Obama changing tack on missile defence

In a surprising announcement, it seems that the United States may give up plans to put RADAR sites and/or interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic. These sites would have been ideally suited to track and intercept ballistic missiles launched towards the United States from Iran. This is a reversal of the position President Obama adopted in April, when he gave a speech in Prague. The most plausible reason for the shift is an accommodation with Russia, which has always staunchly opposed US ballistic missile defence (BMD) plans, and which holds key levers when it comes to Iran and nuclear technologies. Notably, the sites in Poland and the Czech Republic would not be especially well placed to aid in the interception of Russian missiles, which would anyhow be too numerous and sophisticated to be plausibly neutralized through a BMD system.

The shift probably signals both the resurgence of Russia as a regional power and the decline of American flexibility that has accompanied ongoing involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US may also be reckoning that it is a better strategic move to try to block Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, with Russian help, than to try to field a system to destroy deployable versions of these weapons if and when they exist. Iran’s successful satellite launch in February suggests that they could develop nuclear-capable missiles with a long-range capacity, provided they are able to sufficiently miniaturize their nuclear weapons: an undertaking that proved very challenging even for the United States.

While Poland and the Czech Republic are usefully positioned between Iran and the east coast of North America, Japan is best positioned between North Korea and the west coast. Given the strength of the US-Japanese alliance, and the domestic concern about North Korea and China in Japan itself, it seems likely that the Pacific version of the BMD system will continue to develop. When I visited USNORTHCOM, the US Strategic Space Command, and NORAD, all of their missile defence examples concerned North Korean launches.

[Update: 4:24pm] To clarify the above, it seems the American plan was to put X-band RADAR facilities in the Czech Republic and ten SM-3 interceptor missiles in Poland.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

26 thoughts on “Obama changing tack on missile defence”

  1. Missile defence in Europe
    Pie in the sky

    Sep 17th 2009
    From Economist.com
    America calls off plans for missile defence in Europe, pleasing peaceniks but worrying hawks

    MAYBE some jam tomorrow, but none today. That is the American message to its most stalwart allies in the ex-communist world as Barack Obama’s administration shelves plans to deploy ten interceptor rockets in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic.

    The timing of the announcement is poor, coming on September 17th, the anniversary of the Soviet attack on Poland in 1939. In a country highly tuned to symbolic snubs, it matters that nobody in Washington seemed to know or care about that.

    The news was broken clumsily too: the Czech prime minister was woken by a brief phone call from Mr Obama the night before the decision was made public. Poland is at least gaining some promise of a beefed up American contribution to its security. The Czech Republic receives nothing, for now, in exchange for its loyalty to a controversial scheme that was supposedly a symbol of America’s commitment to the region. Atlanticist politicians in Prague feel humiliated by that.

    From a practical point of view, the American change of plan is understandable. The technology of the planned scheme was unproven, and the Iranian threat it was supposed to counter only nascent. “A scheme that doesn’t work, against a threat that doesn’t exist, in countries that don’t want it” was how Zbigniew Brzezinski, the hawkish former national security adviser to the Carter administration, has described it. As with the decision to deploy cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe in the 1980s, something that was meant to strengthen the Atlantic alliance ended up putting it under strain. Czech and Polish public opinion was increasingly sceptical, or outright hostile to the bases. Other countries worried that pro-American hawks in ex-communist countries were risking an unnecessary confrontation with Russia.

  2. Geopolitical Diary: Truth and Lies About Russia and Iran

    August 11, 2009

    One Iranian source with ties to the regime says there is growing suspicion that Russia’s intelligence network provided information to Iran’s security apparatus on moles within their ranks and that a major purge is under way. Our sources in Azerbaijan say Russia recently clamped down on Azerbaijani opposition parties that were allegedly supporting Iranian protesters and facilitating a so-called “green revolution.” We also have heard from several independent sources that a Russian intelligence tip-off to Iranian intelligence on Israel’s spy network in Lebanon led to a spate of arrests targeting Lebanese agents working for Israel over the past several months. A nearly identical story on Russian-Iranian intelligence cooperation on Lebanon emerged in the media in recent days…

    U.S., Russia: The Wider Ramifications of Pulling BMD Plans

    September 17, 2009

    Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer confirmed Sept. 17 that the United States no longer plans to install ballistic missile defense (BMD) sites in Poland. BMD in Central Europe has been a sticky issue between the United States and Russia. But an even trade — U.S. BMD plans for Russian support on Iran — is not so clear.

    U.S.: Transcript of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ Statements

    September 17, 200

    We have made great strides with missile defense, particularly in our ability to counter short- and medium-range missiles. We now have proven capabilities to intercept these ballistic missiles with land- and sea-based interceptors, supported by much-improved sensors.These capabilities offer a variety of options to detect, track and shoot down enemy missiles. This allows us to deploy a distributed sensor network rather than a single fixed site like the kind slated for the Czech Republic, enabling greater survivability and adaptability.

    We have also improved the Standard Missile 3, the SM-3 which has had eight successful flight tests since 2007. These tests have amply demonstrated the SM-3’s capability and given us greater confidence in the system and its future. Based on these two factors, we have now the opportunity to deploy new sensors and interceptors in northern and southern Europe that near term can provide missile defense coverage against more immediate threats from Iran or others. In the initial stage we will deploy Aegis ships equipped with SM-3 interceptors which provide the flexibility to move interceptors from one region to another if needed. The second phase, about 2015, will involve fielding upgraded land-based SM-15s.

    Consultations have begun with allies, starting with Poland and the Czech Republic, about hosting a land-based version of SM-3 and other components of the system. Basing some interceptors on land will provide additional coverage and save costs compared to a purely sea-based approach. Over time this architecture is designed to continually incorporate new and more effective technologies as well as more interceptors, expanding the range of covering, improving our ability to shoot down multiple targets and increasing the survivability of the overall system. This approach also provides with greater flexibility to adapt to developing threats and evolving technologies. For example, although the Iranian long-range missile threat is not as immediate as we previously thought, this system will allow us to incorporate future defensive capabilities against such threats as they develop. Perhaps most important about this system, we can now field the initial elements of this system to protect our forces in Europe and our allies roughly six to seven years earlier than previously planned, a fact made more relevant by continued delays in Polish and Czech ratification processes that have caused repeated slips in the timeline.

    Intelligence Guidance (Special Edition): Sept. 17, 2009 – U.S. Withdrawal on BMD

    September 17, 2009

    Ballistic missile defense (BMD) as a military system had no significance for either Poland or the Czech Republic. It was not designed to defend them. Rather, its presence was a symbol to both countries that the United States was prepared to defend them, because it has a vital strategic asset in their countries. The shock in Poland and Czech Republic is about a symbolic shift from their point of view.

    What we need to analyze is whether this has any substantial meaning. The question at hand is the state of U.S.-Polish/Czech military cooperation in other areas. Beneath this is the commitment of the United States — outside the context of NATO — for a bilateral relationship, particularly with Poland. Will the United States substitute increased military cooperation for the loss of BMD?

    As the news spins that the United States has decided to shelve its plans for a BMD system in Poland and the Czech Republic, it seems as if the Americans have given a major concession to the Russians, who have been staunchly opposed to the system.

  3. ANALYSIS-US firms, others may gain from shield pullback

    Thu Sep 17, 2009 12:36pm EDT

    By Peter Apps, Political Risk Correspondent

    LONDON, Sept 17 (Reuters) – Investors could see some long-term trade and other benefits if a U.S. move to back away from a missile shield in Eastern Europe yields improvements in relations with Russia.

    But it could raise other risks.

    U.S. President Barack Obama has told eastern European states he is abandoning plans to place interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar complex in the Czech Republic aimed at defending against missile launches from “rogue” states.

    While Washington might hope to gain Russian co-operation on everything from nuclear weapons cuts to efforts to curb Iranian and North Korean weapons programmes, the risk remains that the move could also embolden Kremlin hardliners.

    A more assertive Russia would unnerve investors taken aback by war in Georgia last year, but if relations do genuinely improve potential benefits could include easier trade between Russia and the eastern EU as well as a softer ride for U.S. firms in Russia.

  4. Russia hails US missile overhaul

    Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has welcomed as “positive” the US decision to shelve controversial missile defence bases in Poland and the Czech Republic.

    Mr Medvedev said there were now “good conditions” for US-Russia talks on tackling missile proliferation.

    US President Barack Obama had earlier announced there would be a shift in US missile defence strategy, following a review of the threat posed by Iran.

    However, US Republicans have called the move “short-sighted” and “harmful”.

    Some said it was a concession to Moscow with nothing in return.

    Russia had long objected to plans pursued by the administration of former-President George W Bush to base a missile interceptor system close to its borders, calling it a threat to its security.

  5. The potential value of missile defense can be seen more clearly by recognizing that a Russian-American crisis is like a play with two actors, each supremely vulnerable and using every prop at its disposal to mask its nakedness. Neither our Turkish missiles nor the Soviets’ Cuban missiles made a difference to 1962’s balance of power, but they were useful props, giving an ability to project a perception of additional power.

    The Russian thus have reason to fear that even a rudimentary, untested American missile defense will allow us to increase the intensity of our bluffs during a crisis. To be afraid of our missile defense, the Russians don’t have to fear that it will give us a military advantage. They don’t even have to fear that our leaders will mistakenly believe that it will. All they have to fear is that our leaders will act as if they believe that it does. In nuclear chicken, the first party to behave rationally loses, so having one more prop to use in our act is dangerous to Russia’s interests.

    At first, that might seem to favor the Eastern European missile defense – at least from our vantage point. But appearing more irrational than the Russians is a highly questionable advantage since it increases the risk of a catastrophic outcome. Failure to weigh the chance of a small gain (coming out ahead in a crisis) against the risk of an infinite loss (destruction of our homeland) clearly can have disastrous consequences.

    The need for our decision-making process to better balance potential gains and losses extends far beyond missile defense and national security. Lack of such a framework led financial institutions to take excessive risks, an error that is now costing us trillions of dollars. As expensive as that mistake was, it pales in comparison to what we will suffer if our nuclear weapons strategy proves as faulty. Before it is too late, let us learn from our now obvious economic mistakes and objectively balance the risks associated with changes in our nuclear weapons posture against the risk associated with threatening to destroy civilization.

  6. Shielded
    Obama’s smart decision to scuttle Bush’s European missile-defense plan.
    By Fred Kaplan
    Posted Thursday, Sept. 17, 2009, at 5:27 PM ET

    President Barack Obama’s scuttling of George W. Bush’s plan to deploy a missile-defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland—or, more particularly, the way he scuttled it—amounts to a remarkably shrewd bit of politics and statesmanship.

    The decision, which he announced this morning after completing a six-month review of the program, removes the biggest obstacle in U.S.-Russian relations—a step that could clear the way for cooperative measures on a wide range of international issues—without scrapping the general idea of some sort of “missile shield” for Europe.

    Bush came up with the plan to put 10 anti-missile interceptors and radars on Czech and Polish soil in 2007, and the Russians have been clamoring about it ever since. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused Bush of trying to upset the balance of power.

    Bush’s top officials, including his (and now Obama’s) defense secretary, Robert Gates, tried to persuade Putin that such fears had no basis. The interceptors would be configured to shoot down missiles launched by Iran, not by Russia. And in any case, a mere 10 interceptors were hardly a counterweight to the thousands of offensive missiles in Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

    The argument was correct but also beside the point. The Russians were worried not so much about what 10 interceptors could do but rather about what they represented—a U.S. military foothold in the heart of Eastern Europe.

    The anti-missile weapons that Bush wanted to put in the Czech Republic and Poland were the same weapons that he was installing, as part of the larger missile-defense program, in Fort Greely, Alaska. These weapons, known as GBI (for Ground-Based Interceptors), are huge multi-staged rockets, about the size of Minuteman ICBMs, and, like them, are deployed in blast-resistant, underground silos—literally dug and hardened into the soil. The GBI complex in Alaska is spread out across 600 acres and includes a large X-Band radar system and 200 military personnel, as well as a security presence along the surrounding roads.

  7. Nato chief reaches out to Russia

    Nato’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has called for a new strategic partnership with Russia.

    In his first major foreign policy address as Nato chief, Mr Rasmussen called for a “joint review” with Moscow of global security challenges.

    Mr Rasmussen was speaking in Brussels after the US announced it was shelving plans for controversial missile defence bases in Poland and the Czech Republic.

    He urged the US, Nato and Russia to study a joint missile defence system.

    “We should explore the potential for linking the US, Nato and Russia missile defence systems at an appropriate time,” he said.

    “I would like Russia and Nato to agree to carry out a joint review of the new 21st Century security challenges, to serve as a firm basis for our future co-operation.”

  8. It is notable that the US isn’t scrapping plans for missile defence in Europe. They are planning to deploy SM-3 missiles on ships.

    What they are backing away from is large and permanent bases in Russia’s neighbourhood. These bases were designed to protect the US from long-range missiles launched in Iran. The ships will be better suited to dealing with regional threats from medium- and short-range missiles.

    What is really significant for Poland and the Czech Republic is the loss of bases that would have demonstrated an enduring commitment of the US to defend them from Russia. Of course, that is just what Russia wanted.

  9. In some sense, the bases would have been like the US forces in South Korea – a trigger that would ensure American involvement in a war, in the event of an invasion.

  10. Isn’t capitalizing radar more archaic than capitalizing laser? Radar has been in the English lexicon as a lower case word for a long time. Methinks your usage may not be best suited to the conventions of to-day.

  11. To me, it’s a matter of pronunciation. Intuitively, ‘radar’ looks like rah-dar.

    ‘RADAR,’ by contrast, looks like it should be pronounced ray-dar.

    I admit that this is subjective.

  12. Neal, is using “methinks” and hyphenating “to-day” purposeful irony? (I assume it is, but things like that are hard to pickup on the internets).

    intr.v. Past tense me·thought (-thôt’) Archaic
    It seems to me.

    O.E. todæge, to dæge “on (the) day,” from to “at, on” (see to) + dæge, dative of dæg “day.” Generally written as two words until 16c., after which it usually was written to-day until early 20c.

  13. Russia: BMD and the Kaliningrad Withdrawal
    September 18, 2009

    The Russian envoy to NATO has announced that Russia will not deploy new missiles in Kaliningrad in response to the U.S. announcement that it will not pursue parts of a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The announcement shows that Moscow does not consider the U.S. concession on BMD sufficient to win Russian support on isolating Iran.

    Russia will not deploy any new missiles in its Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad, Russian envoy to NATO Dmitri Rogozin said Sept. 18. The reason for the change in plans is the U.S. decision not to station parts of the Ballistic Missile Defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Rogozin explained the logic following his meeting with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, saying “…if we have no radars or no missiles in the Czech Republic and Poland, we don’t need to find some response.”

    Rogozin’s announcement shows that Moscow considers Washington’s conciliatory move as only a first step, and that real U.S.-Russian negotiations that might lead to Russian assistance on isolating Iran are only at the beginning.

    To counter Washington’s now-scrapped BMD plans, Moscow had threatened to place Iskander short-range ballistic missiles, known to NATO as the SS-26 “Stone,” to Kaliningrad. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev officially announced the plan on Nov. 5, 2008, during his annual State of the State address (equivalent to the U.S. president’s State of the Union address). Medvedev’s speech coincided with U.S. President Barack Obama Nov. 7 electoral victory, challenging the incoming U.S. administration and putting it on notice that the Kremlin would go on the diplomatic offensive to respond to the Bush plans for a BMD deployment in Central Europe. Since then, the Kremlin has come to see the new U.S. administration as inexperienced in foreign affairs.

    Though Moscow frequently repeated the Iskander threat, the radar sites in the Czech Republic would have fallen outside the Iskander’s limited range of between 175 to 250 miles — but would have made Warsaw extremely nervous. Despite their limited range, Iskanders are thought to be highly accurate, and their high maneuverability in the terminal stage of flight would have made them a difficult target to eliminate. But given that Iskander missiles never have been deployed successfully with any operational unit of the Russian military, the gravity of the threat remained difficult to assess.

  14. Missile shift ‘defends Iran’s neighbours’

    By Michael Elleman
    International Institute of Strategic Studies

    The Obama administration’s decision to postpone deployment of a missile shield in Eastern Europe in favour of proven regional missile defence systems will provide better protection against Iran’s current and near-future capabilities.

    Obama’s new strategy also contains the flexibility needed to respond to future Iranian missile developments should they emerge.

    The missile defence system proposed by the Bush administration, which relies on a farm of interceptor missiles stationed in Poland and an advanced radar in the Czech Republic, is designed primarily to protect the continental United States and Western Europe from intercontinental and intermediate range ballistic missiles that Iran may one day develop.

    The Eastern Europe-based system, however, could not defend south-eastern Europe, Turkey and Israel from the threats posed by Iran’s current ballistic missile arsenal.

    Moreover, the technologies behind the longer-range missile defence complex are not yet mature, and may not have worked as promised without upgrades to the X-band radar and additional development and testing.

    These two shortfalls – unproven intercept capacity and the inability of the Bush-era architecture to defend against Iran’s currently deployed medium-range Shahab-3 missile – apparently drove the Obama administration to shift strategy.

  15. Russia announces rearmament plan

    Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has said Moscow will begin a comprehensive military rearmament from 2011.

    Mr Medvedev said the primary task would be to “increase the combat readiness of [Russia’s] forces, first of all our strategic nuclear forces”.

    Explaining the move, he cited concerns over Nato expansion near Russia’s borders and regional conflicts.

    Last year, the Kremlin set out plans to increase spending on Russia’s armed forces over the next two years.

    Russia will spend nearly $140bn (£94.5bn) on buying arms up until 2011.

    Higher oil revenues in recent years have allowed the Kremlin to increase the military budget, analysts say. But prices have averaged $40 a barrel in 2009 compared with $100 last year.

  16. Gates lashes out at critics of U.S. missile plan

    Saturday, September 19, 2009; 8:07 PM

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Saturday lashed out at critics of a new missile defense plan for Europe and insisted it was not a concession to Russia, as some charge.

    Gates, a Republican who served in senior positions under former President George H.W. Bush and his son, former President George W. Bush, wrote in an opinion article for the New York Times that the criticism of the plan is misguided.

    “I believe this is a very pragmatic proposal. I have found since taking this post that when it comes to missile defense, some hold a view bordering on theology that regards any change of plans or any cancellation of a program as abandonment or even breaking faith,” Gates said.

    The objective of the missile plan is to counter the threat of missile attack from Iran, not Russia.

  17. Obama rejects Russia missile link

    The US president says his decision to shelve a missile defence plan was not dictated by Russian opposition.

    “The Russians don’t make determinations about what our defence posture is,” Barack Obama told CBS television.

    “If the by-product of it is that the Russians feel a little less paranoid… then that’s a bonus,” Mr Obama said.

    US conservatives have criticised the decision to scrap the plan to deploy interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic.

    Mr Obama’s predecessor, George W Bush, had argued that the system was necessary to deal with potential threats from Iran.

    Moscow said it was aimed against Russia, and has welcomed the US decision to abandon it.

    Mr Obama’s plan is to replace it with a defence system using sea and land-based interceptors.

  18. “This has generated a crisis of confidence in Central Europe — particularly in the Czech Republic and Poland, which see the decision as an abandonment of the U.S. commitment to the region. The Poles and others are obviously aware that the presence of missiles and radar on their soil does nothing to increase their national security, but they saw the weapons as a practical commitment to their defense. With the missile systems located there, the thinking went, the United States would regard Poland and the Czech Republic as critical to American national security, and that it therefore would defend them against an increasingly assertive Russia. With the defense system redeployed offshore, the American commitment to missile defense is no longer linked to Polish or Czech national defense; hence the feeling of abandonment.

  19. Matt, I was indeed being intentionally archaic.

    Milan, would you capitalize laser as well? It’s a younger word than radar, and has precisely the same phonetic ambiguity you mention.

  20. I would not put ‘laser’ in all caps.

    I continue the Shakespearean tradition of spelling things however pleases me best. I also use ‘s’ and ‘z’ inconsistently.

  21. U.S. warships began arriving off the coast of Israel in late September to prepare for the countries’ largest and most complex bilateral ballistic missile defense (BMD) exercise since the biennial Juniper Cobra exercises began in 2001. Set to begin the week of Oct. 11, the exercises will include a series of BMD systems that would be used to defend against a hypothetical ballistic missile attack launched from Iran. The Juniper Cobra exercise also comes amid increasing tension between Iran and the United States, which makes the timing of the exercise potentially suspect.

    Reports of ships and supplies arriving in Israel date back two weeks, suggesting that considerable work has been under way to ensure that the various systems and sensors are properly synced and networked. Therefore, the exercise is perhaps not indicative of a true crisis deployment, but will provide important lessons for integrating U.S.-Israeli BMD systems and is certainly a show of force at a politically opportune moment. “

  22. What Missile Defense?
    Missile defense will be strategically useless against the nuclear threats from Iran — or anywhere else.

    Barack Obama’s administration has characterized its new missile defense plan as a more judicious alternative to George W. Bush’s expensive (but untested) Eastern European-based interceptor system. Writing in the Financial Times last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it “a stronger and smarter approach than the previous program,” noting it will be deployed faster and less expensively, so as “not [to] waste time or taxpayer money.” That may sound like a winning combination, but in reality, the main difference between the old and new plans is that the latter doesn’t step on Russia’s toes. Otherwise, it will be just as strategically ineffective as the original.

    Speaking broadly, missile defense comes in two different flavors. The first is tactical missile defense, such as the U.S. Patriot system, which protects a theater of battle against short-range conventional rockets. The second category is strategic, or national, missile defense: systems meant to guard against adversaries’ nuclear-tipped missiles. While the first of these types is conceptually sensible, the second is not and may even make the world a more dangerous place.

    The reason for this is quite simple. A 70 percent effective tactical missile defense (to pick an optimistic number) makes a lot of sense. If 10 conventional missiles are headed your way, stopping seven is undeniably a good thing. Stopping seven of 10 nuclear warheads, however, is less decisive since even one will visit unacceptable devastation upon the United States. Just one nuclear-tipped missile penetrating your missile shield is about the equivalent of a million conventional missiles making it through..

  23. Russia To Help NATO Build Anti-Missile Network

    “The Washington Post reports that Russia has agreed to cooperate with NATO on erecting a US-planned anti-missile network in Europe protecting the continent against possible ballistic missile attacks from Iran or elsewhere. The anti-missile coverage would be anchored by a US land- and sea-based deployment, reconfigured by Obama from earlier plans devised under the Bush administration. The new idea would be to link individual national missile defenses into the US network and place them all under a NATO command and control center with authority to respond to an attack. ‘We see Russia as a partner, not an adversary,’ says President Obama, hailing the NATO-Russian accord. President Dmitri Medvedev warned that Russia’s cooperation must be ‘a full-fledged strategic partnership between Russia and NATO’ and not just a nod in Moscow’s direction to spare Russian feelings while Europe tends to its own defenses in tandem with the United States.”

  24. Sarah Tory reports that the debut of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense shield has added a new element to the conflict between Israel and Palestinians in the Gaza strip, one that military officials are calling a ‘game-changer.’ Israeli officials are claiming that the shield is destroying 90 percent of missiles and rockets it aims at that have been fired into southern Israel by Hamas. This level of success is unprecedented compared with older missile defense systems such as the American-made Patriot model used during the 1991 Gulf War. The missile-defense system can detect rocket launches and then determine the projectiles’ flight paths and only intercepts rocket or artillery shells if they are headed for populated areas or sensitive targets; the others it allows to land. It takes a lot of raw computing power to rapidly build a ballistic profile of a fast-incoming projectile, make a series of quick decisions concerning potential lethality, and launch a countermeasure capable of intercepting said projectile in-flight. One reason Iron Dome is showing a much more robust capability than the Patriot system did is simply that its battle control hardware and software are several generations more advanced than those early interceptor systems. ‘Israeli officials point out that Iron Dome saves money despite the fact that the interceptors cost up to $100,000 each,’ writes Tory. ‘The cost of rebuilding a neighborhood destroyed by a rocket attack — not to mention people wounded and lives lost — would be far greater than the cost of the interceptor.’ Most important, the system buys Israel time, allowing it to plan out an appropriate response without the political pressure that would be generated by hundreds of potential deaths.

  25. North Korea’s arsenal of ballistic missiles could probably be countered if as few as three drones were suitably stationed at all times, says Dale Tietz, a former Star Wars analyst. An American Global Hawk drone, which can fly uninterrupted for 30 hours, held 18km above nearby international waters could probably carry several interceptors fast enough to shoot down missiles heading north towards America, he says. It could be alerted to launches by infrared-sensing satellites already in orbit.

    Protecting Israel and Europe from Iranian missiles would be harder. Iran is bigger than North Korea, so interceptors would need to be faster (and therefore larger) to reach deep inside its territory. The Pentagon has started to research drone-missile defence, but should be spending more, says David Trachtenberg, a former deputy assistant defence secretary, because the payoff could be “tremendous”.

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