The great ABM deception

ABM (Anti Ballistic Missile) technology was one of the R&D favorites in the 90's, triggered by the Scud experience in the 1991 Gulf War.

It seemed as if besides light infantry guerrilla tactics and terrorism only ballistic missiles enabled grossly inferior forces to hurt the west despite its superiority. That, of course, was something that our western military communities could not bear.

The tactical, operational and strategic value of ballistic missiles is very mixed. If we ignore those with nuclear warheads for a minute, it becomes visible that except non-physical effects only the really short-ranged models (MRL weapons up to ATACMS size) have enough effect to justify the effort as the cost/payload ratio worsens with greater ranges.

It may be that high-value targets like ships, bridges and airfields are vulnerable enough against BMs that ABM defense is almost necessary. But that does certainly only apply against those BMs that have precision guidance.
It's understandable that air defense assets need upgrades with new missiles to enable them to intercept short-ranged ballistic missiles such as Scud, Frog and converted long-range SAMs. It's relatively easy to adapt systems like Standard, Patriot and Aster like that.

The longer range ballistic missiles are something entirely different. Even with precision guidance they could not really do enough harm without a nuclear warhead to justify the expenses of an ABM coverage unless the ABM costs are much lower than we're used to. Even biological and chemical weapons (both ill-suited for BM delivery) haven't got much effect. An exception might be accurate hits on nuclear power plants and skyscrapers with special SAP warheads (semi armour piercing - warheads that detonate after penetration), but it's actually much simpler to strike such targets with other, covert means.

And that's the huge problem for strategic ABM justification in general.

Let's assume a nuclear-equipped ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) is in enemy hands. Let's further assume that we built an ABM system that would actually intercept that ICBM if it's fired.
What would our enemy do in that case?
He'd simply use a much cheaper, much simpler form of delivery. Ballistic missiles are after all a very complex, costly technology.

A nuclear warhead light and small enough to fit into an ICBM can easily be sent in a container by ship, in a private or airline aircraft, by truck, by submarine, by train hidden among iron ore and by thousands of other delivery methods. It takes just one person with less than 50,000 US-$ to arrange the delivery - no intelligence service or police/border patrol can protect against that with any reasonable chance.

Strategic ABMs are no defense. They're something that deceives us, wastes financial capital, wastes political capital and they are a proof of incompetence.


edit May 31st, 2008:
I have recently read (again) about the guidance of the Russian Iskander missile (50 to 400+ km), and it's impressive. A battery commander could select the most vulnerable spots of a bridge for the missile and destroy it if no ATBM system (or Murphy's law) intervenes (5-7 m CEP normal, 20 m CEP monkey model). The same guidance (comparison of area around ballistic impact point with target information) might also be used to guide on a ship, which justifies naval ATBM efforts. Ships are very high-value targets, which would even justify the more difficult ATBM capability against medium-range missiles (although NATO and Russia don't use this due to a 80's disarmament agreement).
Air forces and Navies should emphasize this and replace the public image of inaccurate Scuds as typical BMs with accurate HE-loaded BMs like Iskander.

I am still rock solid on the same position as in 2007 about strategic missile defence, though.

No comments:

Post a Comment