Are we talking about missiles? Reflections on a neglected capacity

(To Stefano Panato)
15/10/18

The subject of missiles in our country has always traveled "under track", yet we have a first class industry. We are talking about it now for the political controversy that has arisen around the CAMM-ER program, which stands for "common anti-air modular missile-extended range", an abbreviation that at the very least says little. It is surprising that the current discussions neglect the eminently defensive value of the program, which should instead be rewarded in the strategic vision of our country that has banned the concept of attack also from the common lexicon.

But first things first.

In the context of military operations, defense and attack are two distinct tactical moments which correspond to two different physical and mental predispositions. Although distinct, defense and attack are inseparable: one would not make sense without the other. Just as the spear would not make sense - that the attack is the paradigm - without the shield, the same applies to the opposite.

It is a fact that most of the "dividends" deriving from the end of the "cold war" have been paid for by the drastic downsizing of the "shield". Basically, in the general downsizing of defense spending, it has been found that the cuts in investments in the missile component, both of land-based and aircraft-based, have been proportionally larger compared to the cuts in other sectors.

This is a situation that is found, albeit with different accentuations, in almost all NATO countries.

Italy in particular is among the countries that have reduced investment more in the last quarter of a century. As a consequence the missile segment as a whole is now in deep suffering; the existing missile systems that have become obsolete have not been replaced as they would have been, and the national industry, which still enjoys considerable international prestige thanks to certain forward-looking decisions made in the past, is now in obvious trouble. Among all, the most "mortified" missile segment is undoubtedly the complex and therefore expensive surface-to-air systems, responsible for defending against airborne threats.

The cut and investment in defense is not the only cause.

The setting aside of the "cold war" has made it more remote, at least in terms of perception, the prospect of a massive air attack on the national territory, consequently these defense systems have progressively lost priority. It should also be added that their concept of employment, which is essentially static for the protection of the national territory, appears obsolete in times of "out of area" operations.

The experience of military operations in which our country has participated since the 90 years of the last century, and which took place without any real contrast from the sky, have in many cases strengthened the idea that the complex and expensive surface-to-air missile systems they are not a priority now. The current controversies on the CAMM-ER are proof of this.

The real priorities on the other hand have become counter-insurgency operations and the so-called "hybrid" operations in respect of international actors, as fearsome as they want, but without a state organization and therefore an aeronautics capable of inflicting damage from the air and let alone hit the Italian territory.

Consistent with this general feeling, the Italian Defense investments, which are particularly particularly tight as a whole, have been going in different directions to missile defense for at least two decades. With regard to the latter, it was limited to honoring the international obligations assumed in the PAAMS and SAMP / T programs and for the MEADS it was decided, reluctantly, to finance only the completion of the development.

Yet at the geo-political level many things in these post-Cold War years have been progressively changing.

The proliferation of offensive air systems has never stopped before, despite the containment efforts put in place by the international community. This has certainly contributed to the technological advances that have made economically accessible systems very advanced even to international subjects - state and non-state that otherwise would not have been able to afford them. Add to this the special policy of some "proliferating" countries, eager to place their products in the large international arms market to get valuable currency in their asphyxiated economies, and not just for this.

It is a fact now that modern and up-to-date offensive air systems are in the availability of a multitude of state actors, many of which are part of Italy's attention span. The growing reluctance of the International Community to engage its soldiers on the ground to stabilize areas of crisis, perhaps can also be explained by this. The threat of US intervention in Syria, which was once very agitated, was immediately shelved due to the high risk; such an adventure in Syria would not have been a "walk" like other interventions carried out by the USA and its allies in the recent past, and this for the quality of missile weapon systems - many of Russian construction - present in that country.

Even the axiom that offensive means of high complexity and technology can not be managed by non-state actors is seriously questioned by certain international events.

The pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists to name one, with the suspected abatement of the 17 July 2014 of the MH 17 flight by a SA-11, have proven to be able to handle these high-tech weapon systems very well. The next step with the acquisition of a ballistic ability by countries belonging to our area of ​​interest or other subjects able to hit the territory of our country, like it or not, is in the logic of things and, if we want, also inevitable.

In quantitative terms, most likely this threat will not be "existential" as it was that of the "cold war", but it could be such as to condition the political choices of our country: what is not cheap.

It is therefore necessary a profound reflection on the correct priority to be assigned to the "shield" and that is to the missile defense of our country. The Skyguard and Spada systems are obsolete and need to be replaced in the short term, hopefully with the CAMM-ER of MBDA Italy, so much disputed now. It should be noted that this company was able to start the program with the sister company MBDA UK, despite the absence of public funding, thanks to a wise use of European structural funds.

The PAAMS and FSAF SAMP / T systems we have available are modern enough but have been designed to protect forces and they are able to do so. For the future it also needs something more - of political value if you want - able to extend an umbrella protection even to particularly sensitive areas of the national territory. In other words, we need a surface-to-air missile defense system that offers protection from ballistic threats and protects Italy from any political blackmail from anyone.

The update of the SAMP / T and the assignment to the weapon system of anti-ballistic capabilities could be an answer to this need. Other alternatives are not seen on the horizon, unless we review the decision that has effectively frozen the MEADS only to complete its development phase.

The shortcomings of our national security system, on the side of the "shield", as well as the chronic lack of resources is also attributable to a series of missed opportunities. First of all the indecision about the medium-range missile defense system on which to aim for the future, which has kept two partially overlapping programs for years, the MEADS and the SAMP / T: a luxury that few countries can afford. Still, the fact of having financed the development of the MEADS, with a very large Italian share of the order of 800 millions of Euro, without clear ideas about its production ...

It is no longer time to repeat certain mistakes.

It is necessary to bring the "shield" and the "spear" into the right balance, to continue with the metaphor. It is about making clear and weighted choices on the missile protection system that our country needs, by appropriately orienting defense investments. All according to a graduality that also takes into account the economic reality but that is not limited to mere accounting considerations. Deciding whether or not an investment exclusively based on costs does not respond to any logic, neither economic nor programmatic. Costs are an important factor but must also be compared with industrial and technological returns: in Italy there are some realizing skills matured in the years that it is a pity to disperse.

It must be considered that a missile defense program also offers many opportunities for a dual exploitation of its technologies. Think about the consequences that can derive in terms of: surveillance of the territory, control of unmanned aerial platforms, radiofrequency sensors, transmission systems and other: applications, these, intrinsically all civil. And this means jobs and economic development that is a great need.

Finally, a political consideration. Changing priorities in Defense investment programs requires courage because it is not a neutral exercise: for one who advances as a priority means that another or the other programs can inevitably recede. Unwanted rigidities can arise from those - at all levels: political, industrial and individual armed forces - they feel disappointed in their expectations, but this can not be a hindrance when the interest and security of the country are at stake.

In times of concern for public accounts, such as the current one, it is not easy to get public support when it comes to defense programs that can also involve a financial effort. Yet there are valid ethical arguments in favor of a system of protection of sensitive areas of our country from threats from the air. Its defensive character first and foremost the superior ethical value that the "shield" has compared to the "spear", and then the fact that the threat to be countered is not directed only towards the military forces but above all involves the universe of civilians.

The imbalance of our defense architecture between "shield" and "launch" is the result of a quarter of a century of questionable choices and also of many "non-choices" in terms of defense investments: it is time now to remedy avoiding controversy that can to lose the sense of things.

(photo: MBDA / EI / AM / MoD Fed. Russian)