We must give Britain the air defence system it needs

British soldiers launch a drone during Project Convergence exercises at Fort Irwin
British soldiers launch a drone during Project Convergence exercises at Fort Irwin

Soon after construction began at Hinkley Point C, I stood in a massive hole on the Somerset coast watching millions of tonnes of concrete being poured all around me. As this took place, EDF’s public affairs team assured me – and my constituents living a few miles downwind – that the nuclear reactors that would fill that hole would be protected by a dome so strong it would withstand earthquakes and even a direct hit from a commercial airliner.

With 9/11 and Fukushima both in the not too distant past this was reassuring but I didn’t give it another thought until I sat in the Ministry of Defence, seven years later, fretting over the air defence and ballistic hardening of the Zaporizhzhia power plant in eastern Ukraine.

The grim reality is that in war centres of industry, political decision makers, financial markets and critical infrastructure all make appealing targets for an adversary with little regard for the Geneva Convention. Sadly, we’ve seen this repeatedly demonstrated in the way Russia and Iran have launched complex airborne attacks against centres of population and key civilian infrastructure. This forces us to be clear eyed about the degree to which we can secure the UK’s airspace and defend against the sort of attacks we’ve seen on Kyiv and Jerusalem if – as is no longer improbable – we were to find ourselves at war.

The answer is that we do have a set of capabilities that together allow us to thwart most threats although, as RUSI’s Jack Watling and Sidharth Kaushal set out in their paper this week, there is a great deal to do to develop the command and control that fuses fixed radar with other sensors and matches them to the disparate systems that exist on warships, Typhoon fighter jets and on the back of trucks. Nobody in the MOD would disagree too much with their analysis. Indeed as you’d expect, the Chief of Defence Staff had reflected on our homeland defence months ago, and ordered a review of our systems and how they can be integrated to give the best possible protection.

It was the first time that this had been looked at in a very long time. While it shows that we’ve got enough to guard against a one-off attack with enough notice to put ships, planes and trucks in the right place – as we did for the London Olympics with a Type 45 destroyer on the Thames, Typhoon fighters at RAF Northolt, and Army air defence batteries across East London – we don’t have the fully integrated air and missile defence system that we urgently need to be confident of a secure homeland if under sustained attack while, and while our armed forces were elsewhere as part of a NATO military response.

In those circumstances, the air defence batteries would be protecting our troops on the frontline, our destroyers would be protecting aircraft carriers or shipping on key sea lanes, and our fighter jets would be shooting down the enemy and bombing targets on the ground. They simply can’t be in two places at once and even if we had twice as many of all of them, such is the complexity of the modern air threat with suicide drones, bombs dropped from planes, as well as cruise and ballistic missiles, it really would be much more effective to invest in a fully integrated system to defend us.

Such systems are incredibly expensive and with many more centres of population across a much bigger territory, a British “Iron Dome” would need to be even more sophisticated and capable than Israel’s. That’s why, in the end, we’ll need to strike a balance between building more of our critical national infrastructure to a standard where it’s hardened against air attack, as I saw at Hinkley C, alongside an air defence system that protects our key military, industrial, financial and political centres.

Within the system we do build, will be electronic counter-drone technologies on which the UK is already a world leader – indeed the MoD announced this week that we’ll be deploying some of those capabilities this summer to assist our French friends in protecting the Paris Olympics. I’d expect that also within the system we develop will be newly emerging directed energy weapons where we are again leading following the successful demonstration of “Dragon Fire” earlier in the year. Beyond that, we would have missile batteries connected to myriad sensors with a lightning fast command and control system to protect us from the more conventional missile and aircraft threat.

The first priority of Government is the defence and security of the homeland. The Integrated Air and Missile Defence System is vital to achieving that in the face of the complex air threats we may well face, but it will take at least five years, perhaps ten, for the system to be fully delivered. With the threat rising daily, we can’t delay any longer before investing.