Missile Defense Project Newsletter - March 2016
March 31, 2016
JLENS Future Bleak, but Need for Capability Remains
A Busy Month for DPRK's Missile Program
Iran Takes Advantage of UNSCR 2231
JLENS Future Bleak, but Need for Capability Remains
Missile defense is not just about ballistic missiles. The wider problem of integrated air and missile defense, to include cruise missiles, has received growing attention in recent years. Last May, for instance, then-Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral James A. Winnefeld remarked that “homeland cruise missile defense is shifting above regional ballistic missile defense, in my mind, as far as importance goes.”
The attempt to design and field an architecture to detect and track cruise missiles, however, has proven challenging, as seen with the recent history of the cruise-missile detecting Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS). There are alternatives for the mission, such as with a fleet of AWACS E-3 aircraft, but manned systems lack the same range and have higher operating cost than a persistent and tethered radar.
The JLENS program’s recent history exemplifies both the political and strategic demand for the capability, but also technical and political challenges. Whatever the ultimate fate of JLENS, the cruise missile threat and the need to address it remains an ongoing concern.
The Cruise Missile Challenge
The technics of cruise missile defense are quite different from those for ballistics. Ballistic missiles fly high and along a predictable trajectory. This makes them easier to detect and track, but more challenging to intercept because of their speed, altitude, and the presence of debris or decoys. Cruise missiles, by contrast, are comparatively harder to find but easier to intercept. They are slower, fly low, and are therefore very difficult to detect and track from ground-based radars. They are also maneuverable, making their flight path and destination harder to predict. For a traditional ground-based radar to track a cruise missile, it must be pointed forward and towards the horizon, but the curvature of the Earth limits their range significantly. Radar lines of sight can also be complicated by terrain or even tall buildings.
As such, the better way to detect and track a cruise missile is from overhead, with a sensor looking down. The JLENS concept consists of two tethered aerostats equipped with 360- degree radars, suspended at an altitude of 10,000 feet. Working in pairs, one aerostat provides blanket radar coverage over a wide area, while the second uses an X-band radar to lock onto a particular threat and provide targeting information to interceptors in the area. The ability to station aerostats at high altitude allows them to persistently search for fast, low flying threats over extensive ranges and with less ground obstruction than a ground-based radar.
The October Failure
With much media attention, one of the two aerostats broke free of its mooring at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds on October 28, 2015. According to the post-October investigation, the JLENS test faced challenges in vulnerability to high winds and bad weather. This vulnerability is hardly unique; the military deploys similar aerostat-based reconnaissance systems that have similar limitations.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter pointed out this common issue duringremarks following the JLENS October mishap, saying that “from having seen these break loose in Afghanistan on a number of occasions, we could get it to descend and then we'll recover it and put it back up…this happens in bad weather." In Afghanistan, tethered aerostats carrying cameras were used to surveil and protect forward operating bases, but these were significantly smaller and lower altitude.
According to the Army Failure Review Board’s report on the October 28 incident, the winds above Aberdeen Proving Grounds reached upwards of 69 mph, near the upper limit of JLENS’s design threshold. The Army report notes that certain key system malfunctions were to blame. In particular, a fault in the aerostat’s air pressure sensor caused one of the aerostat’s tail fins to partially deflate. This contributed to unstable flight “until the tether tension reached extreme levels and broke away from its [mooring station].”
Since October, the Defense Department has had an understandably difficult but understandable time convincing appropriators to continue the program. Although there is every indication that the Pentagon will fight to preserve JLENS in the FY17 budget process, last October’s mishap encouraged lawmakers to look askance.
The Army had suspended its three-year operational test of the radar blimps over the U.S. National Capitol Region in November, awaiting the findings of an investigation into the October accident. Amidst that investigation, Congress cut funding to JLENS by $30 million in the FY16 omnibus bill released on December 16. Upon completion of the DOD’s investigation in February, Defense Secretary Carter approved resuming the program.
On March 8, the Army submitted a $27.2 million budget reprogramming request to congressional appropriators to get JLENS back in the air in FY16. Much of this request would have come from reallocating funds that had been appropriated for other programs that had fallen behind schedule, such as the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle. NORTHCOM Commander ADM William Gortney supported JLENS during his March 10 congressional testimony, commenting that “we look forward to completing it, because should it bear out, it defeats a threat that I don’t have a capability against today.” The Senate Appropriations Committee nevertheless denied the reprogramming request.
Despite the setback, the Army and the Combatant Commanders seem persistent in creating room for JLENS even in a tight defense budget, including for President Obama’s $45.5 JLENS budget request for FY17. At a March 22 press conference, however, LTG David Mann, commander of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, conceded that “The onus is on us, quite frankly, to continue to engage Congress and to provide them with the data to make the case as to why it’s important to support this effort."
The Army’s persistence with JLENS is understandable. Defense planners have become increasingly concerned about the threat from cruise missiles to U.S. forces overseas and the U.S. homeland. Regarding Russia’s demonstration of over 20 cruise missile launches into Syria, ADM William Gortney testified about their significance: “There’s no operational or tactical requirement to do it [use cruise missiles in Syria]. They’re messaging us that they have this capability.”
China, too, has also been investing in its cruise missile capability as part of its A2/AD strategy in Asia-Pacific in a major way. Even Iran is now in the cruise missile business, unveiling its Soumar cruise missile last year, with a reported range of 2,500 km.
There is also serious concern about the global proliferation of cruise missile systems such as the 3M-54 Club-K, a Russian export that can be stored and fired from a cargo container. The potential for a surprise attack on U.S. command and control threatens to hurt strategic stability, a point made last May by ADM Winnefeld.
So where does this leave cruise missile detection? The Senate Appropriation Committee’s prompt denial of the Army’s budget reprogramming request does not seem to bode well for the fate of the President’s $45.5 million request for FY17, but time will tell. The military’s persistence on the cruise missile detection problem, however, should probably be seen less about any particular program or system, and more about the larger capability gap for both the homeland and forces abroad. If not JLENS, demand will recur for some other means to detect and track cruise missiles.
A Busy Month for DPRK’s Missile Program
The North Korean Kim regime has had an active March, conducting missile tests, firing drills, and showcasing its nuclear and missile programs in state media. This activity comes as President Obama ordered new sanctions against the rogue regime on March 16, and during the U.S. / Republic of Korea (ROK) joint exercise Foal Eagle and Key Resolve which began March 7. This year’s exercises are larger than in years past, and come during a period of heightened tensions following North Korea’s recent nuclear and space launch vehicle tests.
North Korea began its latest round of provocations on March 4, when it tested what is believed to be a newly developed 300mm multiple launch rocket system (MLRS). South Korean media report the MLRS launched six rockets from Wonsan on North Korea’s eastern coast towards targets on an uninhabited island. North Korea’s official state news agency KCNA reported that Kim personally "guided” the test firing, which used a “controlled ordnance rocket warhead.” Jane’s reports that this rocket could rely on a satellite-based guidance.
On March 9 Kim Jong-un met with nuclear weapons scientists, according toreports by North Korean state media. Analysis from the blog 38 North suggests that the meeting occurred at the Chamjin Missile Factory outside Pyongyang. In photographs released of the visit, Kim Jong-un can be seen posing with what appears to be a miniaturized nuclear implosion device and what may be a firing device for the warhead. Although many believe that the device to be a mockup, it does provide indications about the direction of the North’s nuclear program.
The photographs offer some insight into the DPRK’s missile program as well. The photographs depict the first stage of the KN-08, which appears to consist of two Nodong engines. Other photographs showed the payload area of the KN-08’s reentry body, and a partially-blurred diagram of the warhead and firing device fitting together inside the KN-08 reentry vehicle.
The next day, on March 10, the North Koreans launched two Scud-type SRBMs. The missiles flew 500 miles before falling into the Sea of Japan.
On March 15, Kim Jong-un again visited a KN-08 facility, possibly the same Chamjin factory, according to analysts at the U.S. Korea Institute. During that visit, Kim reportedly observed a simulated reentry test of a supposed KN-08 reentry vehicle. Photographs released by KCTV show Kim Jong-un examining what appears to be the reentry vehicle after the test.
The pace continued on March 18, as North Korea launched two Nodong MRBMs from Sukchon on the West Coast towards the East Sea (Sea of Japan), apparently the first test or launch of a Nodong since March 26, 2014. South Korean military officials said the first missile was launched from a mobile launcher (TEL) and flew around 800 kilometers before falling into the Sea of Japan within the Japanese Air Defense Zone. The second missile reportedly blew up shortly after launch.
Missile testing continued last week, when on March 21, North Korea test fired five more projectiles into the Sea of Japan. The Korean Central News Agencyclaimed it was of the MLRS, and that “the new system is ready for combat deployment.”
On March 24, the North announced that it had successfully conducted a solid-fueled rocket engine test. If successful, the North could make its medium and long-range ballistic missiles able to fire without needing to be fueled before launch, greatly reducing warning time. The authenticity of the test, however, has not been verified.
Finally, on March 29, news outlets reported that North Korea launched another short-range projectile which the South Korean military suspects might be the previously mentioned 300 mm MRLS. The missile took off from Wonsan and fell into the Sea of Japan after traveling around 200 km.
Taken together, North Korea has fired 16 individual missiles or rockets this month, in addition to the reentry vehicle heat test. This is fewer than in than in years past (there were over 30 in March 2014). The number, however, is less significant than the insight into the capabilities North Korea is trying to acquire.
Iran Takes Advantage of UNSCR 2231
On March 8 and 9, Iran conducted its first ballistic missile tests since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) took effect on January 16, 2016. The tests were part of a two-day military exercise and displayed a range of capabilities. The first launches on March 8 included silo-launched missiles that, according to reports and associated video clips, suggest that the missiles were Qiam-1 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM). The next day, Iran launched two Qadr missiles, reportedly with the Hebrew inscription, “Israel must be wiped off the Earth.”
French and American officials have argued that while the tests do not technically violate the terms of the JCPOA, which after all does not limit Iran’s missile forces in any way, they nevertheless violate the spirit if not the letter of U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Iran’s tests, “could invite additional sanctions as we put them in place ... as a result of the prior tests.” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said on March 13 that “if necessary, sanctions will be taken.”
Whereas UNSCR 1929 had explicitly stated that, “Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons,” UNSCR 2231 is more permissive. The resolution states that “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” One difference is between 1929’s reference to missiles that may be deemed “capable” of carrying nuclear weapons, whereas 2231 refers to missiles designed to be capable. Iran, with Russian support, has also argued that the newer version merely calls upon Iran not to undertake such efforts, but does not explicitly ban such an undertaking.
In a March 15 press release, the Iranian UN delegation argued that, "Security Council resolution 2231 does not prohibit legitimate and conventional military activities, nor does international law disallow them. Iran has never sought to acquire nuclear weapon and never will in the future, as it fully honours its commitment under the NPT and the JCPOA. Consequently, Iran’s missiles are not and could not be designed for delivery of unconventional weapons."
If the March 8 missile launches were indeed Qiam-1s, it would mark the liquid-fueled missile’s first flight test since August 2010. Within Iran’s larger family of ballistic missiles, Qiam-1 is distinctive because of its lack of fins. Some reports suggest that it could be guided remotely, receiving information from ground radars, possibly making it more accurate than other Iranian SRBMs. At its unveiling in 2010, Iranian officials claimed that the Qiam featured multiple warheads. As noted by CSIS’s Anthony Cordesman, however, this most likely refers to a sub-munitions warhead, similar to a cluster bomb, rather than independent warheads. The Qiam-1 has an estimated range of around 700 km and an estimated payload of 650-750 kg.
The Qadr medium-range ballistic missile, which Iran tested on March 9, is believed to be a modified version of its Shahab-3 MRBM, which in turn was based on the Nodong MRBM acquired from North Korea during the 1990s. Iranian officials claim that the Qadr’s two main variants, sometimes designated Qadr-F and Qadr-H, have ranges of 2,000 km and 1,700 km, respectively. The maximum range these missiles have been tested is 1,400 km. Intelligence smuggled into Turkey in 2004 cited in a 2010 International Institute for Strategic Studies report suggests that the nose cone could also be detonated at 600 km altitude, indicating a potential airburst application.
While international action at the UN seems unlikely, Congress has responded to these tests with renewed calls for sanctions on all sectors of the Iranian ballistic missile program. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and new CENTCOM commander Gen. Joseph Votel have also both called for renewed sanctions to stymie Iran’s missile developments.