Rationalizing the Missile Defense Agency Mission

A Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) is launched from the U.S. Navy cruiser, USS Lake Erie (CG-70) in a Missile Defense Agency test aimed at developing a sea-based defense against short to medium range ballistic missile threats.
A Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) is launched from the U.S. Navy cruiser, USS Lake Erie (CG-70) in a Missile Defense Agency test aimed at developing a sea-based defense against short to medium range ballistic missile threats.


Are we prepared for the increased probability of conflict scenarios brought about by the proliferation of ballistic missiles?
In a much publicized mission, an SM-3 missile launched by the US Navy Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Lake Erie intercepted an out-of-control surveillance satellite orbiting above the Pacific Ocean at a speed in excess of 17,000 mph. Despite concerns voiced by China and Russia, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates authorized the firing of a single missile in a precision mission designed to destroy a tank of toxic fuel on board the satellite.

While the destruction of the satellite was a success, the questions surrounding the real purpose of the mission continue to be debated by the media, industry and analysts. Given the availability of SM-3 ground based interceptors at Fort Greeley Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base, why did Gates assign this mission to the Navy? Was the mission in fact a military response to Chinas successful destruction of a communications satellite late last year? Was the real purpose of the mission to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Missile Defense Agencies mid-course defense system so as to render obsolete the endeavors of nation states engaged in the development of their own medium, intermediate and intercontinental ballistic missile development programs?

The need to field a layered defensive solution to deter or defeat the rapidly proliferating ballistic missile and weapons of mass destruction threat associated with adversarial regimes has increased in urgency. Consider that only ten years ago there were six nuclear weapons capable states and today there are nine. 25 years ago there were nine states with ballistic missiles and now there are 30.

As those of us who grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s can attest, there were far too many instances when the world approached the brink of mutually assured destruction through international incidents that could have easily escalated into massive retaliatory strikes.

Today, as each state endeavors to or acquires new ballistic strike capability, the odds of potential conflict scenarios rise exponentially.

This dramatic rise in probability of conflict demands an examination of the state of missile defense capabilities. Our part one analysis is intended to examine the mission, doctrine and capability of the United States Missile Defense Agency and the operational readiness of the layered ballistic missile defense system.

How Quickly Is The Threat Level Rising?

Right now, more than 30 nations have ballistic missiles in their arsenals. More than 25 nations have, or are developing, nuclear, chemical and biological WMD. In the immediate future, we may face terrorists or adversarial regimes armed with ballistic missiles tipped with WMD. These regimes have not bought into the deterrence theory that assured strategic stability during the Cold War Era.

The proliferation of ballistic missiles and WMD is not slowing down. The actions of nuclear-capable North Korea, Pakistan and nuclear-emergent Iran have revealed serious efforts in developing and deploying longer-range missiles. These countries emphasize the severity of the proliferation problem.

Are U.S. & Coalition Forces At Risk?

This is not a future problem. Ballistic missiles are a present threat to our forces overseas and our allies. In the Western Pacific Theater, for example, more than 75,000 U.S. active duty personnel are at risk of attack by ballistic missiles. The supply depots, repair facilities, support organizations and military families in the area are also at risk. While the majority of North Korea’s ballistic missile arsenal is short-range Scud missile variants, several longer-range missiles are in various stages of deployment.

Due to the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, approximately 170,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are stationed in the Persian Gulf. They all fall within range of Iran’s medium range ballistic missiles. The threat is real. U.S. forces are at risk today.

Is The U.S. Homeland Also At Risk?

The strategic ballistic missile forces of first world nations constitute a major threat to the U.S. homeland. Each possesses operational ballistic missiles capable of striking the U.S. from launch locations within their national boundaries. Deterrence remains the operative concept for confronting the ballistic missile threat from these countries. However, the firing of the Taepo Dong I in August 1998 changed the perspective of U.S. homeland security. The space launched, third stage vehicle of this missile proved that North Korea was close to deploying a fully functional intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). In December 1998, North Korea warned the U.S. that it was prepared to launch a Taepo Dong II.

Diplomatic pressure was strong enough to stave off the launch. In February 2003, then Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director, George Tenet testified before Senate Armed Services Committee that North Korea had an untested ballistic missile capable of hitting the U.S. West Coast. While testifying before the 2005 Senate Appropriations Committee Defense Subcommittee, Marine General James Cartwright, then Commander U.S. Strategic Command, stated that if North Korea launched a missile at Alaska or Hawaii, the U.S. would have only about seven minutes to decide whether to fire an interceptor.

Changed Security Environment

Deterring the use of ballistic missiles and WMD will be very difficult. There are no reliable lines of communications with these regimes. Our adversaries seek to keep us out of their region, leaving them free to support terrorism. Leaders of these regimes consider WMD as weapons of choice, not of last resort. They pursue their objectives through force, coercion and intimidation and could potentially hold some of our major population and industrial centers hostage with the threat of a ballistic missile attack.

To deter such threats, we must devalue ballistic missiles as a means of extortion and aggression. Effective missile defense will discourage the proliferation of ballistic missile technology and WMD. Missile defense would reduce the incentives to develop, acquire or use these weapons by undermining their military utility. Furthermore, the ability to extend reliable protection to allies and friends can have a significant mitigating effect on our adversaries’ desires to produce or acquire their own offensive system. At the same time, missile defense can encourage the willingness of allies to act in concert with the U.S.A. during a conflict. In this way, missile defense is an added and critical dimension of contemporary deterrence.

Considering the dire consequences if even one missile tipped with WMD reaches our shores, the newly elected President should make ballistic missile defense a top national priority.

The Challenges of Ballistic Missile Defense

The ballistic missile brings new technical challenges due to its extremely high altitude ballistic trajectory. This trajectory is made up of three distinct phases. In the boost phase, the ballistic missile’s rocket engine ignites and thrusts the missile into space. Following boost, the missile coasts in the midcourse phase and may deploy a Reentry Vehicle (RV) and countermeasures. In the terminal phase, the missile or the separating RV reenters the atmosphere and proceeds to the intended tar­get(s).

To defeat the missile in the boost phase, a missile defense system must be located close to the launch point, as in a few hundred miles. Because its engines are still accelerating the missile, a defense system would only need to detect the very hot plume of the engine. A ballistic missile is a large target in the boost phase. A hit by a kinetic warhead almost anywhere on the ballistic missile would cause certain destruction. So the probability of a successful engagement is high; however, the engagement time lines are extremely short, requiring a very fast, short-range guided missile.

Engagement in the midcourse phase requires the missile to be detected at longer range and higher altitudes, normally in the exo-atmosphere, well above 60 miles. Separating missiles further complicate the tracking problem due to separation debris, countermeasures and the relatively small size or radar cross-section of the RV.

Due to the high closing velocities in terminal intercepts, ballistic missiles need to be detected and tracked before entering the atmosphere. As a non­-separating ballistic missile enters the atmosphere, atmospheric drag causes the target to maneuver. At the same time, the missile may break up due to instabilities and airframe structural loads. This results in the necessity to track multiple targets and select only the lethal one(s) for engagement. All this has to take place within a short timeframe. Our forces may not have time to re-engage if they miss on the first attempt.


These technical challenges must now be applied to the different range classes of ballistic missiles, from short range to ICBM. Even though the ballistic trajectory is the same, the various range classes will dictate system reaction time requirements and defended areas. A short-range missile is in the 0 to 400 miles class. An example would be defense of Tel Aviv from Scud missiles. Regardless of the phase of trajectory, each phase of this range class has a short system reaction time. The medium range class at 400-800 miles, would be defense of Japan from North Korea’s missiles. System reaction time increases in all phases; however, the largest increase is in the midcourse phase. This holds true for the remainder of the range classes. The intermediate range is around 2,300 miles, which is about the defense of Northern Europe from the Middle East. Lastly, the overarching ICBM class threatens the continental U.S.A.

Sea Based Radar
In February 2007 the Sea-based X-Band Radar successfully traveled from Hawaii to the waters of the Aleutian Island chain of Alaska. The SBX departed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Jan. 3, and conducted numerous sea trials and exercises while en route to Alaska, and also continued the calibration of the X-band radar mounted on top of the ocean-going platform.

Solving the ballistic missile defense problem is very difficult and complex. Three phases of trajectory and four range classes enable twelve possible engagement regions, each having specific system reaction time requirements. The dire consequence of a ballistic missile tipped with WMD reaching our shores or forward deployed forces demands that we have multiple intercept opportunities against each launched ballistic missile. No single service system can engage in all the range classes and in each phase of trajectory.

These mission realties necessitate the joint armed forces to conduct ballistic missile defense warfare through an integrated, layered system capable of engaging threats in all phases of flight – boost, midcourse and terminal.

Next month we will examine in greater detail the mission capabilities of the Aegis sea-based fleet under joint development by the Missile Defense Agency, Naval Sea Systems Command and other Department of the Navy organizations.

About the Author
I am an accomplished advanced and disruptive technology analyst. I help organizations manage their overall marketing strategy and efforts including market analysis, identification of business opportunities and risks, strategic alliances and partnering, systems engineering and customer requirements, business development programs and marketing, advertising and communications initiatives & plans.

For office hours and contact information, please use this sites contact form.

This entry was posted in Missile Defense. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s