Having successfully shot satellites out of the sky with Anti-Satellite weapons more than ten years ago, China is likely to surprise nobody with its ability to fire land-based interceptors into space to knock out intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in flight.
The People’s Liberation Army recently fired off an interceptor into space as part of a midcourse Anti-Ballistic Missile technical test which succeeded in taking out a target over Chinese territory, development which a Chinese newspaper said demonstrated the growing maturity of the technology.
Despite the announcement of this intercept test, stated in the Chinese government-backed Global Times, very little may be known about the actual condition of China’s midcourse missile defense technology. Indeed, many wonder whether it could in any way parallel the emerging new U.S. Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.
A single intercept of an ICBM in space, as the Chinese military reportedly accomplished, says very little about the sophistication and potential effectiveness of its missile defenses. Land-fired interceptors, such as the U.S. Ground-Based Interceptor, have existed for many years and repeatedly demonstrated an ability to knock out ICBM-type targets in testing. However, the best measure of modern missile defense, it would seem, might be an interceptor’s guidance and sensor systems as those are the technologies which will enable an interceptor to discern actual missiles from decoys and track threats closely to the point of intercept. Attacking ICBMs often travel with decoys intended to specifically throw-off, jam, or confuse targeting sensors so interceptors have a much harder time actually hitting the missile, therefore increasing the chances it will continue on to its target.
The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency is, for example, currently engineering a new generation of highly-sensitive interceptor missiles, called Next-Generation Interceptors, equipped with advanced discrimination sensors for improved targeting. It therefore might make sense to view the Chinese missile defense test as an effort to match or rival U.S. advances in the area of ICBM defense.
The Chinese paper did make the significant point that indeed it is the midcourse phase of flight which often provides the best opportunity for intercept, as it is often the longest. An ICBM can typically travel through space for about twenty minutes or so, between its ascent or boost phase and its high speed descent, or terminal phase.
“It’s technically easy to intercept a ballistic missile in the boost phase, because the missile is still close to the ground and accelerating, but it is difficult to get close to the launch site which is usually deep in hostile territory; in terminal phase, the interception is challenging because the speed of the diving missile is very high,” the Global Times writes.
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.