BEZMER AIR BASE, Bulgaria — The United States and its allies in Europe don’t have enough missile defense capability and still have a long way to go to tie all of the varying systems together into one networked web, according to the outgoing U.S. Army Europe commander.
But that doesn’t mean the Army and NATO partners haven’t made major progress.
“I’ve got about a million miles to go, but we have gone a million miles compared to where we were about three years ago,” Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges said at a Saber Guardian-affiliated exercise at Bezmer Air Base, Bulgaria, this month.
“Just the capacity, we don’t have enough, that is all there is to it. When you think about all the different critical airfields, ports, cities, facilities that need to be protected, we have a lot of work to do in that regard,” he said.
“You have to think in terms of layers, everything from down to protecting local places all the way up to high altitude, major cities, installations, protecting capabilities, any of which could be targeted. And you have to assume lots, lots of missiles coming if we are talking about a no-kidding, serious crisis, and so it’s going to take several nations,” Hodges told Defense News in a July 19 interview at the air base.
The United States has made progress bolstering missile defense in Europe by operationalizing its first Aegis Ashore missile defense site in Romania and is building its second Aegis Ashore system in Poland with the expectation it will be up and running in 2018.
These systems are part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach for missile defense designed to defend against threats from Iran and includes a TPY-2 radar in Turkey.
The U.S. Army also has the 5th Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery Regiment — a Patriot Air and Missile Defense unit — under the 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command based in Germany.
While it’s the smallest air and missile defense command in the force, the Army has decided to grow the headquarters, Hodges noted, and in two years it will have a general officer as the commander like the other air and missile defense commands in other combatant commands around the world.
Hodges said mission command capability must also improve such as the ability to plug into NATO and other U.S. defense capabilities.
“That is an important good step, but that hasn’t added one single Patriot launcher for us yet, and of course there are other priorities around the world and I understand why we are where we are,” he said.
There are several countries that also own Patriot systems: Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Greece. Poland is trying to buy the Patriot and Romania has officially declared it will buy the system as well.
The Army has been trying to alleviate the burden on Patriot units deployed around the globe by looking to increase reliance on allied contributions. More countries acquiring Patriot would help to take the pressure off the most-deployed units in the Army.
But Hodges said it’s also important to figure out how to get all the various air and missile defense systems in Europe to talk to each other and work together no matter the mix. And the more capability that exists within the web of systems the better.
While a good system — the European Phased Adaptive Approach — is in place to deal with a missile strike from Iran or another rogue nation, more needs to be done to prepare for strikes that could handle a large volume of missiles at once, according to Hodges.
“When you start thinking about a much more significant threat or threats, then you’ve got some work to do to develop capability that can address that, which means you’ve got to have some redundant capability, you’ve got to have some depth, resiliency, you’ve got to assume you are going to lose some capabilities,” Hodges said.
NATO and U.S. European Command understand this, according to Hodges, and are working to improve integration of missile defense across Europe.
NATO’s air command in Germany has the mission to integrate missile defense systems, and while “none of us will ever be satisfied that it’s done,” Hodges said, “it’s moving fast enough that we are so much farther ahead than we were just a year ago because of the realization of people grasping the urgency.”
During Tobruq Legacy, an exercise within the U.S.-led Saber Guardian exercise in the Black Sea region this month, capabilities from various countries were spread out between Bulgaria and Lithuania in order to achieve a common-air picture.
“The whole integration part, I think, is actually very exciting and interesting, and we will be a lot better off a week from now than we are right now because of what will come out of this exercise,” Hodges said.
Tobruq Legacy has already grown exponentially. Hodges recalled that just three years ago the exercise included only five countries shooting shoulder-fired systems at helium balloons. Now the exercise includes a Patriot battery in Lithuania and multiple nations including Romania conducting live-fire exercises, all while the U.S. and NATO work to lace together a common-air picture.
Hodges suggested the next step to really make progress in achieving interoperability of air and missile defense capability in Europe would be to hold a big capstone missile defense exercise that is joint, includes the alliance, and tests the interoperability and resiliency of systems.
“I know European Command is working that also,” he added.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.