The Evolving Air and Missile Defence Threat

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Drones, Hypersonic Missiles, and everything Inbetween

The spectrum of air and missile threats is becoming increasingly complex and diverse, a trend set to continue for the foreseeable future, and poses distinct operational, strategic, and technical challenges.

Moreover, this is a proliferating threat; an increasing number of states and non-state actors are acquiring the means to conduct precision strikes, including against strategic targets. This is particularly highlighted with regard to Iran’s growing ballistic and cruise missile and unmanned air system (UAS) capabilities, and the proliferation of those capabilities to non-state proxies in the Middle East, namely Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.

The 14 September 2019 cruise missile and drone, and 8 January 2020 ballistic missile attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure and Iraqi bases hosting US forces respectively, provide a tangible demonstration of Iran’s growing air and missile threat.

Air and Missile Threat Overview

The trajectory of the air and missile threat is characterised by several key trends, in particular:

  • the evolving roles and capabilities of unmanned air systems, including the emergence of weaponised small UAS, and the development of high-end unmanned combat air systems (for example, the Russian Sukhoi S-70 Okhotnik or Chinese GJ-11);
  • the development and deployment of advanced cruise missiles incorporating stealth (such as the Russian Kh-101);
  • the introduction of ballistic missiles equipped with mid and or terminal guidance systems and manoeuvring re-entry vehicles in order to conduct precision strikes against targets on land or at sea (for example, the Chinese DF-26); and
  • the entry into service of hypersonic weapon systems, including hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV - such as the Russian Avangard and Chinese DF-17), and cruise missiles.

The development and application of Artificial Intelligence (AI), including via, for example, AI-enabled drone swarms, and to missile guidance systems, will likely significantly enhance the threat posed by those systems. It is also likely that the availability of AI technologies will not be restricted to the major powers.

Although major regional powers, such as Iran, and non-state threats (or proxies), pose a growing and significant threat, only Russia and China have the resources and capability to develop and deploy a full spectrum of advanced air and missile systems.

Russia and China

Both Russia and China deploy a mix of conventionally-armed, precision-guided ballistic and cruise missiles – the latter including subsonic and supersonic weapons, and are developing advanced UAS and hypersonic weapons.

Russia currently deploys the Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile, the nuclear-armed Avangard HGV, with the Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile likely to enter service in the near future.

Similarly, China has deployed the first operational HGV, the DF-17, capable of precision strikes at ranges likely in excess of 2,000 km and is also likely to be close to deploying a hypersonic cruise missile. The collapse of the INF Treaty will enable Russia to significantly expand and enhance its ground-launched missile capabilities.


Responding to the evolving air and missile threat environment requires a multi-faceted approach, encompassing:

  • an emphasis on distributed and cross-domain operations;
  • passive measures including dispersal, hardening and deception;
  • active measures including enhanced early warning, electronic and cyber warfare capabilities (for example, to deny, disrupt and destroy supporting kill chains for precision strike systems), counterforce targeting of threat systems and launch platforms, and the development of enhanced air and missile defence systems, including directed energy weapons.

There is no single solution to countering the evolving air and missile threat, but it is critical that it is addressed. The cost of failure would be potential military defeat and its attendant strategic consequences.