Center for Strategic Decision Research


The Importance of Ballistic Missile Defense

The Honorable Paul J. Hoeper
Assistant Secretary of the Army

The Gulf War was a watershed event for us. We learned valuable lessons about the way we fight and the weapons we use. We realized that airplane superiority is not the same as air superiority. In the Gulf War, for the first time, we achieved air dominance. We liked it and we want to maintain it. That is why our Theater Missile Defense (TMD) program is so important—the threat is here and now, and this program is designed to maintain air dominance.

Over the last decade, a new world has emerged. Countries with a missile capability are now seeking to improve and extend it. Countries without a missile capability are seeking to purchase or develop the relevant technology. There is now the potential for the kind of devastation that results from combining weapons of mass destruction—chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological weapons—with the missiles that can deliver them.


How do we counter these threats? The most obvious approach is to take out the launch sites; the best defense is a good offense. Still, ballistic missile launch sites and launchers have proven difficult, if not impossible, to find. During World War II, not a single V-2 launcher was found. Likewise, during Desert Storm, although we had air dominance and massive surveillance assets focused on the problem, we did not find a single SCUD TEL (Transporter Erector Launcher). In the future, cruise missile launchers will prove even more difficult to find than the ballistic missile TELs.

Given the difficulties in preventing missile launches, our defense must be based on intercepting missiles in flight. The Secretary of Defense is looking to the army to lead the development of ground-based interceptors. Our Patriot is well known as the world’s emergency system for TBMs. But even with the PATRIOT PAC-2 that we used during the Gulf War, an adversary can exploit the long ranges and flexible employment options of missiles to overmatch any single defensive system. The greatest challenge to providing a Theater Missile Defense is the development of affordable systems that can work together to counter missiles. We are meeting this challenge by focusing our efforts in three major areas: a “tiered” approach to missile defense, technology integration, and joint and multinational interoperability.


Although difficult to locate before an attack, once launched, a ballistic missile can be tracked and engaged. In order to maximize the number of engagement opportunities, we are designing our missile defenses to operate in a two-tiered defense. Upper-tier systems, such as the Theater High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD), engage at altitudes of 40 to 100 kilometers (the upper endo-atmospheric region) and higher (the exo-atmospheric region). Lower-tier systems, such as the PATRIOT PAC-3 and the future Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), engage below 25 kilometers. It is the interoperability between upper and lower-tier systems that is essential. PATRIOT defends the rear areas, MEADS will defend the maneuver forces, and THAAD will defend against missile attacks throughout a region. In theater missile defense, the systems work together and form a cooperative, layered defense.


No single technology or system can effectively counter the entire missile threat. The technologies that comprise our “family of systems” must be able to work in concert to provide engagement opportunities in all phases of a TBM flight profile. While THAAD will engage TBMs at an altitude of 100 kilometers, it is critical that our systems also support engagements lower in the atmosphere, because 75 percent of today’s threat inventory have low trajectories that inhibit exo-atmospheric engagements.

New technologies, such as “hit to kill,” must be integrated with sensors, missiles, and battle-management components to form an effective missile defense system; such technology integration across systems that are currently in development is very important. Packaging the wide variety of technologies from a diverse set of sources into a single missile defense system is a major challenge, as evidenced in our experience developing the PATRIOT PAC-3 and THAAD systems. We are making great progress, but it has come at great expense and is taking longer than we expected.

However, the ground components: radar; battle-management command, control, and communications (BMC3); and launcher have come along very well and are performing as we hoped. In its flight test in early June, THAAD had a successful “hit to kill” high-endo-atmospheric target engagement. Although this is a significant achievement on its own merit, when combined with the previous PAC-3 success the army can state with confidence that we can provide a highly effective “two-tier” Theater Missile Defense. Not only can the equipment perform, but the soldiers for both systems have been trained and are ready to meet our Theater Missile Defense challenges.

Now, I mentioned “hit to kill.” Let me take a moment to tell you why that technology is so important. We will be faced with weapons of mass destruction—chemical, biological, and even nuclear. These weapons will be delivered by missiles of enormous speed. The only way to effectively counter these threats is by actually hitting them with an interceptor. We must have sufficient energy at the point of impact to dismember sub-munitions and open canisters containing these deadly agents. And we must accomplish this at altitudes high enough so that these agents will dissipate before reaching the ground.

While our system integration challenges are tough, intercepting a missile with a missile—reliably—is achievable. We will succeed because we now have the technology to build very fast and very small processors and missiles that are extremely agile. The combination of fast signal processing and missile agility gives us the ability to achieve “hit to kill” accuracy.


Multinational interoperability is certainly of global importance, but it is also a global responsibility. Over the last four decades, the United States has invested tens of billions of dollars in the development and production of missile defense systems. We have another $26.2 billion programmed over the next six years, but we can’t do it by ourselves! The threat is too far ranging and the technical challenges too persistent. We need to work with all of our allies.

That is why I am such a strong advocate of MEADS. Germany, Italy, and the United States are solidly committed to developing and fielding this critical system, which is being developed to support coalition war fighting. MEADS is our premier multinational co-development program with Germany and Italy. It will give us the capability to get to a theater with far smaller airlift requirements and then enable us to keep up with and defend our maneuver forces from virtually everything that flies. It will be able to engage TBMs, larger-caliber rockets, cruise missiles, and rotary and fixed-wing aircraft. The lessons learned from the PATRIOT PAC-3 and THAAD programs will be applied to MEADS, the next generation in our effective missile defense programs.

MEADS will become a key component of the German and Italian air and missile defense capability. It will give both those nations the capability to defend their homelands and to defend NATO forces deployed anywhere in the region. I am committed to procuring and manning this system when it is developed.

I believe, though, that more nations must be actively involved in cooperative missile defense efforts such as MEADS. For example, we are working with the Israelis to develop the Arrow TMD system. This system will defend Israel. It is also allowing us to begin working on interoperability between the Arrow and U.S. TMD systems so that they can be interoperable in a single combined defense. Arrow has had several successful flight tests and will begin its deployment later in 1999.


Given all this developmental work, our PATRIOT is still the only fielded, combat-tested system capable of defending against these missile threats. THAAD is progressing rapidly, but we must all work together to provide our nations with an effective defense against the growing threat. As the ancient parable taught, “Individually we can be broken but bound together no one is strong enough to break us.” Cooperation is our key to success.

In order to continue our domination of airspace, and as the missile threat grows, we will need land-based systems, located with the assets, soldiers, and citizens they protect. These land-based systems—the final protective fires—are the army’s shield against air and missile threats. This shield, if effective, may deter the terrible weapons that are emerging around the world.


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