Missile Defense's Real Enemy: Math
Image Credit: U.S. Navy (Flickr)

Missile Defense's Real Enemy: Math


Stretching back several decades, the concept of missile defense has been hotly debated. Some well reasoned scholars argue that the United States and other countries need such defenses incase deterrence breaks down or an irrational actor gets their finger on the nuclear trigger. Others argue that missile defenses are a waste of money given that they are easily defeated, and defensive technology will always stay behind the curve — never ready for primetime.

Both sides have logical arguments. For the record, I am an advocate of missile defense — under certain conditions. With various nations all over the planet purchasing or developing ballistic and cruise weapons, defenses against such weaponry are vital — especially for the American navy in the form of Aegis missile defenses.  When it comes to missile defense in nuclear matters- I have some shall we say, complex views. For regimes such as Iran, North Korea and others when sometimes rationality is not their strongest suit — missile defense all the way. When it comes to nations with larger missile arsenals such as China or Russia, I am not sold — yet.

There is however one thing you can't argue against, simple math.

Case in point, take a look at a recent book chapter by Dr. Toshi Yoshihara in Chinese Aerospace Power (a really good book, China defense geeks I am talking to you — it's a classic — get your credit card out) from our friends over at the Chinese Maritime Studies Institute.

Dr. Yoshihara notes:

"ASBMs (anti-ship ballistic missiles) may not need to produce mission kills against the surface fleet to complicate U.S. plans. They only need to reach the fleet's defensive envelope for the Aegis to engage the incoming threats, thus forcing the defender to expend valuable ammunition that cannot be easily resupplied at sea under combat conditions. Even inaccurate ASBMs, then, could compel the Aegis to exhaust its weapons inventory, leaving it defenseless against further PLA actions. Used in conjunction with conventional ballistic missile strikes against U.S. bases and other land targets across Asia — strikes that would elicit more intercept attempts — ASBM raids could deprive the United States and its allies of their staying power in a sea fight."

Such a point raises a larger question. Will American commanders in the future face large missile forces aimed at their ships that can just simply overwhelm their defenses through sheer numbers?

Another example comes from a 2011 report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis entitled Outside-In: Operating from Range to Defeat Iran’s Anti-Access and Area-Denial Threats (A2/AD geeks, this is truly a must read). In sketching out a scenario for a possible Iranian A2/AD campaign between 2020-2025, the authors explain:

"Iran could deploy its land-based ASCMs (anti-ship cruise missiles) from camouflaged and hardened sites to firing positions along its coastline and on Iranian-occupied islands in the Strait of Hormuz while placing decoys at false firing positions to complicate U.S. counterstrikes. Hundreds of ASCMs may cover the Strait, awaiting target cueing data from coastal radars, UAVs, surface vessels, and submarines. Salvo and multiple axis attacks could enable these ASCMs to saturate U.S. defenses…salvos of less capable ASCMs might be used to exhaust U.S. defenses, paving the way for attacks by more advanced missiles."

Think about it — could we someday see a scenario where American forces at sea with a fixed amount of defensive countermeasures facing an enemy with large numbers of cruise and ballistic weapons that have the potential to simply overwhelm them? Could a potential adversary fire off older weapons that are not as accurate, causing a defensive response that exhausts all available missile interceptors so more advanced weapons with better accuracy can deliver the crushing blow?

Simply put: does math win?

Truth be told, this is a very simplistic way of looking at the classic missile vs. missile-interceptor game. Many complex scenarios could be easily envisioned. Sea-based forces on the defensive would likely employ multiple methods to secure themselves. Jamming of missile and land-based guidance systems, counterstrikes on enemy missile launchers and attacks on enemy command and control would all likely be employed on some level once offensive missiles are launched. Preemptive strikes could also be employed if a credible threat of a launch was presumed. Not to mention possible available land-based interceptors could be in the mix depending on the area of hostilities as well as cyber and UAV strikes. And this says nothing about nuclear weapons…

Yet, you have to wonder, math does have a powerful say in such a scenario. And considering the cost of missile defenses vs. offensive missiles, "math" seems to have some valid arguments.

What do you think?

Raymond S. Stokes
April 10, 2014 at 19:17

Have any of you ever read Tom Clancy’s book ” Red Storm Raising”? It has the exact topic in it and how it was dealt with. Keep in mind that he wrote this before the USN really understood how this would play out. Just saying.

Name Withheld
March 4, 2014 at 07:00

Agree with most of the article and also few point made by some of the posters. Actually article gives an impression that SDI at some level works. I can’t discuss much of the details for reasons known to anyone who works in this area; but fact of the matter is that there is no need to overwhelm the MDA system. The entire operation is just a game, and like any other game, it requires the participant to actually play by the rules. The rules are in this case conditions that would give an outside chance for a single incoming missile to be intercepted. In short the “enemey” pretty much agree to the wasy we want them to shoot their missile.

Just think about the following news that came out a month ago.

“In an test carried out in Israel a missile was successfully intercepted.”

Followed by lot of patting each other back.
SO after 10/15 years and a billions spent, you would think a test case in which ONE out of over 15 tests missile that was launched from known location and at known time makes the news should be a clue to
this is a gimmick used to keep bunch of engineers employed, Raytheon and Northrup Grumman to make money, and nearly 50 or so FFRD get their cut of tax payers money.

The idea that an enemy would overwhelm the the SDI system by overwhelming it with sending decoys and all, assumes that enemy is naive. Indeed those who know who SDI works and trust me it is not the most complicated thing to understand, will defeat this sytem without resorting to massive attack.

I think following analogy applies:
A hacker who does not not much about operating systems and computers that require s a password, might try to use some brute force method, a more knowledgeable computer savvy person would get into the system by fooling it or through backdoor.

Putting aside the question of technological capabilities, no country will be deterred by the thought that their missile will be intercepted.
It is the fear of retaliation (political/economical/and perhaps military) that is the biggest ditterence for them.

February 21, 2014 at 06:42

Just like The Alamo , we will get overrun .

Curt Conway
July 24, 2013 at 10:28

The Aegis Standard Missile family of missiles has been the most successful missile development program on the planet by any estimation.  More standard missiles have been successfully launched by the US Navy than any other missile in any navy.  The SM-3IA has the most successful intercept record to date of any of the BMD capable missiles.  So . . . why was the program curtailed and the development money go elsewhere.  

Anything built for sea can go ashore (dual purpose).  Things developed for shore must necessarily be re-engineered to go to sea.  Would logic not dictate that we stay on the most capable and least risk path.  The GMD GBI always was the Dark Horse in the race and has turned out to be a Turkey to boot.  We should rejoin our Japanese Allie in SM-3IIA development.

March 26, 2013 at 13:12

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Joe Mac Queen
March 17, 2013 at 13:03

Reading the comments I have to wonder where all the theories come from about missiles that have yet been proven.Has any atomic war headed missile been lauched at any country and been taken out in space that is recorded? I don't believe anyone can predict what the outcome will be.The talk on this subject is based on what, the launching of one and then the launching of the chase missile, that no atomic war head is involved,  record a hit.Now we can say a missile was destroyed, and what changes if warhead is atomic would it show.

Barrett Strausser
February 24, 2013 at 05:17

You are aware that these weapons are being developed. So you perjorative or "pure nitwittery" is a bit exaggerated. Look at Northrop Grumman's 'First Strike' platform.

tuna hunter
February 18, 2013 at 06:25

what math? ha ha ha ha ha ha everheard about the Navy's railgun? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqhhYYp2dXA

Tom Nichols
February 18, 2013 at 03:46

Harry's article is solid and interesting, but even more interesting is the outpouring of pure nitwittery in the replies. Lasers? Beam weapons? (How about multiple phaser banks?) Seriously, you kids need to put down the crack pipe. Aside from the fact that those technological innovations might be decades off — if they ever are developed — you're living in a world where it's not clear we're even going to build better or newer aircraft carriers, much less outfit them with photon torpedos and tractor beams.

Those of you who are critical of this article also make the same mistake that every techno-nerd makes when arguing about things like missile defenses: you completely remove the subject from any kind of political context. If the United States is facing a massive missile barrage against its Pacific Fleet, let me just assure you that ship-board missile defense will be the least of our concerns. We'll be in a different kind of situation — say, like nuclear war.

Having once been a supporter of SDI (for reasons of deterrence during the Cold War, not because it would have worked), I am continually amazed at the sheer lack of engagement with reality on the part of today's missile defense fans.

tuna hunter
February 18, 2013 at 03:26

that's why China is just forever a copy cat evil scum nation. Free societies will always comes first in innovation. What fascists communists does best is react and copy. 

February 4, 2014 at 11:42

Just remember China is China with its own characteristics. The fastest computer today exist in china and you will see more innovation from them in time to come. More and more countries are forging peace going forward as that is the only option.

Paul Hill
February 7, 2013 at 02:32

Kinetic energy weapons, married to laser defensive schemes, should offer the cheapest and most cost effective defensive shield for the next generation.  Size and velocity continues to add to the range and targeting abilities of kinetic energy platforms. Likewise, gains in the various types of laser weapons are rapidly making the role of laser defense systems very attractive and viable.  In my mind, these issues are already a given… the age of rocket propelled systems is rapidly closing.

February 6, 2013 at 05:47

yup… alarms, lots of missiles flying about, hell fire, flames, oil soaked men, sharks, death and pain…  and dont run out of ammo 

February 5, 2013 at 15:49

I think you're absolutely right.  The math is inexorable.
This is in fact what doomed the Japanese fleet at Midway.  It's air cover resources- the Zeros- were expended, in effect, by being drawn down to sea level to deal with torpedo bombers, and were as a result in no position to meet the dive bombers when they arrived. 
The Japanese fleet had more than adequate defensive assets in theory.  But the salvo of differentiated attacks emptied the Japanese defensive countermeasures and left their carriers utterly defenseless.

February 5, 2013 at 15:40

And by the way, countermeasures:  what if the warheads are painted with reflective surfaces?  So the lasers just bounce off?

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