TBMD (Theater Ballistic Missile Defense) Could Backfire

By Commander D. H. L. MacDonald, Royal Navy

It may appear that in developing antiballistic missile systems, U.S. forces can expect to escape casualties from future missile attacks and attain "full dimensional protection." On the other hand, the billions of dollars being spent on TBMD research and development may lead potential adversaries to draw the conclusion that a few casualties can have a disproportionate significance. This was recognized by President Bill Clinton when he said "reflexive calls for early withdrawal of our forces as soon as casualties arise endangers our objectives as well as our troops."

Likewise, advertising TBMD as a counter to chemical or biological weapons may convey an unintended message that the U.S. resolve to use overwhelming force—promised in a recent Presidential Decision Directive as a deterrent against attack by weapons of mass destruction—is no longer credible. Such an asymmetric reprisal would be unpalatable to the U.S. public and the international community. Instead of improving the U.S. defensive capability by technological investment, we might be exposing a vulnerable center of gravity.

Historical Perspective

The German V-2 offensive against London from September 1944 through March 1945 was a prime example of the operation of early theater ballistic missiles. There was no effective defense against the V-2, which gave no warning of its arrival at the target area. The British public was not made aware of the rocket offensive until early November, and because the V-2 was unseen, it caused little apprehension. At this stage in the war V- and V-2 missiles were the only means of attacking the British Isles because manned bombing raids had been abandoned in May 1944. Although the Germans launched more than 1,400 V-2s against the United Kingdom, damage and casualties were relatively light. The V-2 caused 2,754 fatalities—about 5% of the total caused by manned bombers.

With no point defense against this offensive, the primary task of the Allies was to find and destroy mobile V-2 launch sites. Early radar and photographic reconnaissance flights proved ineffective in this task. Despite some concern that little was being done to counter the V-2 menace, new technology was considered and pilot projects were initiated but soon abandoned as the "prospects of success were still too slight to outweigh the risk of an adverse effect on the public temper." The V-2 offensive had little effect on public morale. Londoners who had sought sanctuary outside the capital during the Blitz (Germany's concentrated conventional bomber raids on the city), now were returning at the rate of 10,000 per week.

It is possible that the V-2 could have been used to deliver weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The Germans had amassed about 7,000 tons of Sarin alone, enough to kill the population of more than 30 cities the size of Paris. However, chemical weapon capability was intended as a deterrent against Allied chemical and biological weapon attacks. The Germans considered the appalling consequences of reprisals too severe to consider first use of Sarin.

Theater ballistic missiles had a similar track record in the eight year Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. The physical effect of these missile attacks are difficult to assess, because both sides manipulated casualty figures to suit their own ends. One assessment, drawn from an Iranian source, attributes 2,226 fatalities to some 308 missiles fired at their cities throughout the entire course of the war. Another notes that during the "War of the Cities," Iraq fired about 180 al-Hussein missiles in less than two months and caused about 2,000 fatalities. Though considerable, these figures represent a minute fraction of the 1.2 million war dead. The intended aim of Iraqi missile attacks was to set the Iranian people against their leaders and the Islamic Republic. But even though some evacuations had to be carried out because of the missile threat to cities, Iranians rallied to their leaders and became even more determined to fight to the bitter end. Two lessons taken from this war in preparation for the 1991 Gulf War were that the danger to allied forces is limited by the inherent inaccuracy of Scuds and that theater ballistic missiles create a potential check to allied offensive operations by posing a perceived threat to Riyadh and Tel Aviv.

Contemporary Operations

The second of five strategic objectives during the 1991 Gulf War was the elimination of Iraqi long-range offensive capability against Saudi Arabia and Israel. The latter requirement had to be imposed in order to maintain the coalition and keep Israel out of the war. The Scuds' only real military menace was their threat of delivering nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons—a capability the Soviets assured the United States that the missiles lacked. Nevertheless, it was conceivable that Iraq could have modified the Scuds themselves.

Protection from Scud attack was not particularly successful. Once fixed launch sites had been eliminated, the coalition air forces assigned more than 10% of all sorties to locate and destroy mobile launchers. This great Scud hunt proved fruitless. It was then up to Patriot antimissile batteries to intercept incoming Scuds. While the system intercepted about 70% of inbound Scuds, Patriot could neither deflect nor destroy Scuds completely, leaving damaging debris to fall to the ground. With such limited success against Scud attacks, the only option for effective defense against weapons of mass destruction was deterrence. Secretary of State James Baker expressed a relatively clear and severe deterrent threat to Tariq' Aziz in February 1991, and Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney made a more direct threat: ". . . the U.S. response would be absolutely overwhelming and it would be devastating." Nuclear weapons were not mentioned specifically, but the implications were clear.

The reported political impact of Scud attacks was quite different. The assumption was that missiles falling on Saudi Arabia or Israel would demonstrate the coalition's inability to protect its allies, weakening Arab resolve or provoking an outcry for Israeli retaliation. This perceived problem was exacerbated by considerable media coverage at a time when the reporting of other military activity was severely restricted. However, such political fears proved to be exaggerated. Of the 51 Scuds fired at Gulf states, one chance hit killed 28 U.S. troops. And of the 40 Scuds fired against Israel, two missiles killed a total of four civilians. In the same way that historic V-2 and earlier Scud attacks were shrugged off by the British and Iranians, it was doubtful that the Saudis would have shown any less resolve in the face of a much smaller threat. Furthermore, even though Israeli emotions ran high, rational restraint was exercised as long as casualties remained low.

It is interesting to note that coalition cohesion was not considered to be put at risk by fratricide. Although fratricide is an emotional subject and a sad fact of war, the ratio of friendly-fire fatalities compared to those through enemy action was extraordinary. More British troops were killed by allies than by enemy action. But the priority given to reducing fratricide in future conflicts still does not match the huge investment in TBMD. This is significant if protecting forward-deployed troops is driving development of effective, technologically advanced, counterforce weapons.


The U.S. national military strategy ". . . of flexible and selective engagement" implies a graduated response to potential threats. This might seem to be the best means of providing guaranteed security and invulnerability, but to attain "full-dimensional protection," a joint architecture of multiple layers of active and passive measures is required. Normally a particular weapon system is supplemented by others operating in parallel. A good example is the triad of air-, land-, and submarine-launched nuclear weapons that provide a credible second-strike capability. Maintaining the triad is a hedge against a catastrophic loss of any particular pillar of strategic response.

The U.S. response to the threat of the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons and delivery systems is to "convince potential and actual proliferants that NBC weapons will be of no value because the United States and its coalition partners will have the capability to deny or limit the political and military utility of NBC weapons and because the damage inflicted by U.S. and coalition forces in response will far outweigh any potential benefits of use." Essentially, this is a combination of possible denial by TBMD and deterrence assured by the triad. Accordingly, to develop a capability for denial "a decision was made to emphasize protection of forward-deployed U.S. forces in the near term and to proceed with a more robust theater missile defense program, combined with a more limited national missile defense technology program." This would require an investment of about $18 billion over the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) with about two-thirds directed toward theater missile defense.

The U.S. doctrine for TBMD addresses hard kill of theater ballistic missiles and focuses on deterring their use by making them ineffective. Its opening statement acknowledges the possibility of a decisive attack with a weapon of mass destruction and, by inference, that deterrence with overwhelming force will fail. Although the doctrine states that TBMD should be coordinated with strategic assets, it fails to make mention of how theater ballistic missile defense and deterrence should be linked. The doctrine's focus "is to protect against theater missile attack through an appropriate integrated and coordinated mix of mutually supporting measures of passive defense, active defense, and attack operations with supporting command, control, communications, computers and intelligence." Attention paid to passive defense, "measures taken to posture forces to reduce vulnerability and minimize the effects of a theater missile attack," further reduces the credibility of assured deterrence.

If it is possible to argue that deterrence strategies should be suited to particular opponents rather than to generic enemies, then a graduated response is required. The implied threat of a massive U.S. nuclear response to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction in recent conflicts has been effective and the policy of denial for the use of theater ballistic missiles has not. Emphasis on the latter has been justified by protecting the political cohesion of the coalition rather than reducing minimal U.S. casualties. Nevertheless, subsequent U.S. policy is to provide TBMD to protect U.S. forward-deployed troops. It accepts that TBMD will be less than 100% effective and therefore combines its promise of denial with deterrence by overwhelming force for a weapons of mass destruction threat. Why then build a $12-billion system to provide a high probability counter-force defense to prevent meager casualties (that supposedly will not sway U.S. resolve) from conventional TBM attack and where deterrence of weapons of mass destruction attack has been shown to be effective during World War II and the Gulf War?

First, it may be that the U.S. National Command Authorities (NCA) no longer consider massive retaliation to be a proportionate response to a limited nuclear, biological, and chemical threat. While such an act might be justified under Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations as "self defense," it certainly is contrary to the Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation Among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, General Assembly Resolution 2625, which proclaims "States have a duty to refrain from acts of reprisal involving the use of force." Notwithstanding a graduated response, which may create uncertainty in the mind of an enemy, if the U.S. deterrent is considered too asymmetrical to be credible, expensive TBMD must be fielded as the denial option for weapons of mass destruction.

Second, in aiming to protect forward-deployed troops from the limited conventional theater ballistic missiles threat this would indicate that inflicting a few U.S. casualties must clearly expose a vulnerable center of gravity. Might an aggressor be unwittingly encouraged to test the threshold of the U.S. resolve, in light of such a contradictory and uncertain posture? Both denial and deterrence have their advantages, but if used in concert they are mutually exclusive. Denial drastically weakens the credibility of deterrence.


Theater ballistic missiles show potential for future development, but in so doing, their unit cost will increase. This will negate one of their great advantages-their relatively low cost. Further, in making these weapons more expensive, they may out price other, more capable weapons such as cruise missiles. There are other tradeoffs as well. When Iraq improved the Scuds' range to 650 km both its accuracy and warhead size were reduced, the latter to about 200-300 kg. To make such a small high-explosive warhead effective, the missile's accuracy must be greatly improved—to match that of the Pershing II, for example. But accuracy of this scale requires terminal radar guidance, which increases sophistication and cost enormously. Although the development of theater ballistic missiles cannot be ruled out, improvements likely will be of limited significance and will not change their fundamental purpose of being an inexpensive nuisance.

The contradictions in U.S. policies create a shroud of uncertainty and, even though unsettling to potential adversaries, may encourage opponents to test U.S. resolve rather than to be deterred by a clear and unambiguous statement. Rather than becoming an expensive panacea, theater ballistic missile defense may instead provoke unwanted and unintended consequences.

The time has come to review the requirement for theater ballistic missile defense. If it really is needed, then formulate coherent strategy and doctrine that will not backfire.

Commander MacDonald is a research fellow in the Strategic Research Department at the College of Naval War Studies, U.S. Naval War College. He commanded the HMS Ledbury (M-30) and Second Mine-countermeasures Squadron.


More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


Conferences and Events

2014 U.S. Naval Institute History Conference

Wed, 2014-10-01

The 2014 Naval History Conference is hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and the U.S. Naval Academywith support from The William M...

Defense Forum Washington 2014

Newseum - Knight Conference Center

2015 WEST Conference

View All

From the Press

Meet the Author & Book Signing

Sat, 2014-08-30

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership