US-led missile defence exercise Formidable Shield starts off the Scottish coast

The US-led NATO air and missile defence exercise known as Formidable Shield commenced on 24 September 2017 at the Hebrides Range in the Western Isles, off the north-west coast of Scotland. The exercise is due to continue until 18 October and aims to strengthen cooperation among NATO allies against possible missile threats, including from North Korea. The UK Government and defence contractor QinetiQ have recently spent £60 million on modernising facilities at the Hebrides Range, with a further £16.8 million planned for new and upgraded radars.

UK Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon said: “North Korean tests have shown the danger of rogue states developing longer range missiles. By hosting this cutting-edge exercise in anti-missile defence with allied navies Britain is at the forefront of developing a more effective response to this growing threat”.

However, some analysts suggest that the NATO system in its current configuration lacks the reach and early warning radars to shoot down North Korean ballistic missiles. There have also long been question marks over the effectiveness of ballistic missile defences (BMD) more generally. Since 2002, the Aegis BMD system has reportedly achieved 36 successful missile intercepts out of 44 attempts.

Exercise Formidable Shield involves the participation of 14 ships, including a British Royal Navy Type 45 Destroyer and two Type 23 Frigates, 10 aircraft and approximately 3,300 personnel from the UK, Canada, Spain, Germany, Italy, France, the Netherlands and the United States. The vessels will be involved in detecting, tracking and defending against a wide range of anti-ship and ballistic missiles using NATO command and control procedures. Maritime patrol aircraft and NATO airborne warning and control system (AWACS) surveillance aircraft will also be participating. The live-fire naval exercise is the first time in Europe that NATO allies have practiced defending against incoming ballistic missiles with no prior warning. The exercise will overlap with the UK-led Joint Warrior exercise, which also takes place in Scotland.

NATO decided to develop a capability to defend its European members from ballistic missile threats in 2010. Major components of NATO missile defence include four US Navy destroyers with the Aegis missile defence system home-ported in Rota, Spain and a US operated land-based system in Romania known as 'Aegis Ashore'. Other key components include an early warning radar in Turkey. NATO's air command in Ramstein, Germany, commands the system.

Commanders for the US 6th Fleet said Formidable Shield is planned to be a recurring event every two years designed to “assure allies and deter adversaries”. Captain Shanti Sethi, commander of the exercise, said it would “refine” capabilities and collective defence, adding: “As missile technology advances, maritime forces must be prepared to play an important role in providing swift and accurate defensive measures to deter adversaries”.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Government is said to be rethinking its involvement in the US BMD system, given both the situation with North Korea’s missiles and the recent suggestion by NORAD’s Deputy Commander that the United States might not defend Canada with its missile shield in the event of an attack. Canada is currently not a partner in the Ground-based Midcourse Defence (GMD) programme, which is the North American element of the US BMD System that is deployed to protect and defend the United States.