The Department of Defense (DOD) deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to Israel for the first time this week. The deployment of the air and missile defense system comes as Iran continues to expand its ballistic missile arsenal, threatening regional allies like Israel as well as forward deployed U.S. service members. The temporary THAAD deployment underscores the commitment of the United States to the security of Israel, provides valuable combined training opportunities, and offers some insight into DOD’s implementation of its Dynamic Force Employment (DFE) concept.
The THAAD is a rapidly deployable land-based system designed to intercept incoming ballistic missiles during their terminal (or final) phase of flight. The THAAD can be transported by air, land, or sea; it uses a hit-to-kill technology to destroy an incoming warhead. According to the Missile Defense Agency, the THAAD has a strong record of successful intercepts since the program was initiated.
During the temporary deployment to Israel, U.S. service members will hone procedures for augmenting Israel’s already robust multi-tier air and missile defense architecture, which includes the “Iron Dome,” “David’s Sling,” and “Arrow 2/3” systems. U.S. troops “will refine network connectivity, validate requirements for the THAAD system, and will conduct multinational training and security cooperation activities with our allies to improve interoperability and build readiness.”
European Command (EUCOM) notes that the THAAD deployment is part of DOD’s DFE concept. The DFE concept aims to employ DOD assets in an assertive and flexible manner to inject uncertainty into the minds of potential adversaries, disrupt their plans, deter aggression, and defend U.S. and partner forces near the deployment area. As the 2018 National Defense Strategy states, the goal is to be “strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable.”
The deployment to Israel this week represents the latest implementation of the DFE. Militarily, it adds an additional and unexpected layer of complexity to any Iranian plans for a missile attack against Israel or other American allies and partners in the area. For these reasons, this type of deployment can and should be replicated with other assets in other areas to keep military planners in Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, and Pyongyang guessing.
While the DFE represents a common sense approach to getting the most use out of finite military assets, it should not be used to justify a force structure that is insufficient in size. Indeed, the concept’s reliance on a single asset to perform near-simultaneous missions in different theaters could leave combatant commanders with inadequate combat power during concurrent crises while putting acute strain on transportation and logistical networks.
Notwithstanding these broader considerations, the THAAD deployment to Israel comes at an important time, when tangible indicators of continued American support are especially valuable in light of concerns about Washington’s disengagement from the region. In his January 2019 testimony, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats testified, “Iran’s ballistic missile programs, which include the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the region, continue to pose a threat to countries across the Middle East.” The 2019 Missile Defense Review assessed that Iran has been increasing the size, accuracy, range, and lethality of its ballistic missile arsenal. The review explicitly calls for integrating “allied and partner missile defenses” and notes that greater interoperability with allies and partners can “enable a more effective collective response to missile attacks.” The THAAD deployment this month to Israel represents an important step toward this goal, as well as future cooperation in missile defense.
Bradley Bowman is senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Andrew Gabel is a research analyst. Follow Bradley and Andrew on Twitter at @Brad_L_Bowman and @Andrew_B_Gabel. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.