Are We Safe? Vulnerabilities in the U.S. Missile Defense System

Madison Grady, MPP Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

Iran Attack on Iraq Airbase

At approximately 11:00 p.m. on January 7th, 2020, American troops at Ain al-Asad airbase in western Iraq were ordered to go on lockdown after they were alerted to an incoming missile attack. A half-hour later, the order was given for troops to take cover in bunkers. A little over two hours after troops were ordered to take cover, at 1:35 a.m. on January 8th, 2020, the first Iranian missile strike landed. The attack on the airbase continued for two hours.

The Iranian attack on the Ain al-Asad airbase was retaliation for the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani five days prior. According to the Pentagon, over 100 U.S. troops have since been diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injuries caused by the attack. The day after the attack, the President spoke to reporters and attributed the minimal damage and lack of casualties to “an early warning system that worked very well,” referring to the U.S. satellites dedicated to tracking missile launches around the world. What the President did not comment on, and many failed to report on, was why the U.S. missile defense system did not stop the drone attack in the first place.

The U.S. has several potential defenses it can use to intercept missile attacks before they hit their target. The American military currently has 60 batteries of Patriot surface-to-air missiles and seven higher-end terminal high altitude area defense (THAAD) systems, both of which are designed to intercept and destroy short-range and higher flying ballistic missiles. The Patriot batteries are in high demand, and over half are already committed overseas. However, neither of these defenses was present at the Ain al-Asad airbase on January 8th. There was an early warning from U.S. satellites that allowed personnel to evacuate to bunkers before the attack.

The missile defense system relied upon by the U.S. does not always work as intended. In September of 2019, the U.S. air defense system failed to detect a drone and cruise missile attack on a Saudi energy facility. The attack was brushed off as proof of Saudi Arabia’s vulnerability; however, it was the U.S. air defenses that failed to detect and stop the attack. The cruise missiles used in that September attack were designed to fly at low altitudes, roughly parallel to the earth’s surface and are harder for satellites to detect, which is why the U.S. system failed on both ends.

Current Missile Defense Space System

The U.S. and Russia have been developing and experimenting with missile defense systems since the Cold War. International fear of an uncontrolled arms race led to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, which limited both countries to 100 missile defense interceptors at one site. However, President George W. Bush abolished the treaty in 2002, leading to a dramatic increase in missile defense funding and the development of more advanced missiles by both countries.

The current U.S. defense system is made up of satellite sensors, ground and sea radars, interceptors used to destroy the missile, and control centers to collect and process data. Each part is aimed at defending against different types of ballistic missiles. Ballistic missiles, unlike cruise missiles, are launched in a fixed arched trajectory into space and then re-enter the atmosphere to hit a target. The Department of Defense reported that right now the U.S. system has a “demonstrated capability” of defending the country against small intercontinental ballistic missile attacks, and possess only a “limited capability” to defend allies and troops abroad against small ballistic missile attacks.

The current system is vulnerable to recent technological advances by countries such as Iran and Russia. For example, Russia currently has a submarine-launched cruise missile that can circumvent the existing U.S. missile defense system and target East coast military bases and cities. Iran has also been able to develop missiles that are accurate to within a few tens of meters of their intended targets, making many wonder why there were not more casualties from the January attack on the Ain al-Asad airbase.

Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy of the U.S. Air Force told the Senate last April during his testimony,  “The homeland is not a sanctuary. For that reason, improving our ability to detect and defeat cruise missile attacks is among my highest priorities.” The attacks on Saudi Arabia and now the Ain al-Asad airbase by Iran has made improving the military’s ability to detect and defend against cruise missiles a higher priority.

A New Era

During President Trump’s first two years in office, Congress approved record levels of funding for the expansion of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The President has stated his goals are to “ensure we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States—anywhere, anytime, anyplace.” Previous administrations have not depended on missile defenses to defend the homeland against a potential missile attack due to the many technical, financial, and geopolitical obstacles. The MDA’s budget request of $9.2 billion for the fiscal year 2021 is focused on expanding the current ground-based missile defense system designed to protect the continental U.S.

The newest branch of the military, the U.S. Space Force, created under the Trump administration, aims to tackle this problem head-on. The Space Development Agency, destined to become part of Space Force in 2022, will work to create two more layers of defense to help protect against newly developed weapons such as cruise and hypersonic missiles. The first is a “tracking” layer that will track the threat, and the second is a “transport” layer, which will broadcast the tracking data to the missile defense command centers. The goal is to have full global coverage by the year 2026, according to the Director of the Space Development Agency, Derek Tournear.

The Pentagon has concluded that the only way to defend the U.S. from new developments in missile technology is with sensors in space. Congress approved $73 million to the Department of Defense in 2019 to begin work on space-based sensors, adding a “Space Sensor Layer” to the U.S. missile defense system. When complete, these new sensors, along with the Space Force defense layers, will serve as a protective role to detect and defend against incoming missiles.

Many defense experts hope that these new programs can bring the current U.S. missile defense system up to date to better protect and defend the homeland from increasing and evolving threats abroad.

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