Although Israeli interception of the Gaza ‘humanitarian’ flotilla has dominated the news, the most destabilizing development in the region is almost certainly the medium range ballistic missile threat to Israel. This is exemplified by the large numbers of Scuds provided by Syria to Hezbollah. It is a threat which has received relatively little attention in the general press.
The Scuds are believed to have a range of more than 435 miles—placing Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Israel’s nuclear installations all within range of Hezbollah’s military forces. During a monthlong war with Israel in 2006, Hezbollah used rockets with ranges of 20 to 60 miles.
Israeli officials called Scud missiles “game-changing” armaments that mark a new escalation in the Mideast conflict. They alleged that Mr. Assad is increasingly linking Syria’s military command with those of Hezbollah and Iran.
Missiles such as the Scud are not covered by existing arms control agreements and constitute a major threat to countries such as Israel, South Korea and Japan. In the case of Israel, it remains to be seen whether the Obama administration’s efforts to engage Syria will reverse the arms buildup. For now the plan appears to be to conciliate Syria in the hope of influencing its behavior, but the Syrians appear want more concessions before backing off. Some administration sources appear to suggest that Syria is arming Hezbollah to “deter Israel”, but that does nothing to change the underlying military calculus which unless modified will become increasingly unfavorable to Israel.
President Barack Obama has made engaging Mr. Assad’s government a cornerstone of his Mideast policy, hoping to woo Damascus into a regional peace process and lure it from a strategic alliance with Iran. …
In addition to nominating an ambassador, Mr. Obama moved to ease, though not lift, sanctions targeting Syria’s ability to import airplane parts and software. The U.S. has sought to increase military-to-military contacts with Damascus to better secure Syria’s border with Iraq.
A senior U.S. official involved in Mideast policy said Washington was uncertain why Mr. Assad would escalate tensions with Israel. But in recent months, Israeli and Syrian officials have publicly charged each other with preparing for war. The U.S. official said Syria’s arms transfer could have been meant as a form of deterrence.
The Israelis in recent weeks postponed war games in an effort to calm tensions with Damascus, however. And Israeli officials have publicly told Mr. Assad that the Jewish state doesn’t seek a conflict. Many Israeli officials said they felt tensions were lessening ahead of the announcement of the alleged Scuds shipment.
Syrian officials also have voiced frustration with the pace of the U.S. rapprochement. Some have said they believed sanctions could be removed quicker. They also said Washington appeared unable to extract from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a meaningful commitment to negotiations aimed at reverting the Golan Heights region to Syrian sovereignty.
Hezbollah’s armaments have become a problem not only for Israel but also for Lebanon. Its military muscle gives it the status of a state within a state. Mara Karlin at Foreign Affairs writes: “retaining arms is a key factor in Hezbollah’s longstanding ability to subvert the Lebanese state.” It can veto the decisions of Lebanese government and often has. Without its weapons, Hezbollah could not threaten Israel nor undermine Lebanon.
The group’s patrons, Iran and Syria, play critical roles in perpetuating its armed status. “It’s not in our hands,” a senior Lebanese political leader ruefully told me in Beirut recently. Rather, “regional circumstances monopolize.” And there is no evidence that Hezbollah is seeking to alter these circumstances by genuinely distancing itself from Iran or Syria.
To be sure, when Lebanese politicians criticize Hezbollah for pursuing a supra-national mission, Hezbollah’s leaders sometimes reply that their interests do not fully align with those of Tehran or Damascus. Yet the group has not refused the substantial funding it receives from Tehran, which is estimated by the U.S. Defense Department to be between $100 million and $200 million per year. Nor has Hezbollah rejected shipments of powerful weaponry from Iran or Syria. After the 2006 war, Syria rearmed Hezbollah with hundreds of M-600 rockets, and Iran sent more than 60 tons of weapons in one shipment alone. (Hezbollah’s possession and lethal use of C-802 cruise missiles and Kornet antitank missiles in the 2006 war shocked Western officials who had severely underestimated its arsenal.)
For its part the United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon tasked with stopping the rearmament of Hezbollah claims it has not seen any Scuds within its area of operations. “Maj. Gen. Alberto Cuevas in an interview with the Jerusalem Post said his forces in their monitoring of the area south of the Litani River uncovered nothing to substantiate claims regarding Hezbollah.” The UN General might well be telling the literal truth because area south of the Litani River extends only thirty kilometers north of the Israeli border. This artful parse allows him to be perfectly candid while remaining disingenuous. With their range the Scuds could be in the far north of Lebanon and still hit Tel Aviv. The UNIFIL has been tasked with watching one window in a building with a dozen.
If diplomacy fails to defuse the situation and Scuds in large numbers are launched at Israel a huge regional crisis is bound to develop. But what can be done short of invading Lebanon to take out the Scuds or getting the United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon to actually do its job? Fortunately technology may help where diplomacy cannot. One long term answer to the Scud threat is better missile defense against medium-range ballistic missiles. And unlike the more familiar terminal ballistic missile defenses shown downing warheads on their way down from space, the cheapest way to hit Scuds is when they are on the way up. Range and persistence limitations have in the past precluded using fighter aircraft and air to air missiles in this role. But now it may be possible. Aviation Week’s David Fulghum describes Raytheon’s Network-Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE). It essentially leverages the increasing range of fighter radar, a long range air to air missile and better system integration to create a CAP which can shoot down missiles like the Scud while they are in the launch phase.
An under-rated threat is the thousands of short-range ballistic missiles that are now in the inventories of major countries not bounded by missile control agreements, say U.S. defense planners. That stockpile of missiles matches a huge hole in U.S. ballistic missile defenses. The problem area is boost phase – from launch to low space, about 320 mi. (400 km.) altitude. …
Moreover, the fighter-radar-missile combination “would make a lot of sense for Asian countries” that fly the same aircraft as the U.S.,” says Arnie Victor, Director, F-15 Business Development, Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems. “There are a lot of concerns in the region since [North Korean] ballistic missiles were shot across Japan.” Because of the location of ballistic missile launch sites, many of them would be within range of missiles launched from aircraft in international waters. …
Raytheon, Darpa and Air Force officials will not discuss ranges, but those with insight into the technology say radar ranges vary from around 90 mi. with an F-16-size AESA radar to perhaps 150 mi. with an F-15 size antenna. Missile ranges are well over 100 mi.
The NCADE idea emerged during the 1991 Gulf War when fighter pilots could watch Scuds launching without having any way to shoot them down. “The goal is to fire NCADE from aerial platforms like fighters, UAVs, or even high altitude airships or aerostats, in order to hit ballistic missiles during their ascent while they are still boosting or immediately thereafter.”
In an April 2006 briefing, Raytheon vice president of Advanced Missile Defense and Directed Energy Weapons Michael Booen said that: “What you do is you fly the AMRAAM essentially straight up and you drop the spent first-stage rocket motor… You acquire the boosting target or the ascent-stage target, either one of which has got a big-enough infrared signature in order to be able to see, and then you attack the target… before it separates and deploys countermeasures.
The Lexington Institute notes that while US-Israeli cooperation on ground based missile defense systems such as Patriot and Iron Dome have been in the news “what is less well known is the extent of U.S.-Israeli cooperation in the development of defenses against short-range missiles and other threats. There is the David’s Sling or Stunner program (called NCADE in the United States), a collaboration between the Israeli company Rafael with Raytheon and ATK. It uses a derivative of an advanced air-to-air missile as an interceptor and can be deployed in both ground-mobile and airborne modes.” The video below shows an NCADE test.
One interesting effect of this development has been to move the strategic fulcrum into the dominance of space and the information spectrum. Without the ability to deploy these networked weapons the US and Israeli military edge would be largely lost. Defense Industry Daily noted the similarities of the NCADE system with an ASAT proposal in the 1980s, raising the interesting possibility that what can shoot down might also shoot up. Security can be temporarily restored to Israel, South Korea and Japan, but only at the cost of ensuring that the hegemon controls the overall battlespace, including outer space.
Some readers may remember a satellite killer missile concept from the 1980s that was designed to mount on an F-15; it used a very similar design approach to go after even higher-flying orbiting satellites with a larger missile, and succeeded in a 1985 test. NCADE uses a different, smaller missile, and its targets live at a lower level in the high endo-atmosphere and low exo-atmosphere. Where these concepts mesh in in their choice of a fighter as a platform, and the fact that boosting missiles and higher-orbit satellites share the twin challenges of extreme speeds and non-maneuvering trajectories. An F-15 would also be the designated initial test platform for NCADE, if the US Missile Defense Agency decides to continue to fund the concept program through to maturity. …
If the missile concept works, an AMRRAM + NCADE equipped aircraft plugged into this network could be deployed in theater or within the United States, becoming a useful defensive player against either incoming cruise missiles or ballistic missiles.
Scenarios for which NCADE is being considered includes the threat of “missiles from a barge off the coast”, protecting an ally like Japan from North Korean attack via fighters deployed near or in North Korean airspace, helping to address the threat of short-range missile attacks like Desert Storm (1991), or even countering attacks by large rockets as featured in the recent war where Israel faced Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria.
Or, NCADE’s technologies could have far more prosaic uses on tomorrow’s battlefields. Uses which are not found within Raytheon’s current sales focus, but which exist nonetheless by virtue of NCADE’s capabilities. Uses that may, in the end, prove even more valuable that its missile defense role.
The development of NCADE may incidentally mean the demise or reduction in role of the manned fighter aircraft in their role as dogfighters. With even aerostats able to fire air-to-air missiles from network cues there is likely to be some effect on the dogfight of the future. But the ability to deploy effective networked weapons can mean that the balance will temporarily swing away from regional proxies and third tier powers like Syria in favor of the United States. That will create an incentive for rising powers like China to challenge US strategic systems in order to gain long-term room for proxy warfare.