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The Role of Airpower in Active Missile Defense


[...] can we undertake a new mission area without jeopardizing the traditional core capabilities of the combat air forces? [...] we should consider an adversary's ability to concentrate his attack at a specific point and time.\n Together, the small interceptor and the staring IRSTS comprise a survivable and highly flexible defensive capability that can frustrate an adversary's planning and even provide additional capabilities well beyond missile defense functions.

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									The Role of Airpower
in Active Missile Defense
Col Mike Corbett, USAF, Retired
Paul Zarchan

B      allistic missile defense is a conten-
       tious issue. Some people consider it
       an essential tool for modern security;
others believe that it diverts critical re-
                                                missile (TBM) threat has also changed with
                                                the evidence of new, dangerous capabilities
                                                on the horizon.3 Given the new emphasis
                                                on capabilities against near-term regional
sources from more pressing needs.1 Ques-        threats, perhaps now is a good time to reex-
tions have continued to surface ever since      amine the role that airpower might play in
the first German V-2 missile fell on Europe     this challenging mission area.4
in 1944. During Pres. George W. Bush’s ad-         What is the proper role of airpower, and
ministration, the military deployed an ini-     what does it bring to active missile defense
tial defensive capability against long-range    that surface- and space-based forces do not?
missiles and increased the numbers as well      Should combat air forces have a primary
as improved the quality of existing theater
defenses.2 However, the theater ballistic

                                                                         Summer 2010 | 57
Corbett & Zarchan

role in this mission area? Finally, can we       vulnerable points and, perhaps most impor-
undertake a new mission area without jeop-       tantly, do so in a cost-effective manner.
ardizing the traditional core capabilities of        However, before we examine this concept,
the combat air forces?                           we need to take a closer look at the threat.
                                                 Besides the number of missiles produced
                                                 and the number of countries that have them,
         Air-Launched Hit-to-Kill                is the threat really growing? To date, con-
                                                 ventional (nonnuclear) TBMs have never
    This article describes a concept that        constituted a militarily significant capability
treats ballistic missiles in the same manner     that could hold key assets at risk or prevent
as conventional air-breathing threats, using     the attainment of key objectives—although
similar doctrine and many of the same            they could penetrate most defenses.7 A nu-
technologies employed by today’s combat          clear warhead changes the story, but we
air forces. Known as Air-Launched Hit-to-        could argue that deterrence works pretty
Kill (ALHK), this concept employs small          well against adversaries with enough capa-
kinetic interceptors directed to targets by a    bility to develop nuclear weapons. So, is the
staring infrared search and track system         threat of TBMs really changing?
(IRSTS). Initially fighters would carry the          Indications suggest that it is. Countries
interceptors, but unmanned combat air sys-       such as Iran are building ballistic missile
tems would eventually assume that task as        arsenals and equipping them with precision-
well. ALHK is not a new idea, but we and
                                                 guidance capabi
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