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Missile Defence: More Than Hitting a Bullet with a Bullet - Robert Vine

Advanced missile threats (AMT), characterised by payloads that achieve manoeuvrable flight profiles and speeds above Mach 5 have created a wicked problem for Defence forces. The scale of the technical challenge that they pose seems immense - how can something that small, that fast and that is specifically designed to exploit the seams of missile defence systems be shot down? How can it be found, fixed, tracked, targeted and engaged when the command, control and communications environment itself is contested? AMTs require reconsideration of entire approaches to Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD) because ensuring a projectile can reliably hit another projectile risks compromising too many other areas of the ADF.

The nature of missile threats as a whole has become more nuanced than the cruise/ballistic missile paradigm presently in use. In addition to purely ballistic threats, which still exist, now there are those that begin with a ballistic trajectory, but are capable of manoeuvring during flight. Unlike their predecessors, missile warheads are no longer at the mercy of gravity – they may manoeuvre aerodynamically, add velocity, or in many cases, do both to disguise their true target.

A ground-based interceptor is launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., toward a ballistic missile target launched from Alaska during a test on Dec. 5, 2008. (U.S. Missile Defense Agency)
A ground-based interceptor is launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., toward a ballistic missile target launched from Alaska during a test on Dec. 5, 2008. (Source: U.S. Missile Defense Agency)

AMTs are able to defeat current missile defence systems because they do not follow a predictable trajectory. Development of defences against AMTs has only just begun and systems are unlikely to be fielded until the 2030s. When they are fielded, how effective will they be and at what cost?

AMTs are not as insurmountable as they might seem at first glance. Most analyses to date focus only on one aspect of IAMD, the defeat of missiles in flight or ‘Active Defence’. When all layers of IAMD are considered, this reveals options available to Defence to protect against AMTs that may be more effective than pursuing a strategy that relies on active protection.

The 5 layers of IAMD are:

  • Counter Proliferation

  • Deterrence

  • Counter Force

  • Active Defence, and

  • Passive Defence

Counter proliferation is a whole-of-government (WoG) activity that utilises international agreements, government policy and statecraft to prevent the spread of weapons and weapons technologies to certain actors. While Defence does not lead counter proliferation activities, it has an important role in identifying those threats that Government must prevent from proliferating, and options that Defence could undertake to help prevent proliferation. In addition to denying technology transfer to actors that could pose a threat with advanced missiles, Australia should act to reassure nations in the region that it will support their security and sovereignty. These activities help ensure that regional nations do not see the need to either acquire their own advanced missile systems or host those of a third party.

Deterrence is an activity conducted to convince an actor to not perform a certain course of action, generally pursued through deterrence by denial and deterrence by punishment. Deterrence by denial aims to increase the difficulty of a potential adversary achieving their strategic goals to the point where they consider it too costly or too risky to act. Deterrence by punishment works by convincing a potential adversary that there will be significant consequences for pursuing certain courses of action, be they military or through other instruments of statecraft. Deterrence is a WoG effect, to which Defence must contribute by demonstrating Australia’s ability and willingness to act militarily if required.

Counter Force is the activity undertaken to prevent an adversary from conducting an attack. While this immediately conjures thoughts of strikes against headquarters, missile launchers and associated infrastructure, the reality is far broader. Counter Force activities include actions undertaken to prevent the adversary from completing their targeting process or to prevent commanders from authorising a launch. Self-evidently, Counter Force is not purely kinetic, but can leverage advances in cyber, electronic warfare and space.

Active Defence is the physical destruction of a missile while it is in flight. This can be achieved through missiles, guns or even directed energy systems.

Passive Defence aims to mitigate the effects of a missile impact. This includes physical hardening of likely targets, use of decoys (both physical and electronic) to deceive the enemy, and building-in resilience in essential capabilities. Passive Defence allows the force to minimise the effect of a successful attack.

Active and Passive Defence also contribute to deterrence by denial. Activities in these IAMD layers increase the amount of effort that an adversary must expend to defeat our forces and may dissuade them from initiating such action. Meanwhile, Counter Force can contribute to deterrence by punishment by forcing an adversary to consider the potential damage we may inflict upon them.

Current doctrine treats the five layers of IAMD as separate activities that occur within their own ‘cylinders of excellence’; this will not suffice to create a robust defence against advanced threats. Such a holistic defence requires Command, Control, Communication, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities to fully combine these layers into a truly integrated defence system. In this context, C4ISR must understand the nature of both the threat capabilities and intent; not just how an adversary AMT works but how it will be employed. This information is critical in informing how activities are balanced across all IAMD layers to not just prevent missile impact, but to prevent missile attacks from having a decisive impact on operations.

A broader understanding of the IAMD layers allows consideration of alternatives that might be more effective than reliance on active defence alone. Activities in Counter Proliferation, Deterrence and Counter Force provide effects that impact more than just air and missile defence. Counter Proliferation can also discourage a regional nation from hosting forces from a third party. Deterrence activities can dissuade a potential adversary from conflict. Counter Force activities can affect the targeting, command, control and generation of all aspects of the adversary force, not just its AMT capabilities. When all layers of IAMD are taken into account, the development of complex and expensive active defence systems can be prioritised to those threats that cannot be countered in other layers.

This broader approach also allows Defence to consider ways that it can help develop unique solutions to counter the AMT. Such solutions could create opportunities for Australian industry to develop capabilities suitable not only for Australian requirements, but suit export clients as well. As an example, could greater investment in Passive Defence research provide more effective solutions to counter AMTs? High-fidelity decoys that lure enemy missiles, redundant systems that allow infrastructure to continue functioning, and rapid-repair capabilities that ensure that damaged facilities do not remain offline for long periods will preclude such missile attacks from having a decisive impact on operations. As a result, this contributes to Deterrence by Denial by making use of AMTs by an adversary less effective. Although the consideration to develop a force able to withstand successful missile strikes is not within the ADF or National psyche, it is clear that it can no longer be ignored .

When advanced missile threats are considered across all layers of IAMD the technical challenge they pose is less daunting. However, creating such a defence requires an organisation that is able to determine the activities required across all layers to achieve effective protection. This will allow force design to balance acquisition to protect the force, and understand what must be requested of other government agencies. Without concerted effort, this is likely to be just as difficult as hitting a bullet with a bullet.

Squadron Leader Robert Vine is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.


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