A drone attack on a US base in Jordan that left three US troops dead and 34 wounded underscores the urgent need to upgrade and revolutionize the US Army’s air defenses.
It is unclear why US base defenses failed to intercept the drones, which were allegedly launched by Iran-backed militias from neighboring Syria on Sunday. Iran has sought to distance itself from the attacks, labeling allegations it had a hand in the assault as “baseless” while claiming regional “resistance movements” do not take orders from it, according to its UN Permanent Mission.
Before the lethal attack, Defense News reported that the US Army is seeking suggestions on how to procure a second interceptor for its Indirect Fire Protection Capability (IFPC) system, designed to defend fixed and semi-fixed sites from rockets, artillery, mortars, cruise missiles and drones.
Defense News notes that the first interceptor to be used in the IFPC system is Raytheon Technologies’ (RTX) AIM-9X missile and that the US Army completed a risk-reduction flight demonstration, launching an RTX-made AIM-9X Sidewinder interceptor from the IFPC launcher and sending it to target in December.
The report mentions that the IFPC Increment 2 (IFPC Inc2) program office aims for a competitive award for a second interceptor in fiscal 2025 and plans to take a selected vendor or multiple vendors through a technology demonstration in the FY26 through FY27 timeframe. It also says the US government intends to award a development, qualification and test effort following this demonstration.
Defense News notes that one of the significant driving factors for a second interceptor is magazine capacity, as the IFPC system can currently hold 18 AIM-9X missiles in the launcher. It says that the magazine could only fit six if the US Army decides to use an AIM-120D, which can achieve a range of more than 180 kilometers.
The report also says that the US Army is also looking for missiles that can reach certain altitudes and ranges with a rocket motor that can decrease flight time to its target.
RTX and Lockheed Martin have submitted proposals, with Israeli companies such as Rafael Advanced Defense Systems also having solutions like the Tamir-2 interceptor.
The proliferation of low-cost drones, rockets and cruise missiles, not to mention Sunday’s lethal attack on the US base, has given new impetus to improve existing counter-rocket, artillery and mortar (C-RAM) systems.
Artillery rockets, shells and mortars have a fixed ballistic trajectory, so it is possible to compute an exact mid-air interception point. However, that does not apply to swarming drones and cruise missiles with decentralized flight paths.
Gun-based systems such as the 20-millimeter US C-RAM, which has seen action in Iraq, may have limited protection against such threats. Global Security noted in July 2022 that the C-RAM system has shown a 60-70% shoot-down capability during tests, which may not be enough against a drone swarm attack and cruise missiles coming from different directions.
A June 2020 US Congressional Research Service (CRS) report says that while the evolving C-RAM mission led to the development of the IFPC program, the advent of swarming drones and cruise missiles led to the IFPC Inc2 program, which uses existing interceptors and missiles to defeat cruise missiles and drones.
The CRS report also says that the US Army is looking at lasers and microwaves for IFPC in addition to kinetic-based systems such as missiles and guns. However, prohibitive costs and limited magazine depth remain the most significant issues for existing missile-based C-RAM systems.
Alex Hollings notes in a November 2023 Sandboxx article that one AIM-9X missile costs US$472,000, and one AIM-120D costs about a $1 million per round, vastly more than the cheap, mass-produced swarming drones they are intended to be used against, which can cost just around US$20,000 in case of the Iranian-made Shahed type-drones used in Ukraine and Yemen.
This month, Asia Times pointed out the unsustainability of that kind of missile versus drone warfare. While it could be said that a successful missile intercept destroyed a target drone, it can also be claimed that the drone successfully wasted expensive interceptor missiles that are difficult and costly to replace.
Michael Marrow notes in a September 2023 Breaking Defense article that RTX has a manufacturing capacity of 500-800 AIM-120D missiles a year, with orders ramping up demand to 1,200, which is the company’s ceiling for production of that type.
Those missiles can be slow to produce. A June 2023 Defense Brief article mentions that RTX received a US$264 million contract to supply 571 AIM-9X missiles to the US Navy, US Air Force and other international customers, with the project expected to be finalized by August 2026. Those dates suggest a three-and-a-half-year production period for the batch of missiles.
US missile production may also be hamstrung by logistics issues. Asia Times noted in March 2023 that the US depends on China as the only source for a half-dozen chemical ingredients used in its military explosives and propellants, and other countries of concern for another dozen, putting into question the security of US weaponry supply chains.
While directed-energy weapons such as lasers may be the future of C-RAM systems, the technology still faces significant hurdles.
US laser weapon programs have yet to deliver on their promise of negligible cost per shot and that current laser weapons still face challenges in size, weight, cooling and power requirements.
Proponents of laser weapons have made frequent predictions about when they would be fielded, nearly all of which have gone unrealized. Still, advances in solid-state laser (SSL) technology and more realistic goals, such as using lasers for counter-drone missions rather than ballistic missile defense, make laser weapons look increasingly feasible.
Other issues hobbling US laser weapons development include technology maturity issues, failure to deliver specialized facilities for maintaining sensitive components and the lack of a defense industrial base to produce laser weapons at scale.
In a Breaking Defense article this month, Sydney Freedberg Jr mentions that even a limited scaling-up of US laser weapons research has exposed significant supply chain problems.
Freedberg points out multiple weak points in the US laser weapon supply chain, such as dependence on China for rare-earth metals, esoteric techniques for polishing and coating laser-reflective mirrors, and limited suppliers for critical materials and technologies for laser weapons.
He also points out that while lasers have the potential to defeat drones, cruise missiles and even hypersonic weapons, the challenge is integrating them into an integrated air defense system (IADS) that can employ different weapons for multiple types of targets and conditions.