Yorkshire on the U.S. military front line
Yorkshire has been placed in the front line of any nuclear confrontation involving the United States because of the two military bases at Fylingdales and Menwith Hill that support the US Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system.
What is US Missile Defence?
For decades now, the United States has been developing an extremely expensive global weapons system, generally termed ‘Missile Defense’ (but often, especially in the early days, known as ‘Star Wars’). This system is in fact not a ‘defence’ but is offensive; the ‘shield’ that complements a US-led nuclear ‘sword’. It allows for the capability to make first-strike attacks without fear of retaliation, and is generating a new arms race. The system consists of missile bases and radar stations across the world, including sea-based components, and is designed to target and destroy any ‘enemy’ missiles. It helps the US achieve a strategy of ‘full spectrum dominance’ – that gives them control of land, sea, air, space and information.
Trump has taken this to a new level with his plans to create a sixth branch of the US armed forces termed ‘Space Force’. (An analysis of Trump’s intentions to turn space into a war zone is here.) In January 2019 he released plans titled ‘Missile Defense Review’ in which he renewed the commitment to the system, and stated that the US “will not accept any limitation or constraint on the development or deployment of missile defense capabilities.”
How Missile Defense is supposed to work
Basically the system is composed of space and land based components that detect, track and target missiles targetted on the United States. When sufficient data about the missiles has been collected an interceptor would be fired to smash into and destroy the missile before it reaches its intended target (see diagram above or view the video below).
Part 1 – What is missile defense?
This offensive system threatens to start a new arms race, because other states – including Russia and China – feel threatened by US Missile Defence. This is leading them to increase their stockpiles of weapons and/or develop technologies that could outwit or overwhelm missile defence systems as well as encouraging them to develop their own missile defence system (leading to a nuclear weapons spiral).
US Missile Defence stands in the way of nuclear arms reduction talks. While the US continues to push on with the system and place bases on the borders of Russia and China, they feel threatened and are likely to be unwilling to reduce their nuclear war heads. In fact in December 2013, it was reported that Russia had deployed Iskander missiles with a range of hundreds of kilometers in its Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad, which borders NATO members Poland and Lithuania. Russia had said in 2011 that it might do this as part of a response to an anti-missile shield the United States and NATO are building in Europe.
US Missile Defense – a Global System
The US uses bases and facilities around the world and in space to support its missile defense system. They are integrated through a command and control centre situated in US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) in Nebraska, (see the article on STRATCOM the next generation in war-fighting by Nebrakans for Peace). Below we illustrate briefly how the various components of the system (including those based in Yorkshire) are being connected and how they are also being linked with NATO systems.The principle threat identified by the US is that of short and medium-range missiles launched from Iran. Thus the components of global system would need to include: Patriot missile batteries for battlefield defence against short and medium-range ballistic missiles in the lower atmosphere; sea-based Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) interceptors aboard Aegis ships for medium and intermediate-range missiles in space; Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) interceptors to be developed and deployed to provide protection against short, medium and intermediate-range missiles in the upper atmosphere. Together these different interceptor types comprise a ‘layered defensive shield’ (see diagram below) with different segments of the system focussing on different sections of the flight of a ballistic missile (the boost or ascent phase; the midcourse phase and the terminal phase).
Current US BMD Ground, Sea and Space Based Components
|26 silo-based interceptors at Ft Greely, Alaska (with another 14 due to be added in 2017). 4 more interceptors are positioned at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California and a third site on the East Coast of the USA is liekly to be established by 2018.|
|Upgraded ground based Ballistic Missile Early Warning Systems (BMEWS) – powerful phased array radars used for detecting, tracking and targetting missiles. Similar systems are established in Alaska, at Thule in Greenland and Fylingdales in Yorkshire. Other similar radars are stationed at Beale Air Force base in California and at Cape Cod in Massachusetts to give full coverage of the US from the east and west coasts.|
|Forward based transportable high powered X-band radar systems used to act as a forward based sensor for the system, detecting ballistic missiles early in their flight and providing precise tracking information. Currently deployed in Turkey and Israel, and additional systems are due to be installed in Japan and Qatar.|
|A $1 billion sea-based X-band radar to track, discriminate and assess targets from a mobile semi-submersible platform based in the Aleutian Islands but moveable around the Pacific region.|
|The Aegis sea-based Ballistic Missile Defense System. A RIM-161 Standard Missile 3 anti-ballistic missile is launched from USS Shiloh, a US Navy Ticonderoga-class cruiser. Simialr ships equipped with missile defense systems can be stationed anywhere at sea. Spain is hosting 4 Aegis capable ships at Rota in the Mediterranean.|
|As well as a system of early warning satellites, a Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) is under development for space-based detection and tracking of ballistic missiles. Data from STSS satellites would be transmitted to the US via ground based down-link stations and the UK has already agreed that Menwith Hill in Yorkshire will be one of those. The data will allow interceptors to engage incoming missiles earlier in flight than would be possible with other missile detection systems.|
More about the US BMD Components in Yorkshire
The US has two key bases in Yorkshire that (among other things) are key to supporting their missile defense system. They are RAF Fylingdales on the North Yorkshire Moors, not far from Whitby and ‘RAF’ Menwith Hill, a few miles outside Harrogate in North Yorkshire.
Fylingdales is already an operational radar component of US Missile Defense and the US has been given permission to use Menwith Hill as a downlink station for space based satellite components when (or if) they are finally made operational. As already mentioned, the whole system is integrated and controlled by Strategic Command (STRATCOM) in Nebraska, USA.
A Brief History of the Modern Day System
Missile defence systems have been developed since the 1950s but we will only consider here the development of the modern day US program which includes the Yorkshire based components. The idea to build a global ‘defense’ network to protect against possible enemy ballistic missile attacks was publically announced on March 23, 1983 in the famous ‘Star Wars’ speech of President Ronald Reagan. He proposed the development of a system that would make nuclear weapons ‘impotent and obsolete.’ He had been persuaded that it was possible to build a shield that would protect the United States from missile attack from anywhere in the world. The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was implemented from this idea and involved the development of various kinds of speculative and extremely expensive technology such as ground and space-based interceptor missiles, energy beam and laser weapons. The command and control of these components would be coordinated through a global satellite system.
This grand plan was soon seen to be technically unfeasible and, with the end of the Cold War, unnecessary. Even so, successive US administrations have continued to finance research and development in some aspects of SDI at a rate of around $7-8 billion annually. In 2001, President George W. Bush announced that the US would unilaterally withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Russia in order to develop, test and deploy missile defence technology. The ABM Treaty prevented the deployment of missile defence systems in an attempt to ensure that the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) would maintain a precarious strategic balance of nuclear weapons numbers and capabilities. However, the Bush administration’s plan was for a Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system consisting of ground-based and satellite systems intended to detect, track, identify, target and intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) aimed at the continental US.
The GMD system is composed of five upgraded early warning and tracking radar bases: one at Fylingdales, one at Thule in Greenland, and three on US soil in Alaska, California and Massachusetts (see diagram above). Interceptor missiles intended to knock out incoming ICBMs are stationed in Alaska and California. Further plans have included establishing specialist facilities at existing bases in places such as Australia and the UK (at Menwith Hill in North Yorkshire) to receive and relay tracking and targeting information from space-based infrared tracking satellites and the stationing of a number of interceptor missiles in Poland and a new powerful radar base in the Czech Republic. These moves increased tension with Russia and in 2007 President Vladimir Putin both threatened to withdraw Russia from the INF Treaty – a major cold war arms treaty restricting the stationing of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe – and suspend Russia from the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe. Russia also became very concerned about the positioning of US interceptor missiles in Poland.
There was also significant opposition in Poland and the Czech Republic to US bases being established there and this shifted the focus on missile defence to Europe. Plans for GMD looked quite vulnerable at the end of George W. Bush’s second term of office as President.
US Missile Defense in Europe
Before being elected President in 2008 Barack Obama stated that he would ‘cut investments in unproven missile defense systems’ but also that he was not ‘opposed’ to missile defense altogether. The first statement was welcomed by many but the second was more or less forgotten. In fact, on becoming President, Obama was true to his word on both counts. He did draw back from his predecessor’s plans and cancelled the projects proposed for Poland and the Czech Republic. Instead, on September 17, 2009, President Obama announced that the US would pursue a “Phased Adaptive Approach” to missile defense in Europe. The new approach centered on the ship based Aegis missile defense system would be deployed in three main phases from 2011 to 2018:
- Phase 1 – 2011: Aegis BMD-capable multi-role ship deployed to the Mediterranean, Spain will host four US Aegis-capable ships at Rota; AN/TPY-2 forward X-band radar in Turkey; Patriot missiles in Poland;
- Phase 2 – 2015: Aegis interceptor missiles adapted to be launched from land (Aegis Ashore) – the Standard Missile (SM) 3 IB battery to be hosted by Romania;
- Phase 3 – 2018: SM-3 IIA (under development with Japan) to be deployed in Poland and at sea. Additional sensors and tracking capabilities to be on-line by 2018.
A fourth phase to have been fielded after 2022 was cancelled in March 2013. This system was adopted by NATO at its 2010 Summit meeting in Lisbon.
In April 2010 Russia and the US signed up to the New START Treaty (to come into force in early 2011) but the new treaty stirred up some controversy in the US. Republicans insisted that the President had given in to Russia on the deployment of missile defense in Europe. This was strongly denied by Obama’s negotiators and the US Missile Defense Agency. In fact new plans for US Missile Defense were to join up with NATO and modify and expand ship and land-based systems for installation in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The full details were presented in 2010 in a Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report which showed that the Obama Administration was shifting from ‘defending the homeland’ against long-range ICBMs to ‘defending against regional threats’.
Various types of missile defense system are now being developed to counter different missile type – i.e. short range, medium range, intermediate range and long range or intercontinental ballistic missiles (see figure below).
The following video made by Strategic Forecasting Inc. (or Stratfor, a company specialising in global intelligence) may help to illustrate some of the points mentioned above:
NATO and Missile Defence
NATO work on missile defence started in the early 1990s, initially focussing on a Theatre Missile Defense (TMD) system to counter short or medium range missiles for deployed NATO troops. This was expanded in 2002 to consider the protection of population centres and the NATO 2004 Summit in Istanbul agreed that work on TMD should be continued expeditiously. The following year, 2005, saw NATO countries approve a Charter for Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence (ALTBMD), again to protect NATO forces. The NATO Summit in Bucharest in 2008 agreed to integrate components of President Obama’s Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) to missile defence into the developing NATO systems so as to extend coverage and in 2010 at the NATO Summit in Lisbon, it was decided to expand that the combined NATO and US system would be used to provide a missile defence system for the whole of Europe.
The Obama PAA is based on the ship based Aegis system and has 3 phases, each of which corresponds to a development of the Standard Missile 3 (SM3) interceptor – making it faster and longer range at each stage. Phase 1 is operating currently and incorporates SM-3 IA missiles carried on Aegis cruisers. Phase 2 calls for an improved interceptor (the SM-3 IB due to be tested in 2014) and an Aegis Ashore (i.e. a land based missile battery) in Romania to be deployed by 2015. In Phase 3, the SM-3 IIA longer range interceptor that presently is under development in cooperation with Japan is scheduled for use at a site in Poland and at sea. Additional sensors and tracking capabilities are also planned for 2018. Finally, by 2020, Phase 4 calls for deployment of the SM-3 IIB interceptor to provide an early intercept capability against Medium and Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles and provide an additional layer for an enhanced defence of the US homeland against ICBMs.
In 2011 agreements were made with Turkey and Romania to host a forward based X-band radar system and interceptors respectively for the US-NATO system. Also in 2011 the US confirmed the agreement to base 24 interceptors in Poland by 2018 and Spain agreed to host Aegis missile defense ships in Rota. In addition, the Netherlands decided to adapt 4 air-defence frigates for NATO’s BMD capability. In 2012 NATO established its command and control centre at Ramstein, Germany and the Chicago Summit included, perhaps rather prematurely, a declaration of the Interim Capability of the system. This NATO propaganda video gives and overview of the system:
Russia has repeatedly asked for legally binding assurances that NATO missile interceptors would not be used against Moscow’s strategic missiles but Washington is unwilling to do this. In response, the US has invited Russia to participate in the defensive system, helping NATO guard against Iran. But Russia is unlikely to cooperate on a flawed system against a threat it doesn’t see as imminent. In any case such cooperation between NATO and Russia could alienate China who may then build up its nuclear arms, creating a domino effect — with India and Pakistan responding in a similar way. Although initial discussions towards participation were held, little progress has been made and Russia has accused the US of not taking the idea of joint participation seriously.
But how much does it cost?
Between 1985 and 2012, US Congress appropriated $149.5 billion for Missile Defense Agency programmes – which does not include some programmes such as Patriot system. In 2013 the Pentagon requested $9.7 billion for missile defense – $7.8 billion for the Missile Defense Agency and $1.9 billion for the Army and others. This brought estimates for the cost of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense program alone to be about $40.926 billion from inception up until 2017.
There are also high level costs for cancelled programmes, including the Kinetic Energy interceptor (2009) (cancelled after spending $4.5 billion over 8 years) and the Air Borne Laser (cancelled after spending $5.2 billion).
These are huge sums of money – it is quite easy to think of alternative uses for that money in the US and around the world, but even after all that has been spent there remains the question “will it/can it actually work?”
So, does/can it work?
During the first session of the 25th NATO Summit in Chicago in 2012, the alliance’s senior governing body declared the missile defense system it endorsed in 2010 in Lisbon to be operational. However, although this may mean that the various components of the system can function together, it does not mean it will actually work.
A 2012 report by the US National Research Council stated significantly that “the current GMD system has serious shortcomings ans provides at best a limited initial defense against a relatively primitive threat.” As of July 2013, 8 of the 17 hit-to-kill intercept tests have been successful (47%) and the system has yet to be tested against a target with ICBM range and speed and the latest version of the interceptor in use (currently being 10 of the 30 deployments) has never successfully intercepted a test target. According to MDA Director current interceptors are more like prototypes than field versions, but even if we assume that the current systems could be made to work as planned – what kind of protection would they be?
Another 2012 report, this time by the US Defense Science Board discussing the Obama PAA concluded that early intercept is “not realistically achievable”. It pointed out the inadequacy of the existing Aegis radars and highlighted the problems of discriminating between warheads and other objects.
One major problem is that the limited number of anti-ballistic missiles could be overwhelmed by sheer numbers if an all out attack was launched on the US (or Europe), there would be little protection from the hundreds of missiles that could be launched. Another difficulty yet to oversome is that of countermeasures. Any state that can build and launch an ICBM could presumably install some way of fooling or avoiding an anti-ballistic missile – as described in the following video:
In addition to this it is known that manoeuvrable and hypersonic (travelling at many times the speed of sound) missile systems are being developed by Russia and China – these would be extremely difficult to track and target accurately by any missile defense system.
There seems little doubt that missile defense systems encourage arms races. Whenever a shield is developed a stronger sword follows, which leads to more shield developments and so on – in a spiral that can only eventually lead to disaster. It is clear that what is actually needed is a change in the way we look at security and how we define and deal with threats. There are many other approaches the US and other governments might consider as alternatives to developing missile defence systems that only encourage more missiles to be built – we need to work collaboratively to eradicate the need for them in the first place. If we are concerned about nuclear weapons proliferation we can vigorously pursue a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, develop new international monitoring systems, and abide by and strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If we are worried about ballistic missiles we can negotiate a new Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty or a missile test ban, and work for missile-free zones. We could make a real attempt to rid the world once and for all from the threat of nuclear annihilation by seriously pursuing a Nuclear Weapons Convention.
This would seem to be a more sensible and sustainable way of behaving, one that would avoid fuelling the suspicion and distrust caused by the current strategies, and that would have benefits for all.
A growing number of peace and human rights groups are joining the campaign to protest at missile defence and the militarization of space. The Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space is a leading international network of peace groups concerned about these issues. It has around 150 affiliates world wide and, among other things, coordinates the annual “Keep Space for Peace Week” in which groups organise events focussing on preventing the spread of space militarization and an arms race in space. We hope you will join us in supporting these activities.