Can We Stop a Nuke?
From the impossible dream of a space-based shield, missile defense has come down to Earth. But will it work?
- By Ben Iannotta
- Air & Space magazine, May 2007
Missile Defense Agency
(Page 3 of 7)
Even as interceptors are being deployed—the U.S. has already fielded 14 interceptors in Alaska and two in California—the Missile Defense Agency must continue to develop the system through a series of $100 million tests. To accomplish this, the agency has a $10 billion annual budget that by 2016 is expected to climb to $15 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
When one looks at what must go right in the first minutes of an actual attack, it’s easy to see why Obering’s job is unenviable, and his agency’s budget so vast.
An attack would first be detected by U.S. Defense Support Program satellites, which sense the infrared radiation of enemy missiles rising from their launch pads. The first generation of this system was launched in the 1970s, but upgrades in new satellites have brought modern capabilities to the space imager system.
The satellites would tell ground radars where to look in the sky to find the enemy rockets after their engines burned out. The ground radars—someday to be augmented with sophisticated ground and space sensors—would transmit tracking coordinates to U.S. Strategic Command control rooms in Alaska and Colorado, where members of a specially formed Army brigade would pull the trigger on the interceptor missiles.
Computers would feed targeting data to the interceptor missiles via fiber optic cables and satellites. These initial “weapon task plans” must arrive before the missiles blast out of their holes so that their nozzles can be pointed at the incoming warheads.
All that must happen within 16 minutes. Any later and the defense would fall to radar-guided rockets, or “terminal defenses,” fired as the warheads are falling through the atmosphere toward their intended victims. Most terminal systems, such as variants of the Patriot missile battery and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, are designed to target short- and medium-range theater missiles, not long-range ones.
Assuming the interceptor missiles make it into the air by their deadline, information from ground-based radars will provide the interceptors with updated information on the targets’ location as they rise to meet them. As the distance closes, the interceptors will release their kill vehicles.
By this time, the enemy missiles will have dissolved into a hail of objects streaking toward the United States at perhaps 15,000 mph. Inside that cloud of warheads, inflated Mylar decoy balloons, shaped and painted to look like real warheads, could distract the kill vehicles, if not for the guidance given by their infrared eyes and small thrusters. If all goes well, each kill vehicle will collide with an incoming warhead at about 18,000 miles per hour.