Recent events have illustrated the ways in which missiles pose a unique threat to civilians and military personnel. This article aims to explore what makes missiles uniquely lethal, especially in asymmetric conflicts. Note: for the purposes of this article, the term “missile” denotes all self-propelled airborne munitions, guided and unguided.
A recent ballistic missile strike by Houthi rebels illustrates how missiles can inflict massive damage with little risk: the rebels launched an OTR-21 Tochka ballistic missile at a Saudi-led coalition base, killing over 100 (including the commander of the Saudi Special Forces) from afar. This incident illustrates the ability of ballistic missiles to inflict massive damage against distant static targets with little risk to the missile operator. Without access to such missiles, this clandestine base would not have been possible for the rebels to target. Most methods of attack, such as overrunning the base with infantry or bombing it with aircraft, require a foe to be able to triumph militarily over an enemy, either by advancing on the ground or gaining air superiority. Missile strikes do not require air superiority or ground advances; rather, the missile merely needs to be acquired and protected prior to launch. This means that militant groups with vastly inferior military capabilities can still conduct crippling strikes against their foes. As missile technology improves, the asymmetric potential of missiles improves as well. Smaller missiles provide lower odds of detection and elimination. Longer ranges and better guidance means that missile strikes can be conducted accurately from remote locations.
Next, the removed nature of missile operations contributes to their potential for misuse. Because missile operators are often far from the target or engage without a visual, missiles have a unique potential to be fired in error. One prominent example of this is the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 by Ukrainian rebels using a Buk missile system. The missile’s operators probably mistook the Boeing 777-200ER for a Ukrainian transport aircraft, such as an IL-76. Whatever the circumstances, it can be assumed that the rebels did not intend to engage MH17, as they would stand nothing to gain and much to lose in the face of an international backlash. Similarly, the destruction of Iranian Airlines flight 655 by an American Aegis vessel illustrated that even well-trained individuals operating advanced missile systems can make catastrophic mistakes: both shoot-downs killed over 200 and brought intense international scrutiny to the offending groups.
Lastly, missiles are able to damage advanced equipment for a relatively small cost. For example, the PLO has used outdated RPG-7s to inflict heavy casualties on Israeli armored vehicles. The Syrian rebel groups have used TOW ATGMs to halt the Assad regime’s offensives. The main threat of missiles in this context is their cost relative to the price of the vehicles they can destroy. For example, a A T-72 tank costs over one million dollars. A TOW used in Syria to destroy a T-72 costs around $50,000. This cost disparity illustrates why missiles such as the TOW are such a thorn in the side of the Assad regime: rebels are able to cheaply (for the Syrian rebels, many of the TOWs are free) repel assaults by million dollar tanks, grinding the conflict to a standstill. The PLO has similarly been able to inflict damage upon the advanced Israeli forces using anti-tank missiles. In this capacity, missiles offer cash-strapped insurgents the capability to least inflict damage upon a well funded military.
So, if missiles are such a danger to militaries and civilians alike, what can be done to protect against them?
Let us take a look at three different methods (this is by no means an exhaustive account), all of which are inherently challenging. The most straightforward missile defense approach is to eliminate fielded missiles before they can be fired. This can be relatively easy if the missile is large and easy-to-spot, such as a ballistic missile or a cruise missile. However, it is quite difficult when the missiles are man-portable, such as the ATGMs used to great effect against armored vehicles. Even large truck-mounted missiles can be hidden in buildings, wooded areas, caves, and other locations invisible to satellites and UAVs. Man-portable missiles, which are capable of inflicting serious damage against vehicles and dismounted targets, are as easy to hide as a machine gun. Hiding missiles prior to launch is a common strategy used by Iran, Hezbollah (allegedly), and most nations with a nuclear arsenal, all with the goal of reducing the effectiveness of a pre-emptive strike on their missile arsenals. Alternatively, hostile missile-armed groups can be kept at a distance so that their missiles cannot reach their targets. However, as missile technology improves and range expands, this option may be less tenable.
Another way to protect against a missile strike is to defeat the missile while it is airborne, by either destroying it or luring it away from its target. The effectiveness of this approach varies depending on the missile type. Often times, smaller guided missiles can be lured away from their intended targets with decoys, chaff or electronic countermeasures, but equipping every possible target (such as airliners, automobiles, etc.) with such countermeasures is expensive. Larger surface-to-surface ballistic missiles whose targets are set prior to launch are very difficult to intercept; inertially guided missiles are impossible to lure away from their targets with decoys. Some air-defense systems such as the S-400 and Patriot PAC-3 are adept at taking out these ballistic missiles in flight, but the anti-ballistic missile systems are expensive. Also worth noting is that the cost of intercepting missiles is often higher than the cost of launching them; surface-to-surface missiles such as the Qassam can be made for under $1000, while interceptors tend to cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Another strategy is to stifle the manufacture and sale of missiles altogether, preventing their proliferation and hopefully their usage. Considering the difficulties of destroying already fielded missiles and eliminating airborne missiles, cutting off the supply of missiles is an appealing strategy. However, the Israeli embargo of Gaza proves that stopping the manufacture and usage of missiles is much more difficult than it may seem, as Hamas still parades around with missiles of all make and manufacture despite the Israeli embargo. Complicating the problem is that shoulder-fired missiles are a staple of every major military, providing a large stock from which missiles can be stolen and sold on the black market. Faltering armies such as the Iraqi army also have a tendency to cede equipment to insurgent groups who can then sell or use the missiles they obtain. States can get by restrictions as well: embargo-skirting North Korea’s missile program is making (sluggish) progress towards the manufacture of hard-to-manufacture submarine-launched ballistic missiles despite being a virtual pariah state. However, the proliferation-reduction strategy has achieved some success: the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has been signed by 190 nations and has achieved marked success in reducing the amount of states with nuclear-armed missiles. Undoubtedly, it is easier to prevent the manufacture of large and complex missile systems than the crude ones used by groups such as Hamas.
In conclusion, missiles have many attributes which make them uniquely dangerous. There are multiple ways to defend against them, each of which has its strengths and weaknesses. However, considering the difficulties of stopping missile ttacks, it seems that a new technology breakthrough may be required to counter the missile threat.