How Missile Defense Works

Boeing says the $30 billion Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, the only defense the United States has against long-range ballistic missile threats, is back on track. In Midcourse Defense, a killer satellite autonomously collides with an incoming warhead in mid-flight.

Flight testing of the system was halted in early 2011, after a guidance error resulted in a failed intercept.

In the latest missile defense test, last Saturday, a ground-based interceptor carrying a next-generation Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle was launched from Vandenberg. The EKV then maneuvered to the appropriate altitude and closing velocity to destroy the incoming ballistic missile. No incoming ICBMs were harmed in this test.

It tested the Boeing-designed ground-based defense system. A three-stage interceptor was launched from Vandenberg which boosted the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle made by Raytheon to the correct designated point in space.

South Korea and the United States launched a joint naval exercise involving a US nuclear submarine Monday, as tensions rise on the Korean peninsula ahead of an expected nuclear test by North Korea.

Lockheed Martin’s Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system used info from the space tracking and surveillance system demonstration satellites during a Missile Defense Agency (MDA) test in February.

U.S. Navy sailors aboard USS Lake Erie (CG-70) received tracking information from space tracking and surveillance satellites and launched the missile before the shipboard SPY-1 radar detected the target. The Aegis BMD Weapon System then guided the missile using tracking information from the space-based assets until the target was detected and tracked by the SPY-1 radar. The shipboard radar transmitted guidance commands to the SM-3 guided missile that intercepted the target.

The Sea-Based X-Band Radar, built on a converted oil platform, is a key piece of our modern missile defense. The $900 million SBX-1, by far the largest phased-array radar system on Earth, uses frequencies from 8 to 12 gigahertz, generated by 45,000 radiating elements. It can jump from object to object and enables sharp, high-resolution radar images. SBX is generally stationed near Alaska and identifies ballistic-missile threats, then relays that information to command and control centers. The huge SBX-1 radar is capable of seeing an object the size of a baseball at a distance of 2,500 miles (pdf). SBX works with smaller X-band radars on tracking ships in the Pacific, which gather intelligence.

Data gathered during the test by the ship-based X-Band radar aboard the Pacific Tracker will validate the EKV’s design. Boeing has served as prime contractor since 2001 and works with industry partners Northrop Grumman, Orbital Sciences and Raytheon.

The Pacific Tracker carries the X-Band Test Radar (XTR-1) which is a dual, X and S, band radar with an 11m dish antenna.

The Pacific Tracker relieves a similar craft, the MV Pacific Collector (pdf). The radars are used to collect information from our own missile tests as well as monitor launches from other nations.

The X-Band Test Radar, which uses a dish, will eventually be replaced by active phased-array radar, which uses thousands of active elements, enabling it to track a large number of warheads.

Interceptors, deployed at Vandenberg and at Fort Greely, Alaska, are linked to command-and-control facilities by a 20,000-mile fiber-optic communications network.

Expenditures on the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense program have been estimated at US$30.7 billion. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates the contract will exceed its target cost by US$1.5 billion.

The $1.7 billion T-AGM 25 (pdf), will be added to the missile tracking fleet this year. The USNS Howard Lorenzen (T-AGM-25) was the first ship to receive the Cobra Judy Replacement program, installing active phased-array radar, in both X- and S-band.

Phased array radars have been used by the US Navy for over 20 years. The Spy-1 phased array radar (pdf) is used for local ship defense. It uses 3.1-3.5 GHz. The Navy’s SPY-1 radiates four million watts of power, and can acquire and track targets as far out as 250 miles and as far up as low Earth orbit. By contrast, a conventional AN/SPS-49 long range radar, using a large rotating antenna, operates in the 851–942 MHz with a range of 256 nautical miles but only “sees” along a 3 degree beam.

The FCC recently announced a plan to open up the 3.5 GHz band for small cells, as shared spectrum. It’s probably not going to work for small cells around San Diego.

The S-band radar is used as the primary search and acquisition sensor and can track and collect data on a large number of objects. The X-band radar, at 8.0 to 12.0 GHz, then takes over and provides very high-resolution data on objects of interest.

The new T-AGM 25, with an active array watching space activity, will join the 224-foot-long T-AGM 24 in the Air Force’s missile tracking fleet and replace the aging USNS Observation Island (T-AGM 23) which used a passive scanning radar called Cobra Judy.

The newer active scanning radars can also act like a WiFi access point, transmitting data at 548 megabits per second and receiving at gigabit speeds. This is far faster than the Link 16 system used by US and allied aircraft, which transfers data at just over 1 Mbit/s. Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems is the prime contractor and developer of the X-band phased array.

Forward-based Xband radar is being installed in Japan to watch over the Asia-Pacific region.

“We are concerned about US plans to build a global missile defense system, including in the Asia-Pacific region,” Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said. Russia and China will intensify cooperation on strategic defense in response to America’s growing missile systems, Russian officials said last month.

North Korea has developed extended range Taepo-Dong 2 ICBM missiles. But another threat might be a sub-launched cruise missile, launched 200 miles off the East or West coast. Cruise missiles can hug the ground and destroy dams, nuclear power plants, and cities. The $30 billion space-based defense system won’t prevent an attack like that.

Nuclear submarines are expensive. Now cheaper and quieter diesel submarines can operate without the need to surface using Air-independent propulsion. Siemens fuel cells can give an AIP-enabled submarine an underwater endurance of two weeks, rather than 24 hours on batteries.

As of 2012, some 8 nations have non-nuclear AIP submarines.

A recent research report, The Global Submarine Market 2011-2021, concluded that mature Air-Independent Propulsion systems is increasingly seen as a ‘must-have’. They run about $100 million a pop.

Here are some (non-NATO) players:

  • The Russian Amur 950. One of the latest Russian submarine designs, it is advertised as an export version, with improved acoustic stealth, new combat systems, and an option for air-independent propulsion (AIP). It can launch the BrahMos Cruise Missile, the world’s fastest cruise missile.
  • The Chinese Type 041 submarine. The Type 041 is believed to be capable of launching YJ-8X (C-80X) series anti-ship missiles. The missile uses inertial + terminal active radar guidance. It carries a 165 kg time-delayed semi-armour-piercing high-explosive warhead, with a maximum range of 80~120 km and speed of Mach 0.9.
  • The Pakistan Agosta-class submarine. The submarine can be armed with up to 16 torpedoes and SM39 Exocet anti-ship missiles

Iran has three Kilo class subs, bought from Russia in the 1990s. The Kilo class is a NATO designation for diesel-electric submarines made in Russia.

Why spend $30 billion (we don’t have) on Midcourse Defense, $42 billion on Gerald Ford-class aircraft carriers, or a trillion dollars on the F-35? Beats me. Perhaps Congress is too busy fighting amongst themselves to focus on things like…thermo-nuclear war.

You don’t have to be a novelist (or rocket scientist) to imagine a scenario in which the Russian Mafia brokers a deal with North Korea for an AIP sub with a few cruise missiles. A shipping container can house operational cruise missiles. Obviously, the Russians, Chinese and North Koreans don’t want a first-strike missile installed in their backyard. The Russian Mafia could be a convenient tool to deliver the message.

If I were good writer like Joshua Davis, I wouldn’t waste time profiling John McAfee. There’s plenty of paranoia in the real world.

Posted by Sam Churchill on .

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