take it out, because we know it’s up to no good.

Ballistic missiles are especially vulnerable before launch or shortly thereafter. They ascend rather slowly for several minutes, their intensely hot rocket exhaust making a big fat target for infrared homing missiles

Fortunately, for the past five or six years, we have been developing a boost-phase intercept capability using missile-carrying Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to find, track and destroy ballistic missiles before or shortly after launch.

The BPI capability utilizes stealthy UAVs much akin to those we have used to great effect in Afghanistan – the low-flying Predator and the high-flying Global Hawk.

The missile-carrying Predator-like UAV – cued by an overhead Hawk-like UAV – would locate and track the mobile launchers, using much the same all-weather sensor package and satellite command-and-control system used in Afghanistan, and the same Hellfire missile used to destroy Taliban tanks and other vehicles.

What happens if the rogue missile gets launched and the low-flying Predator isn’t close enough to destroy it with its anti-armor missile?

The Hawk-like UAVs – which can loiter for days at 65,000 feet, high above the weather and anti-aircraft defenses – will be carrying a hypervelocity missile with a much greater slant range. The Hawk-like UAV will be alerted by our space-based assets to any ballistic missiles launched below.

So, maybe the Defense Science Board is right. Maybe it’s time to put the Cold War intercontinental ballistic-missile defense systems on the back burner. The situation all along the “axis of evil” is tense. There are allegations that Iran, Iraq and North Korea will soon have nukes or chem-bio weapons atop their Scud derivatives and will attack our allies. Maybe it’s time to finish development and jointly deploy – with the Russians – a space-based asset-command-and-control, UAV interceptor-carrying, boost-phase intercept, ballistic-missile defense system.