2021 Air & Missile Defense Year in Review

The previous year continued to provide ample interesting events in the field of air and missile defense (AMD). Hypersonic missiles, Chinese missile tests, defense system procurement, geopolitical changes, and more have been at the forefront of 2021. In keeping with our tradition established last year, the Acamar Institute has highlighted the most influential AMD trends of 2021. This year, the below list features a preview of some of the top AMD stories that the Acamar Institute will publish more detailed articles on in the coming months.

 

Hypersonic Missiles / Hypersonic Glide Vehicles

There can be hardly any doubt that within defense circles the term “hypersonic” was the word of 2021. Although “hypersonic missile development” already made it on our list of most important stories of 2020, it again became the leading story of our Air and Missile Defense Review of 2021. Unfortunately, with the testing of such weapons by various nations in 2021, an increase of false reporting went hand in hand. What is often overlooked is that traditional ballistic missiles are technically hypersonic weapons too. They usually achieve speeds faster than Mach 5 during descent, with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) even reaching speeds that are multiple times faster (Mach 23). We are not disputing that the weaponry commonly referred to as “hypersonic missiles” indeed constitute challenges for most contemporary radars, but this is mostly not due to their speed, but their maneuverability. Finally, hypersonic glide vehicles are not a brand-new military development as they have been depicted in media. Their concept and design date back to WWII Germany, and the United States as well as the Soviet Union experimented with them during the Cold War. The idea that hypersonic glide vehicles offer America’s adversaries a new and unique capability is incorrect, as is the notion that Americans are now in more danger than before because hypersonic glide vehicles exist.


Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS)

Some readers may be surprised and perhaps initially disagree with the choice of Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) as the second most important event in Air and Missile Defense of the year 2021. However, if we mention the Chinese hypersonic missile tests that flew around the earth in November, hardly anyone can disagree that these were highly significant events of 2021. According to the media reports, the actual weapon systems China may have tested would fall within the category of FOBS. What the press reports describe is a rocket that launched a vehicle into a low earth orbit, which then glided back to earth. In absolute sensationalism, the Chinese tests were presented as new and unknown technology that defies the laws of physics. Indisputably, however, there is nothing new with the concept of FOBS. FOBS is defined as a warhead delivery system that uses a low earth orbit towards its target destination. Just before reaching the target, it deorbits through a retrograde engine burn. The very fundamental concepts of such a weapon system were already drawn up in theory by German scientists at the beginning of WWII.

In the Soviet Union, officials began expressing interest in a FOBS-type weapon since the 1950s. By the early 1960s, the Soviet Union felt that pursuing FOBS would be a necessity, given their knowledge that the United States was already working on a spaceplane program and the belief that the U.S. was planning to use space to mount nuclear attacks. The U.S. Air Force had proposed using a reusable piloted glider to perform military operations such as reconnaissance and satellite attack, but also air-to-ground weapons employment. When the initial ideas for the U.S. Space Shuttle were conceptualized, the Soviet Union was certain that the U.S. planned to use it in a function to dispatch nuclear weapons. In late 1968, the Soviet Union eventually designated its first FOBS operational. The Soviet Union originally saw strategic advantages in the development of its FOBS. First, the system granted an unlimited global striking range with a nuclear weapon and the capability to attack the United States from any direction. A FOBS allowed the Soviet Union to utilize a flight path over the South Pole, thus avoiding U.S. defenses. The system concealed its actual target until its payload was released at any point from its orbit. These same strategic advantages are cited today in connection with the Chinese tests of 2021.

However, the Soviet Union soon discovered some disadvantages and eventually decommissioned its FOBS program. The nuclear payload of a FOBS was considerably reduced compared to that of an ICBM due to the high level of energy needed to get the weapon into orbit. In addition, the FOBS was far less accurate than an ICBM. By 1983, the Soviets had decommissioned and dismantled all their FOBS.

It is concerning when today’s intelligence analysts are making statements that they have never encountered any flight characteristics as seen in the Chinese tests of 2021 and that they did not know how the Chinese did this. Based upon the long history of FOBS and the U.S. involvement in this technology in the 1950s and 60s, the remarks of the highest military leadership in the United States comparing the Chinese tests with a Sputnik moment are more than surprising; they are greatly concerning.


India and the S-400

In our review of 2020, the Russian-made S-400 Air and Missile Defense system appeared in connection with Turkey and its controversial S-400 procurement and the no less contentious sanctions that followed thereafter. In 2021, the S-400 system made headlines again. This time mostly about India’s plans to integrate it into its defense plans. New Delhi concluded that the S-400 was the most cost-effective and efficient system in meeting India’s current and future air and missile defense needs. It seems determined to proceed with the $5.4-billion deal with Russia despite U.S. criticism. The United States warned India that there would be consequences under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CATSAA) if India went ahead with its S-400 procurement from Russia. But despite strong objections from the U.S. and renewed threat of sanctions from the Biden administration, India has refused to make any changes in its decision and went ahead with the purchase of the S-400 missile defense system. The U.S. continues to have its concerns over India purchasing the multi-billion dollar S-400 missile defense system from Russia, with India asserting that its decisions are based on its national interest to protect its national security. So far, the United States has not yet decided if it will impose CATSAA sanctions on India.


Continued F-35 Controversy

With the F-35, we have another reoccurring story that followed us from 2020 into 2021 (and will very likely also be a main topic in 2022). There has been hardly any other system in history that has evoked more emotions than the F-35, ranging from an absolute endorsement and unparalleled belief in its capabilities to complete rejection and categorization as failure. The year 2021 marks the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet program’s most successful year yet with the manufacturer exceeding its delivery goal. But 2021 also saw the United Arab Emirates (UAE) suspend a multi-billion dollar deal to buy F-35 fighter jets, in a sign of growing frustration with Washington's attempts to limit Chinese technology sales to the oil-rich Gulf state. The F-35 suspension then was followed by the UAE’s surprising announcement of a $19 billion deal with France for the acquisition of 80 Rafale fighter jets. The agreement with France is at least somewhat a message to Washington that the Emirates have options should the Biden administration continue to block movement on the F-35 procurement.


Shifting Geopolitical Paradigms

2021 saw increasing unexpected cooperation of U.S. allies and partners in the fields of missile development and AMD with U.S. rivals and adversaries. Some examples include Israel exporting missiles to China and Morocco, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, and Brazil all collaborating with China for defense projects, South Korea and Japan shifting away from the United States and growing more autonomous militarily, and the frustration of Qatar in its attempt to purchase U.S.-made drones while being blocked by U.S. bureaucracy. These developments reveal a trend of growing distrust in the reliability of the United States as a strategic partner. It is hard to dispute that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, one of the most significant events of the year, played a significant role. It presents a watershed moment in geopolitics with clear impacts on air and missile defense. Within the United States, the confused U.S. disengagement from Afghanistan may have been downplayed for political reasons, but throughout the rest of the world, it is understood as an American defeat. Internationally, the absence of astute and honest U.S. military and political leadership throughout the Afghan war, the 20-year deceit of the American people, the incompetent intelligence estimates about Afghanistan's future, the abundant waste of money, and the shameful chaotic flight of U.S. troops have diminished confidence in American political and military capabilities considerably. As a result, traditional U.S. allies have increasingly turned to U.S. adversaries Russia and China.

 

The important AMD stories of the past year are a blend of technical development, strategic realignment, and geopolitical maneuvering that depicts the ever-changing nature of the air and missile defense field and provide an interesting lens to anticipate what the future will look like and which actors will be involved. Stay tuned for expanded articles covering the above topics in greater detail! We are interested to hear your thoughts on topics that should or should not have made the list or what you would like to see us expand upon further. Email us at contact@acamarinstitute.org with your feedback or message us on social media @AcamarInstitute!