Tackling Tomorrow’s High Value Airborne Assets Anti-Access/Area-Denial Problem – Part Two

By: Eric J. Mehrtens
Approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes

In Part One of a two-part series, the author described the threat that Anti-Access/Area-Denial weapons pose to current Iron Triad operations. Part Two now discusses solutions that use current technology to overcome future capabilities.

Executive Summary
The United States Air Force (USAF) relies on its Command and Control and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C2ISR) fleet to stand off from enemy threats and “see and hear” the battlespace to direct friendly forces to attack at a time and place of its choosing. However, today’s adversaries have developed an Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) bubble which renders the USAF C2ISR fleet virtually unusable in a contested environment. The creation of a Surface-to-Air Missile Defense (SAMD) platform focused on the fleet’s active protection will ensure the USAF can effectively command and control future air and ground operations.

The Solution: Surface-to-Air Missile Defense
The joint force’s ballistic missile defense (BMD) mission can serve as a template for implementation of a SAMD mission focused on active protection of High Value Airborne Assets (HVAA). Joint Publication 3-01, Countering Air and Missile Threats, defines BMD as “defensive measures designed to destroy attacking enemy [ballistic missiles], or to nullify or reduce the effectiveness of such attack. Integration of BMD systems will allow for a defense in depth, with the potential for multiple engagements that increase the probability for success.” Similarly, SAMD could be defined as defensive measures designed to destroy incoming enemy surface-to-air missiles against HVAA. Integration of SAMD systems into counterair architectures will allow for a defense-in-depth, with the potential for multiple engagements that increase the probability for success, while strike packages neutralize adversary IADS.

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Figure 2: BrahMos cruise missile (www.businesstoday.in)

The SAMD mission would share similar characteristics with the US Navy’s (USN) ship self-defense system (SSDS) designed for use against anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles (ASCM and ASBM). Currently, the most lethal ASCM in the world is the Indo-Russian made BrahMos, with an unclassified range of 186 miles and speed of Mach 3. Comparatively, the unclassified SA-21 range is 250 miles with a speed of up to approximately Mach 6. A study conducted to determine the effectiveness of a single Burke-class destroyer against the BrahMos showed it has approximately 25-30 seconds to react after detection of the missile. This reaction time used only on-board sensors to detect the missile flying at just above sea level. With no outside ISR assistance, the destroyer was able to shoot down the missile. Thus, high value navy assets use a missile defense system for their protection in high threat situations.

However, a major difference would be that air assets would not be able to defend themselves but would be reliant on land or ship-based platforms for protection. This difference would require extended reaction times in order to intercept an incoming missile. It is important to note that current technology makes an airborne solution difficult. However, as the SAMD concept matures and technology evolves, it is feasible to conceive of an airborne or space-borne laser, which could protect high value assets from either air and/or space. For now, though, a more feasible near-term solution could mirror the ground-based PATRIOT platform.

Similar to the SSMD mission, the PATRIOT is a SAM with an anti-ballistic and anti-cruise missile capability. According to the US Army (USA), the mission of the PATRIOT is to “protect ground forces and critical assets at all echelons from advanced aircraft, cruise missiles, and tactical ballistic missiles.” It performs this mission by identifying all assets deemed most important to defend in a critical asset list (CAL). As the Iron Triad are HVAA, they would already be placed on the CAL, but only for protection against enemy aircraft. Thus, an evolution in force organization, employment, and platforms is required in order to protect the Iron Triad like the USN protects its ships and the USA protects ground assets from missile threats.

There has been only one case in history where a SAM shot down another SAM in flight. On 17 March 2017, an Israeli Arrow reportedly shot down a Syrian SA-5 missile after it engaged Israeli F-15s conducting a strike within Syria’s borders. However, when the SA-5 engaged the F-15s, they were likely out of range and the key reason the Arrow intercepted the SAM was that it was hurtling towards Israeli territory. The Israeli Air Defense Forces deployed the Arrow, designed to intercept ballistic missiles, because they originally mischaracterized the SA-5 as a ballistic missile due to its flight profile. Regardless of the scenario, this intercept gives credence to the feasibility of developing a new SAM designed to intercept other SAMs. This new platform would protect HVAA while conducting its mission inside the A2/AD bubble.

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Figure 3: PATRIOT missile system (Credit: U.S. Army/Eugen Warkentin)

The previously used Kaliningrad case study will help depict how this new platform would be beneficial. Ideally, the SAMD system would be deployed inside Poland, Lithuania, or on a ship operating in the Baltic Sea. It would operate inside of the threat radius of the SA-21 with its primary mission being the defense of the designated HVAA. If the new system had similar characteristics to the latest PATRIOT system, the PAC-3, it could deploy to Poland as a self-sustaining battalion that could integrate within the existing BMD network. A battalion would deploy with four batteries, each equipped with six launchers. Each launcher would be capable of firing sixteen missiles. Accordingly, a single battery could fire and control ninety-six missiles with all four batteries able to engage 384 targets. Comparatively, an SA-21 battalion consists of eight launchers that can fire thirty-two missiles. In addition, the annual operating budget for a single battalion is between $49 and $54 million, which is relatively inexpensive, compared to the purchase of one F-35, which costs $94.3 million.

Selecting the location for the deployment of the SAMD system would be a critical planning consideration. SAMD location would be based upon the Iron Triad’s orbit location, which would be dependent upon their collection areas. However, location must also consider the SA-21 threat. Though the SAMD system will be in place to shoot down inbound missiles, it must have enough time to detect the launch, react, and fire its own salvo. Rough calculations based on the SA-21’s unclassified maximum range of 250 miles and its maximum speed of Mach 6 puts the missile fly out time at approximately four minutes and ten seconds. However, the Iron Triad would need to operate at least 100 miles inside of the SA-21 threat ring to perform its mission based upon unclassified sensor ranges. In addition, it would be ideal for airspace de-confliction purposes for the SAMD system to intercept inbound missiles at least twenty miles before they reach the orbit locations. This means the intercept must occur no later than when the SA-21 missile reaches the 130-mile point of its flight. The missile would get to this point at approximately two minutes and five seconds, giving the SAMD system minimal but feasible time to react and counter the SA-21.

Though this seems like a relatively short amount of time, remember that the Burke-class destroyer was able to shoot down a BrahMos missile with less than 25-30 seconds of reaction time. While the destroyer does have the advantage, because its counter-missile is flying the most direct route to the inbound threat, risk mitigation is feasible. Knowing the routes of flight and orbit points of the Iron Triad and limiting the SAMD to solely protecting this fleet vastly reduces the amount of territory it is responsible for, allowing it to focus on defending a minimal amount of airspace. Consequently, in a Kaliningrad scenario with SAMD deployed, the Iron Triad would be able to operate inside of the threat ring to conduct its mission of air and ground surveillance and battle management (see Figure 2 for a graphical representation of the SAMD solution). Its highest priority tasking would be to direct strike packages to neutralize the SA-21 threat in order to reduce the chances for a missile to get through the SAMD system.

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Figure 4: Kaliningrad SAMD Solution

Implementing the SAMD system has the potential to reap enormous benefits for the USAF and the joint force. First, SAMD stymies the need for adversaries to develop extended range SAM systems. If the US can defeat a missile at 250 miles, any missile that flies further could still be defeated at the 250-mile point. SAMD facilitates an aerial version of eating through the enemy’s defense or creating a gap to be exploited by follow-on forces. It does this by protecting the Iron Triad, which then directs the strike force to neutralize the long-range SAM. Once the longest-range threat is defeated, SAMD can move forward to continue its defensive mission. In turn, this allows the Iron Triad to breakthrough and exploit the newly created gap to continue its mission and neutralize the next most dangerous threat until the attainment of aerial superiority. Therefore, if US assets can effectively operate inside the A2/AD bubble, the requirement to produce longer-range defense assets is eliminated.

Furthermore, SAMD allows the current Iron Triad and follow-on long-range, stand-off platforms to operate at their optimal range while providing redundancy to the US intelligence collection apparatus. While the combat cloud and the use of inter-connected sensors are optimal, this sole reliance on a communications-centric architecture for situational awareness is a major vulnerability. The Iron Triad is a proven capability that can provide critical intelligence in order for the US to achieve air and ground superiority. These systems can operate in contested environments while still maintaining persistent surveillance and directing strike packages within their line of sight. Exploitation of their sensors is accomplished by on-board crewmembers that are not reliant on secure data connectivity to conduct their mission.

In addition, once the SAMD has completed its primary mission of protecting designated HVAA, it could be used in a purely BMD capacity. BMD forces are continually hard-pressed to defend all assets from cruise or ballistic missile strikes, hence the need for a CAL. If designed properly, the SAMD could be a multi-role platform assigned to protect the CAL’s lower-priority targets as a secondary mission.

Finally, deployment of the SAMD is a deterrent. If a proven capability to shoot down long-range SAMs were in the US and/or allied inventory, it would further deter potential adversaries from acting aggressively. Additionally, it could dissuade those adversaries from spending any more time and money on pushing the threat envelope out even further than it is currently. However, while SAMD does have its advantages, there are drawbacks.

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Figure 5: SM-6 firing (US Navy Photo)

No missile defense system has a 100% effectiveness rating. Hence, there is inherent risk in placing HVAA inside of a very capable threat ring. However, the benefits likely outweigh the risk, with the mission of gaining air superiority being critical enough to justify this action. In addition, as discussed earlier, the fact that the SAMD would be required to defend a minimal amount of airspace would help reduce this possibility to the lowest percentage. Also, SAMD would require protection by other BMD assets while performing its primary mission. This would task an already scarce resource at the expense of protecting something else on the CAL. This could also be justified, as the SAMD would revert to assist with the BMD mission when not performing its primary role.

Ensuring that the SAMD can be deployed to the most advantageous country is also a potential disadvantage. However, in most situations, it is likely that the system would be deployed to a country that is threatened by a mutual adversary; thus, this risk should be minimal. In addition, having the ability to deploy this platform aboard naval vessels would provide additional employment options. Furthermore, the insertion and location of this capability would act as a big tipper to an adversary about potential approaches of attack. Consequently, its existence at a location would be a disadvantage in itself. In order to mitigate this potential, heavy camouflage, concealment, and deception in conjunction with operations security measures would need to be established. However, once the SAMD is an established and proven capability it could be sold to allies for permanent installation into existing BMD architecture.

Finally, the biggest disadvantage to the SAMD mission is time. If the enemy can reduce its indications to prevent warning of missile launch while degrading US collection and communication capabilities, the SAMD would likely not have enough reaction time to counter the threat. Hence, there exists a necessity to protect the sensors and communications networks that SAMD would be reliant upon to conduct its mission. Yet, this is already true of the existing BMD mission and of military and intelligence collection operations in general and, as a result, should not serve as a reason to avoid this capability.

The US has relied upon the situational awareness advantage through a myriad of ISR collection capabilities. However, extended range SAMs challenge the most flexible portion of the ISR community: the Iron Triad. These collection platforms have historically been able to stand-off from the threat in order to build situational awareness to direct air and ground forces to attack at times and places of their choosing. Yet potential adversaries have developed their defenses to take this advantage away. As such, the traditional active and passive defensive measures taken to protect the Iron Triad no longer suffice.

A new defensive measure, the SAMD, should be employed to neutralize the extended-range SAM advantage. This force should be designed to organizationally replicate the structure of a traditional PATRIOT Battalion. SAMD would be capable of integrating into the current BMD architecture. Employment would mimic how the BMD mission already works, as it would be an additional missile defense capability whose deployment would be based upon the location of the Iron Triad’s orbit points. This placement would minimize the amount of airspace required to protect while also minimizing the airspace deconfliction required to conduct its mission. Finally, upon completion of its primary mission SAMD could revert to a BMD mission in accordance with already existing organizational and employment procedures.

In conclusion, having the situational awareness advantage in a conflict is more important than having the superior force. As is the case on the ground and at sea, aircraft must be protected by a missile defense capability until the adversary threat can be neutralized. Today’s technology makes this possibility a reality because missile defense has “‘gotten beyond being able to hit a bullet with a bullet. We are now able to hit a spot on a bullet with a bullet.'” SAMD destroys inbound enemy SAMs in order to protect the Iron Triad and allow the US to maintain its situational awareness advantage.

Major Eric Mehrtens is a USAF Intelligence Officer with over 1,300 flying hours on the E-8C JSTARS as an Airborne Intelligence Officer along with a tour as the 48th Fighter Wing Chief of Intelligence. Maj Mehrtens has completed eight deployments to the Central Command theater of operations. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Louisiana State University, and Master’s Degrees from the University of Oklahoma, the Air Command and Staff College, and the School of Advanced Warfighting. The author can be contacted at lsuairforce@gmail.com.

The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of the individual author and do not necessarily represent the views of any governmental agency. References to this study should include this statement.

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