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?

Launch of a Ground-Based Interceptor from Vandenberg Air Force Base in 2013. (Missile Defense Agency)
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New eyes in space could solve basing problems. Two prototype Space Tracking and Surveillance System satellites built by Northrop Grumman are due to be launched this November. These could pave the way for a constellation of infrared tracking satellites that would provide near global coverage.

SO, CAN THE U.S. STOP A NUKE? The answer, because of limitations on testing, seems to be that no one will know until the threat is inbound.

Missile defense proponents and developers cheered September’s success—a single 23-minute test. But U.S. weapons evaluators typically demand hundreds of hours of operation before a tool of war is placed in the hands of soldiers, pilots, or sailors. The missile tests have shown that the smallest detail gone wrong can derail even a well-planned launch.

It takes hundreds of people months to prepare for an intercept test. Says Pat Shanahan, Boeing’s vice president in charge of missile defense, radars must be calibrated in advance so that the fire control computer will know: “MD-80s on their way to Mexico, flying down the coast of California—don’t shoot those.”

Testing may be an intractable problem. That leaves the military in the position of not knowing how the system will work until it is called on to perform. Only if nuclear warheads streak toward the United States will the question finally be answered, with millions of lives in the balance.


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