x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Lockheed's pitch for Gulf defence: fast as a bullet, wide as the sea

Lockheed Martin wants to blanket the Arabian Gulf with an integrated missile-defence system that tracks and destroys the deadliest threats.

Lockheed Martin's terminal high-altitude area defence (Thaad) system's high-altitude intercept mitigates effects of missles before they reach the ground. Courtesy Lockheed Martin
Lockheed Martin's terminal high-altitude area defence (Thaad) system's high-altitude intercept mitigates effects of missles before they reach the ground. Courtesy Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin has a plan to throw an electronic cloak over the Arabian Gulf's skies capable of detecting, tracking and destroying any incoming missile.

And the US defence and aerospace giant is bringing it to the UAE in February to see if the GCC is interested. The system is designed to seek out weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and kill them. Unlike most existing interceptor missiles, which detonate on proximity fuses and blast their target with shrapnel, the ordnance Lockheed is deploying slams into its target faster than a bullet and the kinetic energy generated by the impact consumes everything, be it chemical or nuclear.

The concept is simple: it brings together Lockheed's extensive inventory of air defence missiles - each type capable of intercepting incoming targets from ballistic missiles entering from near-space to sea-skimming cruise missiles and even small tactical rockets - and places them under one central command and control system.

And the message Lockheed will have for potential partners in the project is equally simple: it works.

The company tested the system in the Pacific Ocean in October and the results will be on show at Idex, one of the world's leading defence expos, which opens in Abu Dhabi on February 17.

"Early detection is key, and this is a system that is flexible, integrated and delivers a good picture of the battle space," says Orville Prins, Lockheed Martin's vice president of international business development, air and missile defence. "You decide what you are looking to defend, and it then lets you layer your defences to protect high-value targets."

"These weapons are hit-to-kill, bullet on bullet. No other company has that technology integrated into their missiles," says Mr Prins. "Blast fragmentation cannot guarantee that you will destroy a WMD payload. It takes a kinetic force to destroy them. Much faster than a bullet, the lethality is in the precision. You need to assure 100 per cent destruction."

The UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait already have or are in the process of buying many of the component parts of the system from the US government.

In December 2011 the UAE signed to purchase Lockheed's Thaad (terminal high-altitude area defence) system capable of intercepting long-range ballistic missiles in a deal valued at nearly US$2 billion (Dh7.34bn). Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia all use or have signed deals to purchase a US-made Patriot system for defence against close-in missile attacks.

In October, the US defence security cooperation agency, which oversees foreign arms sales, announced that Qatar wanted to buy two Thaad fire control units, 12 launchers, 150 interceptors, parts, training and logistical support as well as Patriot missiles and radars for an estimated cost of $6.5bn. The UAE requested 48 Thaad missiles, nine launchers and other equipment valued at $1.13bn. Saudi Arabia is also reported to be interested.

What Lockheed, with US government backing, will be seeking to show at Idex is how much better these systems can perform if they are all integrated into a single command and control set up, and its evidence is October's Pacific test.

Lockheed deployed their Aegis ballistic missile defence system, Patriot advanced capability-3 (Pac-3) missile and the Thaad, which together worked to detect, track, engage and destroy two ballistic missile targets and one cruise missile target during a live-fire test conducted by the US missile defence agency on the Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific.

"[The] success demonstrates the strides that have been made in missile-defence technologies and the maturity and reliability of these systems," says Dennis Cavin, the vice president for army and missile programs at Lockheed Martin.

"This test demonstrates the benefits of a layered, interoperable approach that can help protect the US and allies from increasing security concerns around the world."

The flight test began with a target simulating an incoming ballistic missile, airdropped over the ocean to the north of the atoll from a US air force C-17 transport aircraft. The Thaad system on Kwajalein, tracked and destroyed the target, while another short-range ballistic missile target was launched from the ocean area to the north-east. The Patriot system, tracked and successfully intercepted that target, while a second Patriot missile intercepted a low-flying cruise missile target over water.

While the land-based missiles were in operation, offshore, a US navy destroyer equipped with the Aegis system successfully engaged a low-flying cruise missile over water. The Aegis system also tracked and launched against a short-range ballistic missile.

The entire test was controlled from Lockheed's command, control, battle management and communications system, which co-ordinated the tracking of the incoming targets, selected the appropriate response and launched the defensive missiles.

But despite these successes, the concept will be a hard-sell.

In October, there was a meeting at the US and GCC strategic cooperation forum in New York to discuss bringing the Arabian Gulf states into the US missile defence ring around Iran. The system is already set to be deployed to defend southern Europe from the threat of Iranian missiles.

But there are major political stumbling blocks to GCC agreement. When it comes to missile defence, Gulf countries remain reluctant, says Mustafa Alani, the director of defence and security studies at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai.

"There is no agreement among the Gulf states on this sort of system," he said after the October meeting, citing high costs and disagreements over command structures.

Concerns about long-term threats have also hindered cooperation so far, he said. A regional missile defence system would take years to put in place, by which time regional dynamics may have shifted.

In the world of missile defence, it seems, agreement and deployment rarely rocket along.

dblack@thenational.ae