Air & Missile Defense Year in Review: The Most Important Stories of 2020
The previous year saw many interesting developments in the field of air and missile defense (AMD). The impactful use of drones in nation-state combat, technical advancement in both offensive and defensive measures, and the revised missile defense strategies of key global actors, are just a few clear trends. The previous twelve months have shown how fast militaries can evolve and foreshadow the revolutionary changes on the horizon. In order to capture this rapid evolution, the Acamar Institute has highlighted the most influential AMD trends of 2020 and will continue to do so annually. Below is a selected list of twelve of the most influential AMD stories in relative order of importance.
Drones in Combat. While drones have been around militarily for quite some time now, events in 2020 placed a renewed focus on their use. The armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia was a showcase for the tactical and technical advancement of this weapon system. The primary beneficiary of this evolution was Azerbaijan, who effectively leveraged Israeli and Turkish drone technology to devastating effects. Outside of this conflict, Turkish drone advancement and tactics must also be recognized. Turkey has demonstrated how to minimize risk and maximize effects with its revolutionary drone concepts. Their coordinated, large scale attacks that integrate electronic warfare, reconnaissance, surveillance, weapons delivery, and even psychological operations (by filming drone attacks and the destruction of enemy equipment) have shaken up the global defense establishment. In addition to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Turkish drone tactics have been highly successful in Syria and Libya in 2020.
Turkey Sanctioned over S-400 Procurement. The United States and Turkey are traditional allies and have historically had strong relations. Turkey is a key member of NATO and houses important U.S. military facilities within its territory. It is no secret, however, that the relationship between Washington and Ankara started to fray (with periodic ups and downs) since the Iraq war. The decaying relationship led to Turkey’s flirtation with Russian weapons systems and increased coordination on certain geopolitical matters. The United States certainly did not appreciate the warming relations between the two nations, but when Turkey purchased the Russian S-400 air defense system in 2020, it crossed a red line in America’s eyes. Washington is concerned about possible incompatibilities between the NATO and Russian systems and that the integration of the Russian weapons system into Turkey’s defense architecture will lead to the leakage of classified NATO information. Turkey counters that it is not the only NATO member with Soviet weapon systems in their defense infrastructure (Greece, Bulgaria and Slovakia also do). In response, the U.S.-Turkish relationship hit a low point and the country was sanctioned. The larger impact of this is still unfolding with particular concern over how the NATO alliance can effectively cooperate when the two largest militaries within it are in serious dispute. It will be interesting to see how the United States reacts to India’s planned purchase of the Russian S-400 AMD system in 2021.
Hypersonic Missile Development. One of the largest technical development stories in AMD during 2020 was the revelation of rapid and continuous hypersonic missile progress by China and Russia. Although the technological groundwork of these systems has been under way for a very long time, the reaction in the United States was just short of panic. The appearance of these systems in public and in American political consciousness gave the impression that the U.S. had been leap- frogged by its competitors and was suddenly vulnerable to this threat. Military and political leaders provided assurances that this technology would be addressed and a defensive solution would be found. The reality of this development is somewhat more nuanced. The U.S. homeland has been vulnerable to Russian and Chinese missile arsenals for decades due to their sheer quantity, whether hypersonic or not. Additionally, the technical label of ‘hypersonic’ has been placed on certain parts of their arsenals for quite some time. However, the reaction of the American public and political class undermined confidence in the U.S. military’s defensive capabilities, thrusting the issue into the spotlight and forcing the United States to accelerate its hypersonic offensive and defensive development.
Successful SM-3 ICBM flight test. Another AMD technical breakthrough in 2020 was the successful flight test in which the SM-3 interceptor neutralized an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from the sea-based Aegis ballistic missile defense platform. This SM-3 missile was originally designed for use against intermediate and short-range missile threats, so this test expands their repertoire of capability and increases ICBM defense for the United States. Prior to this test, it was generally believed that the only ICBM defense was the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) missile defense system, based in Alaska and California. With the successful use of SM-3s against ICBMs, the defensive capability of the United States may be more robust and flexible. While some analysts are claiming this new development may disrupt the balance of capability in the Asia-Pacific region, these claims are likely overstated. Although not officially expressed, it was believed for some time among many experts and competitors that the SM-3 had the capability to perform this function.
Japan Cancels Aegis Ashore Commitment and Redefines AMD Strategy. Japanese military considerations are typically analyzed through a magnifying glass in its region due to World War II sensitives. Any hint of an offensive military tilt made by the country is often met with concern from China and South Korea (and even the United States). With this in mind, Japan’s cancellation of the advanced American-made Aegis Ashore missile defense system became a highly debated topic. Coupled with news that Japan would be developing more offensive ballistic missile capability, heated political debate ensued in the Asia-Pacific region. There was also concern in the United States due to joint defense plans and economic impacts to American companies. The impact of this decision is still unfolding, though it seems to reflect a broader trend of militaries throughout the world emphasizing offensive missile systems as a form of defense. It seems there is a level of comfort in the known capabilities of offensive missile systems versus the relatively untested purely defensive systems.
Successful Test of long-range Howitzer against a Cruise Missile. A recent trial of a newly developed battlefield system has proven the capability of a Howitzer artillery piece to down a cruise missile. This technical breakthrough is extremely important militarily, as cruise missile proliferation has been growing steadily and has not been adequately addressed by existing air defense weapons systems. The Patriot AMD system has the capability to address this threat, but its effectiveness is limited and its interceptors are very expensive. The Howitzer’s proven efficacy against this growing threat addresses this cruise missile defense gap with the added advantage that it is an existing weapons system already present in many conventional military units. The familiarity many units have with the Howitzer removes the requirements of expensive research and development for a bespoke defensive system and limits the training requirements for its full implementation in anti-cruise missile capacities.
Iranian ballistic missile attack on U.S. forces in Iraq. In what appears to be another step in the endless tension between the US and Iran, Tehran unleashed a ballistic missile attack on U.S. forces in Iraq in 2020. This attack was in retribution for the U.S. assassination of Iranian Quds forces commander Qasem Soleimani. While the two nations have been engaged in a relatively low-level conflict for some time now (primarily through proxies), the deliberate use of ballistic missiles emanating from Iran directly against U.S. forces represents a significant escalation to the usual tit for tat. It is shocking that neither the assassination nor the ballistic missile attacks led to an actual hot-war between the two nations. One wonders if this would remain true if any U.S. Service Members were killed in the attack.
Ballistic Missile use in Armenia and Azerbaijan Conflict. While this conflict in the Caucasus was highly notable for the role of drones, it was also notable for the use of ballistic missiles. It is clear that ballistic missile use was heavily restrained (perhaps due to Russian influence) but is nonetheless important because of the rarity in which ballistic missiles are used in conflict. As you can imagine when such weapons are used, the potential for catastrophic escalation is very high. Worth exploring further is the behind-the-scenes discussions that prevented their use from spreading. Particularly surprising is the limited use by Armenia, who has a sizable ballistic missile arsenal and was being heavily degraded by Azeri drones for which they could not counter. Needless to say, this conflict could have been a lot worse.
Iranian Downing of Ukrainian Airliner. During a very tense time in early 2020 (see #7), the Iranian military shot down Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 killing all 176 people aboard. Despite initial hesitation, Iranian officials subsequently apologized, called it an accident and promised to implement controls to prevent further accidents. (Initially, they claimed the aircraft was entering sensitive airspace.) This event showcases a growing concern that civilian aircraft may find themselves in the crosshairs of the growing proliferation of air defense systems as well as offensive capabilities. As airspace becomes the central focus of militaries and conflicts in general, the safety of civilian aircraft is an important discussion topic. Whether they are intentionally targeted for political/military purposes or are accidentally downed through misidentification is immaterial. As more nations and non-state actors acquire the capability to target aircraft (with a huge variance in training and control measures), such events will likely become more commonplace. How these events will impact relationships and cross-border commerce remains uncertain.
Establishment of the United States Space Force. The creation of this new branch of the U.S. military technically happened in December 2019, but is included on the list because its initial development unfolded throughout 2020. Strangely, the creation of this new branch was greeted by ridicule in U.S. popular culture. (Netflix even created a mocking series around it.) However, anyone with even a slight awareness of military trends understands the importance of this development. This move shows the world that the United States is taking the next military domain seriously and likely marks the beginning of a global military priority shift. At the first glance the creation of the Space Force may not seem significant for AMD. But in 2020, some experts have started to address that this misconception may actually present itself as a deficit for the effectiveness of the Space Force and that it must incorporate missile defense to a much greater extent (a position that Acamar has held since the inception of the Space Force). The media has just recently discovered the significance of missile warning provided by the Space Force through the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) in the Iranian missile attack on U.S. bases in Iraq. Similarly, homeland defense from intercontinental ballistic missiles has been a constant topic in the media. The intercept of such missile attacks would take place in space. Therefore, it could be argued that strategic missile defense should be integrated into the Space Force (this is currently not the case; only missile warning is a Space Force function).
Historic Weapons System Procurement Referendum in Switzerland. It may seem strange to see Switzerland mentioned in an article about AMD stories of the past year as they are the world’s most famously neutral nation. However, Switzerland was indeed the feature of important events related to the upgrading of their country’s air defense. In their Air2030 referendum, the Swiss populace was asked to vote on whether the nation should consider the purchase of new combat aircraft for their Air Force. In a very close and controversial vote, the Swiss population decided to pursue a major upgrade of their air force using offensive-capable aircraft. This option was in contrast to pursuing a more purely defensive strategy using ground-based air defense and aircraft designed more specifically for air policing measures. (Full disclosure: key members of the Acamar Institute advised the Swiss Social Democratic Party during the discussion phase of the referendum) This could be another example of a nation opting to prioritize offensive capabilities as a means for defense over purely defensive ones.
Continued controversy of the F-35. The most expensive weapons system development project in human history, the F-35, is also the most discussed. 2020 air and missile defense conversations would be lacking if the F-35 were not included. Throughout the year, more nations agreed to purchasing the fighter jet as the U.S. aggressively (maybe desperately?) shopped the aircraft around to all its allies and partners. Unfortunately for the U.S. taxpayers however, this project is rarely portrayed in a positive light. While 2020 did not provide any watershed moments in the plane’s notoriety, there was a rumor reported this past year (not widely) as to the weakness of the aircraft. The rumor stated that in 2017 an F-35 flown by Israel was made inoperable by an archaic Russian air defense system in Syria. Israel said the plane was actually damaged by birds and not the air defense system. We will leave it to the readers to decide whether it is more embarrassing that a nearly $100 million dollar plane was brought down by a bird or an ‘obsolete’ air defense system.
The important AMD stories of the past year are a blend of technical development, strategic realignment, and geopolitical maneuvering that shows the ever-changing nature of the air and missile defense field and provide an interesting lens to anticipate what future conflict will look like and which actors will be involved. As with all year-in-review lists, there were countless relevant stories that could have been included but were left off for various reasons.
We are interested to hear your thoughts on topics that should have made the list or should not have. Please feel free to email us at email@example.com with your feedback or message us on social media @AcamarInstitute!