Can the U.S. Navy Someday Kill ICBMs in the Sky?
The military has been testing new missiles and radar while working on scalable lasers.
The military wants lasers that travel from warships into space, new interceptor missiles able to knock out enemy intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) beyond the earth’s atmosphere and an entirely new generation of ship-integrated radar. All of these are all fast-informing ongoing Navy and Missile Defense Agency (MDA) work to expand the defensive capabilities of ships at sea.
Adding an ocean component to ICBMs defense, as a way to build upon the existing successful deployment of Aegis-radar enabled Navy Cruisers and Destroyers, can complement existing expansions in the realm of maritime missile defense.
The MDA is now working on “power-scaling” of laser technologies, with a mind to engineering the needed form factors and levels of on-board expeditionary electrical power and cooling to explore the possibility of taking promising ship-fired laser technology further into a missile defense arena. Lasers are already arming ships across the Navy, and fast-technological progress is bringing new tactical options to maritime warfare such as low-cost, scalable precision attack.
Alongside the promise of lasers, the Navy and MDA are also making great progress when it comes to destroying ICBMs with a new larger, longer-range and more precise variant of the SM-3 missile, the SM-3 IIA. The SM-3IIA is already showing an ability to take out ICBMs and expand the defensive scope of ship based ballistic missile defense beyond air and cruise missile defense and endoatmospheric ballistic missile defense to destroy targets beyond the earth’s atmosphere to a greater degree.
This circumstance greatly reshapes the strategic and tactical landscape regarding missile defense and it adds a maritime layer to ICBM defense which has primarily consisted of land-fired weapons such as Ground Based Interceptors. With newer missile defenses at sea, ships can offer new nodes or points of attack within a broader web of defenses to bring new vectors, angles or opportunities to destroy enemy weapons in space. Certainly, an ICBM spends much of its Midcourse flight through space above the ocean, therefore having expanded ship-integrated defensive technologies offers new windows for defense, perhaps enabling more than one attempted intercept.
New ship-integrated missile defense radar, engineered to build upon existing Aegis radar system, is intended to leverage promising technology from the Missile Defense Agencies evolving Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR) expected to be operational later this year. Once the next several phases of testing are complete, the MDA will declare its new highly sensitive ICBM and hypersonic missile detecting radar operational. The LRDR is intended to help “steer” or guide Ground Based Interceptors to ICBMs by properly discriminating targets in space. As part of its technical scope, part of which incorporates the use of gallium nitride to increase radar power density and throughput, Lockheed is building a scalable maritime variant of the LRDR called SPY-7. The SPY-7 is a ship-based maritime radar now being integrated into Canadian and Japanese warships.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.