What Iron Dome can Teach America's Missile Defense | Opinion

The images of Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system deployed against thousands of Hamas rockets fired from Gaza, which dominated the news cycle this month, made clear that effective missile defense is a matter of life and death.

Developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems with technical and financial assistance from the United States, Iron Dome has a remarkable success rate of 80-90 precent. Despite the reported sticker price of $62,000 per interceptor, few Israeli taxpayers believe this is money ill spent.

While Iron Dome is designed to engage short-range threats fired from across the border, American systems must be able to defend from missile attacks worldwide. The U.S. Missile Defense Agency achieves layered defense through sensory arrays, ground-based interceptors and sea-based Aegis systems. Interceptors like the Patriot MIM-104 missile battery and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense are positioned where they can intercept long-range threats from intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in early flight.

Despite this impressive array of countermeasures, America's missile defenses are a step behind the offensive capabilities of rivals such as Russia and China. Iron Dome demonstrated the importance of staying ahead, and we're not doing that right now. And unfortunately, the Department of Defense is allowing trends in the defense industry that are counterproductive to any strides we make in this area.

China officially has over 300 nuclear warheads, with the newest solid-fuel launch vehicles—the Dong Feng 31 and Dong Feng 41. Russia has a stockpile of over 6,300 nukes, including 1,350 strategic warheads deployed with aircraft, submarines and ground-based launchers within striking distance of U.S. targets.

More troubling are the advanced technologies which are being aggressively pursued in both China and Russia—which, as noted by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, present a grave threat. Most notable are developments in hypersonic weapons which can travel in excess of Mach 5 and boast increased maneuverability and accuracy relative to current warhead tech.

The Pentagon is also developing hypersonic weapons, though it lags behind both Russia and China in production and deployment. Hypersonic interceptors are the future in defeating any hypersonic attacks—thus we must literally get up to speed.

Ballistic missile defense against conventional ICBMs has been described as "hitting a bullet with another bullet." The Missile Defense Agency's most recent ground-based midcourse defense tests only had a 55 percent success rate.

Israel's defence system intercepts rocket
Israel's Iron Dome aerial defence system intercepts a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Palestinian Hamas movement, above the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, on May 11, 2021. JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

Unfortunately, recent developments within our defense industry are putting U.S. missile defense at risk. While Israelis are united behind Iron Dome, literally and figuratively, our companies are cannibalizing each other in key mission areas. Consolidation of America's industrial base is rapidly intensifying and threatening our security.

Northrop Grumman's purchase of rocket motor company Orbital ATK in 2018 was particularly troubling, as it left just one remaining independent rocket motor manufacturer—Aerojet Rocketdyne. The deal was approved by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) despite a 2017 Defense Department report warning:

The trend toward fewer and larger prime contractors has the potential to affect innovation; narrow industrial capabilities and technology; limit the supply base; pose entry barriers to small, medium, and large businesses; and ultimately reduce competition that may otherwise not be in the Department's or the public's interests.

In 2015, then-defense secretary Ash Carter said it's "important to avoid excessive consolidation in the defense industry to the point where we did not have multiple vendors who could compete with one another."

Carter's successor as under secretary of defense, Frank Kendall, has frequently echoed those sentiments. Now that he's been nominated for secretary of the Air Force, hopefully he can put those fair competition best practices into effect.

Ironically, FTC's justification for approving the Northrup-Orbital acquisition relied on the assumption that Aerojet would remain an independent vendor for the other aerospace companies. Aerojet's position ensured all of these companies access to American-made rocket motor manufacturing. However, the FTC and Defense Department are now reviewing a proposed $4.4 billion merger between Lockheed Martin and Aerojet announced in December 2020 which would lead to a missile propulsion duopoly.

With the development of the Next Generation Interceptor, designed to replace the current ICBM defense system, we can't afford monopolies and duopolies to dominate such vital systems. Those are anti-competitive, bound to drive up costs and stifle innovation.

If Lockheed succeeds in acquiring Aerojet, other American companies that buy their propulsion systems will have to look overseas—bad for both our national security and economy. We should be encouraging American private-sector competition, not destroying it. The costs are too high in this life-or-death field. Iron Dome ought to remind us of that.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and Director, Energy, Growth and Security Program at International Tax and Investment Center.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.