Recently, the Missile Defense Agency successful intercepted and shot down an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with an advanced SM-3IIA missile variant. This event has caused many might wonder what an nuclear-armed, space traveling missile target might look like. Of course, the mock ICBM target was not actually armed with a nuclear warhead, it was an FTM-44 dummy engineered to replicate the shape, size, contours and flight trajectory of a fully-armed ICBM.
“FTM-44 satisfies a Congressional mandate to evaluate the feasibility of the SM-3 Block IIA missile’s capability to defeat an ICBM threat before the end of 2020,” a Northrop Grumman statement said.
SM-3 missiles, launched from both Navy ship Vertical Launch Tubes and land-based Aegis Ashore systems, have had an ability to travel beyond the roughly sixty-mile limit of the earth’s atmosphere. However, until now, SM-3s have not generally been thought of as a weapon able to intercept or destroy larger, faster, space-traveling ICBMs. The SM-3 IIA has already demonstrated an ability to intercept short and medium range ballistic missiles, That version is the latest, most high-tech SM-3 variant. When the SM-3IIA is compared to previous SM-3 variants, the SM-3 IIA is larger, more precise and longer range.
Not only are ICBMs obviously operating at much higher altitudes than short or intermediate range ballistic missiles, but they are much faster. Traveling as fast as 10,000 miles per hour in some cases, ICBMs present a harder target to hit, particularly if traveling with decoys and other countermeasures. The SM-3 IIA’s size, range, speed and sensor technology, the thinking suggests, will enable it to collide with and destroy enemy ICBMs toward the beginning or end of their flight through space, where they are closer to the boundary of the earth’s atmosphere.
“As the ICBM target prime contractor for the Missile Defense Agency, we understand how critical it is to launch a realistic threat target to ensure our nation’s defense systems work when called upon,” Scott Lehr, vice president and general manager, launch and missile defense systems, Northrop Grumman, said in a company statement.
SM-3 missiles, first deployed on Navy ships, are exo-atmospheric interceptor missiles designed to destroy short and intermediate range incoming enemy ballistic missiles as they approach the boundaries of the earth’s atmosphere while traveling from space. With the weapon, threats are destroyed in space during what’s described as the mid-course phase of flight. As Pentagon developers describe it, an SM-3 Block IIA missile is a larger version of the SM-3 IB in terms of boosters and the kinetic warhead, allowing for longer flight times and engagements of threats higher in the exo-atmosphere. The MDA and Northrop also operate an Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile representative target which can be air-launched from a C-17.
The Pentagon and MDA are now working on a new interceptor expected to be ready by 2028. In the interim, the military is working to modernize and sustain its current arsenal of GBIs with software upgrades and the addition of more discriminating seekers. Ultimately, the Pentagon hopes to arm GBIs with multiple “kill vehicles” to enable a single interceptor to fire many interceptors.
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.