The United States, its friends and allies face a serious and growing threat from adversaries armed with a spectrum of rockets, missiles and drones. Most recently we have seen the dangers posed by shorter range rockets and missiles such as short range, homemade Qassam rockets and longer-range Iranian supplied Fateh and SCUD derivatives in the hands of Hamas. But today, the Free World also is having to contend with the proliferation of sophisticated long-range missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). While the major arsenals of these weapons are in the hands of competitors such as Russia and China, new actors are poised to enter this club. North Korea and Iran are working assiduously on their arsenals of theater-range ballistic missiles and towards the creation of indigenous ICBMs.
The key to countering this threat is, first, the availability of sensors, primarily radar to detect and track them. The more rapidly and farther away the rocket, missile or drone can be detected the greater the likelihood of being able to defeat it. For example, when the threat is a Qassam rocket (or a mortar shell) launched from the Gaza Strip, detection and track is a matter of a few seconds. When it comes to long-range missiles, even ICBMs, early detection and track can maximize the engagement range available to the defender, permitting multiple shots or a refined shoot-look-shoot doctrine. Today, there are many missile defense systems whose effective defense envelope against long-range threats is limited not by the interceptor’s performance but by the availability of early tracking information. This is why the U.S. and its allies have sought to deploy radars forward in places like Turkey and Japan, where they can establish very early tracks of North Korean and Iranian ballistic missiles launched against Europe or the United States.
The dominant players in the development and deployment of long-range radars have for decades been the major powers, primarily the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia, but also the United Kingdom, France and, more recently, China. Early in the Cold War, the United States built a set of large early warning radars designed to detect and track the launch of Soviet ICBMs. The U.S. also invested in a series of mobile radars such as the Patriot and Aegis to support first, air defense, but more recently, robust theater missile defenses. In support of national missile defense, the U.S. built the sea-based X-band platform and the AN/TPY-2. Today, the U.S. military has initiated development of even more advanced, longer-range radar systems, specifically the Navy’s Air and Missile Defense Radar and the Air Force’s Three-Dimensional Expeditionary Long–Range Radar.
An unusual player in the missile defense radar game is Israel. Decades ago, the Israeli Defense Forces recognized that if they were going to survive in a very dangerous neighborhood, they needed the best sensors possible to support early warning, threat detection and object tracking. Today, Israel is unique in having developed a family of advanced radars that can support the full range of air and missile defense needs. The same ELTA radar that supports the Iron Dome system, which successfully defended Israel last year from thousands of Hamas rockets and missiles, is a close cousin of the radar that will be central to the new longer-range missile defense system, called David’s Sling. The ability to enhance one radar to perform a different, more stressing mission reduces the overall cost of both systems.
It should be noted that production of key elements of the Iron Dome radar is underway by ELTA North America in a factory in Maryland using U.S. funds that support Israel’s defense. One might call it ironic that the U.S. is footing much of the bill for the Iron Dome and will provide lots of funding for David’s Sling, yet has eschewed acquiring this system, bought and paid for as it is by the U.S. taxpayers, for our own military.
The Israeli approach to modularity in radar design, allowing the size and power of their systems to be tweaked to fit specific needs, doesn’t just apply to shorter-range tactical systems. Israel faces adversaries more than a thousand miles away. Being able to deal with long-range missile threats requires, inter alia, long range detection.
So ELTA has come up with a modular family of early warning and long-range search and track radars. The ULTRA radar, first unveiled at this year’s Paris Air Show, can be deployed as a single, mobile module or in a series of up to 22 linked modules that can provide strategic warning. The system can detect and track aircraft at altitude, long-range ballistic missiles and even objects in space. The information from the ULTRA system would be passed to manned aircraft or missile defense batteries that then use their engagement radars to vector interceptors against the incoming threats.
Part of the way the Free World can defeat the growing threat from rockets, missiles and drones of all ranges is by proliferating advanced radar systems and linking these sensors together. Then protocols need to be established to enable data sharing so an interceptor from one country can be launched based on information supplied by another country’s sensors.