Missile defense

Staff Columnist

“There is no guaranteed defense against Mr Kim’s missiles – yet. (The Economist January 13th 2018)

“Thanks largely to Kim Jong Un (aka ‘Little Rocket Man’), missile defense of the American homeland is a hot topic.

Next month the Trump administration is expected to publish a review of the nation’s defenses  against  ballistic attack.  Funding for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is likely to exceed $11bn for 2018, over $3bn more than the president’s  original request  (assuming Congress can come up with a deal on the overall budget).  An emergency request of nearly  $5bn for additional ‘missile defense and defeat ‘ funding was made in November.

The intelligence agencies had assured  Mr Trump when he took office that not until  2020, possibly even 2022, would Mr Kim have a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).  That relatively comforting  assessment was blown apart in July when North Korea successfully tested two missiles with the range to hit cities in the continental United States, and, in September,  when it conducted  an underground explosion of what appears to have been a thermonuclear  device.

Since then, the priority has been to Reassure Americans that they can be protected from Mr Kim – whom Mr Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, has alarmingly (and without evidence) described as ‘undeterrable’,  In October, Mr Trump boasted to Sean Hannity of Fox News:  ‘We have missiles that can knock out a missile in the air 97% of the time, and if you send two of them, it’s going to get knocked out.’  Most missile experts were horrified by the president’s blithe confidence in the effectiveness  of the only missile defense  system, known as ground-based mid-course defense (GMD that is intended to shield the United States from a limited  ballistic-missile attack.  They fear Mr Trump may persuade himself that a pre-emptive attack on North Korea would be risk-free, at least for America.”   

The Economist editors continue:  “In the wake of the September 11th 2001 attacks, the Bush administration needed a response to the growing threat of ballistic missile technology proliferating to ‘rogue’ regimes such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea.  Consequently, the GMD was quickly cobbled together with a mixture of old and new technology and  hurriedly commissioned in 2004.  Today’s  GMD and its associated systems span 15 time zones, comprise seven different types of sensors (on land, at sea and in space) and 44 interceptors, each costing $75m, deployed at military bases in Alaska and California.  GMD is designed  to track, intercept and destroy an incoming nuclear warhead outside the earth’s atmosphere through the force of the collision alone.

Yet even now, after $40bn has been invested in it, GMD still has the hallmarks of an immature system.  Tom Karako, a missile defense analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, concedes that many of the improvements that were planned and expected  have not yet come to pass.  GMD’s interceptors have been tested 18 times, succeeding on ten of them.  In May last year, a successful intercept  was carried out for the first time  against an intercontinental ballistic  missile of the kind Mr Kim would need  to reach the west coast.  But three of four previous tests had ended in failure.

Mr. Trump’s 97%success rate appears to be based on a misunderstanding of the MDA’s arithmetic.  The actual  ‘single shot probability of kill’ of GMD interceptors is 56%.”  And this is about as deep into the theory as we’ll go here.  Suffice it to say that this is tough, technical stuff,  Then too:  “Moreover, test successes have been under ideal conditions.  With just a few minutes reaction time and faced ith several incoming missiles, each equipped with several multiple decoys, some ‘leakage’ is almost inevitable.”

Finally:  Another possibility is speeding up the deployment  of the Multi-Object Kill Vehicle, which would give each interceptor  missile  multiple shots at incoming warheads and is due to be ready in 2025.  A more radical option would be to develop  solid-state  lasers small enough to be carried by drones, which could fly close to an enemy country and kill  missiles in their vulnerable boost phase.”

This is really heady stuff, demanding the best and the brightest.

“In the meantime , someone should explain to Mr Trump(or any president) that , at least for the foreseeable future, there is no certain defense of the homeland against even a fairly limited ballistic- missile attack.”

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