April 19, 2024The Intersectiongeopoliticsinformation agedefence

There are costs and risks to an amazing missile defence shield

Technology creates time and space for politics; it does not substitute it.

Mint This is an unedited draft of The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint. This was written on 2024-04-18, before Israeli airstrikes in Isfahan and Tabriz in Iran; and a sentence referring to this attack was added just before publication.

The wars in Ukraine and Israel-Palestine have demonstrated that missile defence has come of age. Even before Israel, with the help of the US and its allies successfully intercepted nearly all of the 320 drones, cruise and ballistic missiles that Iran launched last week, the Ukrainians had reported that they had shot down all 80 of the drones the Russians had dispatched on one New Year’s weekend. Drones are relatively easy to shoot down given their slower speeds, but countering a swarm of them is still no mean feat. Intercepting cruise, ballistic and hypersonic missiles gets harder given their increasing speeds, but US-made systems have shown themselves capable of doing so at high levels of effectiveness. They will get even better in the future.

Missile defence has already changed the way battles are fought over land and sea. It will also influence geopolitics and strategy.

The Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance has a rate sheet of the cost of interception.

For the foreseeable future, the marginal cost of missile defence will be higher than that for offence. A single interceptor missile used in Israel or Ukraine costs between $100,000 to $500,000, compared to the $20,000 per drone that Iran and Russia spent. If more than one missile is required to take down an incoming drone, the average cost of successful interception goes up even higher. In the Red Sea, the US navy used a $2 million missile to intercept a $2000 drone that the Houthis launched at one of its ships. The cost of defence is five to 1000 times the cost of offence. This means that despite the accuracy, it only makes sense to deploy missile defence to protect high value targets. As Wes Rumbaugh, an analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies argues, using a $2 million missile to protect a $2 billion warship is worth it regardless of how cheap the Houthi drone is. It does however call into question the usefulness of big expensive warships, unless they are used to protect even higher value targets. Yes, it is a case of turtles all the way down.

With attackers having a massive fiscal advantage, they can prevail in a conflict by bleeding the defender dry. At an average cost of $250,000 per interception, Israel and its Western allies spent a minimum of $80 million in a few hours. Only rich, large countries can sustain this. Thus Ukraine and Israel depend on the United States both for the weaponry and for the money that pays for it. Kiev is in a tight spot today because it is running short of interceptors and the money it depends on Washington for. Similarly, for all its advanced capabilities, Israel’s capacity to defend itself depends on continued weapons supplies and financial support of the United States. It appears that the US forces took down over 60% of the drones and missiles that the Iranians launched towards Israel.

Ergo, the country deploying missile defence has a critical dependence on the country supplying it. At crunch times, the supplier must be willing and able to deliver large numbers of interceptors at short notice. Some of India’s missile defence systems are of Russian and Israeli origin, which gives them both leverage over New Delhi’s foreign policy. The impact on strategic autonomy can be mitigated by indigenous systems, but even if such were available, they would still be costly and run against budget constraints.

My colleague Lt Gen Prakash Menon explained to me that if interceptor stocks fall below a threshold, the usual military response is to counter-attack and destroy the facilities used to launch the drones and missiles. That is what Israel did on Friday. Such an escalation comes with its own risks, not least of further escalation and damage.

That’s not all. While 99% success rate in interception appears extraordinarily good, it is no cause for comfort in a nuclearised context. If one nuclear-tipped missile gets through out of a hundred, it is still one too many. One reason Russia and China are building hypersonic missiles is to be able to have a greater chance of penetrating the US anti-ballistic missile shield. A missile defence with a 100% success rate is very ephemeral. A small improvement in the attacker’s delivery capability will restore nuclear vulnerability, and worse, the path towards a nuclear exchange.

It is folly to believe that superior military force or amazing technology alone provides peace and security. Rather, they provide time and space for politics, diplomacy and statesmanship to negotiate a solution. Walls, border fences, missile defence shields, surveillance technologies or strategic superiority can lull a society and its leaders into believing that the underlying problem has gone away. It surprises them when they discover that it did not. The reluctance to find political compromises is the biggest risk of impermeable missile defence.

Tailpiece: Iran’s massive aerial attack did not cause any physical damage in Israel. It did, however, shatter deterrence.

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