Missile interceptors are today’s crucial weapon of war – UK of course is unprotected


The Russo-Ukraine war has been a wake up call for the west in general and NATO members in particular. The re-emergence of Russia as an aggressor nation in eastern Europe has sent many western nations scrambling to upgrade their military capabilities.

Many lessons have been learned and re-learned from this latest conflict; that numbers matter in both troops and materiel, especially artillery ammunition; that air superiority is crucial to enable ground manoeuvre; and that high attrition rates apply to combatants of both sides in a peer or near-peer confrontation.

A major lesson has been the utility and ubiquity of uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones, and land attack cruise and ballistic missiles. Although the perceived threat vacuum into which such systems evolved and had such early success is now filling up with counter-measures, swarm attacks of drones and missiles still ensure that some still get through.

All of this has focused minds across western Europe. The risk that similar aerial attacks on other European states could be made without adequate air defence systems to defend against them has led to some interesting initiatives.

Chief amongst these has been the German-led European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI) proposal. Announced by German Chancellor Olaf Schultz in August 2022, it was a direct response to increased concerns about the limited European capability to defend against such threats as the Russian 9K720 Iskander ballistic missile systems deployed in Kaliningrad and also cruise missiles.

So far 19 European states have now signed up to the project, which proposes joint procurement of air defence systems to provide a pan-European umbrella against the threat.

The system will be based, if put into effect, on a layered air defence missile matrix, utilising the German IRIS-T SLM for medium range, the American Patriot system for long range, and the US/Israeli Arrow-3 missile for very long range interceptions. It is hoped the system might be developed and implemented over the next five years, but I fear that is a tad optimistic.

France, typically, has not signed up to the ESSI, and neither have Poland, Italy, or Spain. The French have objected that it relies too much on German influence and may also by slightly miffed that the French/Italian SAMP-T missile system is not included. They have proposed an alternative and urged other countries to examine it before making up their minds.
Poland, on the other hand, benefits along with Romania in already having the US designed Aegis ballistic missile defence system (Aegis BMD or ABMD), to provide missile defence against short to intermediate-range ballistic missiles by intercepting them in post-boost phase and prior to re-entry.

Aegis has also demonstrated a limited capability as an anti-satellite weapon against satellites in the lower portion of low Earth orbit, which (literally) brings another dimension to the topic altogether. The previously mentioned US/Israeli Arrow missile apparently has the same capability.

So we have a potential for three different ballistic missile defence systems being deployed in Europe. All fine and dandy, you may say, but the proposals throw up more questions than answers.

The first and most important question is who would be in overall control? Who would decide in the unlikely event of a, say, Russian cruise missile attack on Belgium, for example, which nation would be tasked to intercept it? Would it be Belgium, the intended target, or one of the countries it would have to overfly to get there?

Then there’s the question of whether the three proposed systems are compatible and if they can be coordinated. How will they be de-conflicted and avoid shooting each other down? How will participating states “hand over” targets from one jurisdiction to another? Will NATO take overall command? None of this is clear.

Against this background I think it’s fair to say that whilst the Sky Shield initiative has been broadly welcomed commentators are sceptical about how it might function in reality. The designers and engineers can probably make it function, but it needs political will to make it happen.

In the meantime we should note that the UK is one of the countries which has signed up. Just as well, because although Britain has the early warning radars to warn of an incoming cruise or ballistic missile attack, it does not have the missile interceptors to do anything about it.

Which might be part of the reason that the Royal Navy’s T45 destroyers are in line for an upgrade to their weapons rig to give them an anti-ballistic missile capability. Although primarily for self-defence against anti-ship ballistic missiles, that is for point defence of themselves and the carriers they are designed to escort, it is thought they will have an area defence capability too.

Not before time you might think, but it won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, Britain’s skies are open.

Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk



Tank CommanderLt Col Stuart Crawford’s latest book Tank Commander (Hardback) is available now

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