Small Wars Journal

Space, Missile Defense, and Irregular Warfare

Wed, 12/13/2023 - 6:01pm

Space, Missile Defense, and Irregular Warfare


By Dr. Robert Redding


Those of us of a certain age grew up thinking that the first space battles would be between units of astronauts with lasers.  However, November of 2023 saw the demonstration of Israel’s cutting-edge missile defense capabilities, when it intercepted a ballistic missile fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen with the Arrow missile defense system. This event highlights the ever-evolving landscape of irregular warfare and the significance of nation-states being prepared to fully use capstone capabilities, which were originally developed to defend against other nation-states, in safeguarding their citizens from irregular threats posed by non-state actors. This demonstrates the dual realities of irregular warfare: nations not only engage in such conflicts to gain strategic advantages over their adversaries, but they must also defend against the same tactics when used against them. For instance, Iran's deployment of proxies equipped with advanced weapons likely demands a conventional, rather than irregular, response.


The Arrow Missile Defense System


The Arrow missile defense system, developed jointly by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Boeing, stands as a testament to Israel's commitment to ensuring its national security in the face of constant regional threats. The Arrow system comprises multiple components, including the Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 interceptors. These systems are designed to detect, track, and destroy a wide range of incoming threats – including short-, medium-, and long-range ballistic missiles – as a critical part of Israel’s integrated air and missile defense system.


The Arrow 2 interceptor is primarily tasked with defending against short and medium-range ballistic missiles, while the Arrow 3 interceptor is designed to intercept longer-range missiles and can operate at altitudes reaching beyond the Earth's atmosphere. It is this unique capability of the Arrow 3 system that played a pivotal role in defeating the Houthi missile attack.


The Houthi Rebels: A Proxy of Iran


The Houthi rebels, also known as Ansar Allah, are a Shia insurgent group based in Yemen. These rebels, which originated in the northern region of Yemen, have engaged in a complex and protracted conflict that has engulfed the country for years. The conflict in Yemen is characterized by its multifaceted nature, involving a mix of regional and internal dynamics. The Houthi rebels, who profess to represent the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam, oppose the internationally recognized government of Yemen. Their primary grievances include the political marginalization of Shia, economic disparities, and issues related to governance. This conflict has evolved into a proxy war between Iran, which provides support to the Houthi rebels, and Saudi Arabia, which leads the coalition supporting the Yemeni government. The ongoing conflict has resulted in a dire humanitarian crisis, with millions of Yemenis suffering from food shortages, displacement, and limited access to essential services.


The Houthi rebels' acquisition and employment of the Barkan missile system marked a significant increase in their military capabilities and added a potent weapon to their arsenal. The Barkan missile system is a sophisticated Iranian-made ballistic missile system known for its range and accuracy. The rebels' successful deployment of the Barkan system in combat has raised serious concerns about their ability to strike deep into Saudi Arabian territory. This missile system has been used in several attacks on Saudi cities and infrastructure, posing a direct threat to the security and stability of the region. The acquisition and use of the Barkan missile system have intensified an already volatile conflict in Yemen and further exacerbated tensions between the Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabia, resolving the Yemeni crisis an even more complex and urgent matter. Ansar Allah’s decision to enter into the Israel-Hamas conflict using this capability introduces another facet in what is an already complicated and enduring security situation in and around the Arabian Peninsula.


The First Combat in Space


Using the “ballistic missile ½ rule” and knowing that it is approximately 1400 kilometers from the Barkan’s launch site in western Yemen to Eilat, Israel, it can be assumed that the Arrow intercept of the Barkan missile occurred well above the Kármán Line, which is the 100-kilometer altitude that is the commonly held definition for the edge of space.  This event marked a significant milestone as it is the first time that a combat engagement involving a missile defense system has taken place in space, with the engagement highlighting the advanced capabilities of the Arrow 3 system to operate effectively in the exo-atmospheric environment.


Options for Defense


Space warfare involves the use of various military assets and strategies to achieve specific objectives in space. While these operations can engage various space systems, the Arrow/Houthi scenario presents an opportunity to discuss three of these: the launch segment, the space segment, and the ground segment.


Launch Segment:


By definition, the Arrow intercept was a launch segment engagement. The launch segment in space operations refers to the phase of a space mission that involves the preparation, ignition, and ascent of a launch vehicle (rocket) carrying a payload, such as a satellite or spacecraft, from the Earth's surface into space. It encompasses all activities related to the launch, including vehicle design, integration, fueling, countdown procedures, and liftoff. Tactics for launch segment engagements include:


  • Interdiction of Launch Vehicles: Preventing or intercepting an adversary’s launch vehicles on their way to space is crucial in space warfare. This can be achieved through ground-based anti-ballistic missile systems or even the deployment of space-based interceptors.
  • Sabotage of Launch Facilities: Attacks on launch facilities, such as rocket manufacturing plants or launch pads, can disrupt an adversary’s ability to put new satellites into orbit.
  • Cyberattacks on Launch Systems: Cyberattacks targeting the launch systems, guidance systems, or mission control centers can render launch operations ineffective.


Space Segment:


The space segment refers to the collective network of satellites, spacecraft, and orbital assets that function in space to perform various tasks, including communication, navigation, Earth observation, and scientific research. These space-based assets constitute the operational component of a space system and are responsible for executing specific missions and transmitting data or services back to Earth or other space-based platforms. Tactics for space segment engagements include:


  • Anti-Satellite (ASAT) Weapons: One of the primary methods of conducting space warfare against the space segment involves the use of anti-satellite weapons. These weapons can be launched from the Earth's surface or other platforms in space to intercept and destroy or disable enemy satellites. Kinetic kill vehicles, directed-energy weapons, or cyberattacks can be employed to achieve this goal.
  • Space Mines: Deploying space mines in orbit is another tactic, where explosive or kinetic energy devices are placed in orbital paths to obstruct or damage enemy spacecraft attempting to traverse or occupy specific orbits.
  • Jamming and Spoofing: Electronic warfare techniques can be used to jam or spoof signals between ground stations and satellites, disrupting communication and navigation systems and interfering with the adversary's ability to control their space assets.


Ground Segment:


The ground segment in space operations refers to the infrastructure and facilities on Earth's surface that are essential for controlling, monitoring, and communicating with satellites and spacecraft in orbit. This segment includes ground stations, control centers, tracking systems, and data processing facilities, which collectively enable the management of space assets, data reception, and command and control operations for space missions. Tactics for ground segment engagements include:


  • Direct Action Attack: In a direct action attack on a ground segment of a space system, highly trained special operations forces would infiltrate the targeted ground facilities, likely in a denied area, with the objective of disrupting or disabling critical components. This may involve disabling communication infrastructure, compromising data processing systems, or sabotaging control centers. The goal of such an attack would be to disrupt the adversary's ability to operate and communicate with their space assets, potentially causing significant disruptions to their space-based capabilities.
  • Cyberattacks: Cyber warfare can be used to compromise ground-based control systems, telemetry data, and communication networks used to operate and communicate with satellites.
  • Disinformation and Psychological Warfare: Disseminating false information or propaganda to create confusion or deterrence within an adversary’s space program can be part of ground segment operations.


It's important to note that space warfare is a highly complex and contentious area of military strategy due to the potential for debris generation, which can pose risks to other satellites and space activities, and initiate destabilizing arms races. International agreements and norms, such as the Outer Space Treaty, aim to restrict or prevent the weaponization of space and promote peaceful use and exploration. Nevertheless, the increasing reliance on space systems for communication, navigation, reconnaissance, and other critical functions means that the potential for space warfare remains a significant concern in modern military planning and international relations.




A lot is going on here.  Firstly, Israel's successful interception of the Barkan missile is a testament to the effectiveness of its Arrow missile defense system. It showcases its commitment to defending itself from all threats, including those posed by non-state actors acting as proxies for larger regional powers like Iran. Additionally, the event underscores the ever-evolving nature of irregular warfare, where cutting-edge technology plays a crucial role in safeguarding national security. As conflict in the region continues to escalate, Israel's Arrow missile defense system remains a vital component of its defense strategy as a demonstrable deterrent to Iran and its proxies. Conversely, the ballistic missile fired by Ansar Allah serves as a stark reminder of Iran's influence in the region, and its willingness to bear the risks of employing proxy groups to advance its interests.


As Ansar Allah enters into the war between Israel and Hamas, the security situation in the region becomes exceedingly complex and volatile. This scenario introduces a new dimension to an already fragile and tense region, potentially drawing in additional regional and international actors. The involvement of Ansar Allah, a proxy of Iran, exacerbates the conflict and further strains regional diplomatic relations. The Arabian Peninsula, home to multiple ongoing conflicts beyond the one in Yemen described here, would face an even greater risk of escalation, making peace and stability in the region significantly more elusive.


What’s Ahead


Israel’s Advanced Defense and the Changing Face of Warfare


The interception of a ballistic missile by Israel's Arrow missile defense system in November 2023 signifies a pivotal moment in modern warfare. This event not only showcases the advanced defensive capabilities against non-state actors but also epitomizes the dynamic nature of irregular warfare. The application of Israel’s state-level defense technology against groups like the Houthi rebels exemplifies the increasingly complex tactics in modern conflicts, where the lines between traditional and unconventional warfare are becoming increasingly blurred.


The Arrow Missile Defense System and Its Strategic Role


The Arrow system, a product of collaboration between Israel and Boeing, stands at the forefront of missile defense innovation. The integration of Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 interceptors, capable of neutralizing threats from short to long-range missiles, even in space, is central to Israel’s strategic defense. The effective deployment of the Arrow 3 against the Houthi missile is a testament to its high-altitude interception capabilities.


Houthi Rebels and the Regional Power Dynamics


The involvement of the Houthi rebels, supported by Iran, signifies a crucial aspect of the regional power struggle. Their adoption of sophisticated missile systems like the Barkan is a significant escalation, posing a direct challenge to the stability of the Middle East. The Yemen conflict, fueled by Iran’s support for the Houthis, reflects a broader context of a proxy war, contributing to a severe humanitarian crisis.


First Space Combat and the Emergence of Space Warfare


The historic engagement above the Kármán Line during the Houthi missile interception marks the advent of combat in space, heralding a new chapter in military strategy. This development underscores the strategic importance of space in warfare and necessitates defense systems with advanced space capabilities.


Integrating the Cyber/Space/Special Operations Triad


In the context of this incident, the emerging U.S. Army concept of the Cyber/Space/Special Operations Triad gains relevance. This triad emphasizes a synergistic approach combining cyber warfare, space-based operations, and specialized ground operations. The interception incident reflects aspects of this triad, with space-based defense (Arrow system), potential for cyber elements in missile defense, and the strategic implications for special operations in a broader conflict landscape. The triad concept advocates for a multi-dimensional approach to modern threats, encompassing cyber, space, and specialized terrestrial tactics, echoing the need for comprehensive and adaptive strategies in modern warfare.


Geopolitical Implications and the Future of Conflict


The event highlights Israel's commitment to countering both conventional state threats and irregular non-state actors, illustrating the changing paradigms in global conflict. The Houthis' involvement in the broader Israel-Hamas conflict introduces further complexities, indicating possible escalations and drawing in diverse regional and international players. This scenario underscores the challenges in maintaining regional stability and peace, particularly in a time of rapid technological advancements and evolving warfare tactics.


The interception event in November 2023 serves as a significant marker in the history of space warfare, merging traditional defense mechanisms with cutting-edge space and cyber capabilities. As such, it underscores the need for evolving defense strategies like the Cyber/Space/Special Operations Triad to address the multi-faceted nature of the contemporary threat environment.

Author's Disclaimer


The opinions and analysis presented in this article are solely those of the author and are based on his research and interpretation of the events described. This article does not, in any way, represent the official stance, views, or policies of the Irregular Warfare Center, the Department of Defense, or any other agency or entity of the United States Government. The information and viewpoints expressed are independent of any official position held by these institutions and should not be construed as an endorsement or reflection of their views, strategies, or policies. The author assumes full responsibility for the content and any errors or omissions within this article.


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Arrow Missile Launch

Credit: Israel Ministry of Defense


About the Author(s)

Dr. Robert Redding writes on irregular warfare and is a retired Army officer with experience in special operations, space warfare, and security cooperation.