A defensive interceptor missile cannot destroy an attacking intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) unless it first establishes a “track” or flight trajectory on the traveling weapon. In order to track and destroy such an enemy nuclear missile, high-fidelity, long-range and networked radar systems are needed.
Naturally, this involves a need to establish a “track loop” beyond the boundary of the horizon and, in some instances, beyond the boundary of the earth’s atmosphere as well. Given this, how could a Navy ship operating with a radar envelope potentially limited to line-of-sight or a within the horizon scope be seamless and precise enough to find, follow and then take out an ICBM traveling through space.
Ship-fired SM-3 IIAs can now do this, as of a successful ICBM intercept demonstration on November 16 which, among other things, employed what’s called an “engage on remote” technology. In essence this “networks” radar tracking systems to one another, enabling a pass-off of threat data sufficiently close to real-time to identify threats at much farther ranges. It could be described as a “relay” system of sorts wherein a more continuous track of an enemy ICBM can be established. It is the kind of application now being fast-tracked for space weapons, Low Earth Orbit Satellite functionality, various kinds of airborne radar and, perhaps of greatest importance, tracking and destroying fast-moving hypersonic attacks. Segmented, or less integrated radar systems will result in a weapons track being lost quickly when a threat object is traveling at hypersonic speeds.
The success of the Hawaii demonstration has inspired major Pentagon weapons developers to rethink and expand the envelope for maritime-based missile defense.
“The Department is investigating the possibility of augmenting the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system by fielding additional sensors and weapon systems to hedge against unexpected developments in the missile threat.” Missile Defense Agency Director, Vice Admiral Jon Hill said in a statement.
A Raytheon “engage on remote” test was able to demonstrate this successfully with an SM-3 IIA in 2018. In concept, “engage on remote” would enable a Japan, South Korea or Guam-based radar in the Pacific to network with ship-based Aegis radar to find a threat much earlier in its flight path.
“In this developmental test, the destroyer used engage-on-remote capabilities through the Command and Control Battle Management Communications network as part of a defense of Hawaii scenario. After receiving tracking data from the C2BMC system, the destroyer launched a SM-3 Block IIA guided missile which destroyed the target,” a Missile Defense Agency statement said.
“‘Engage on Remote’ is an over the horizon fire control system. It enables us to see farther West into the Pacific and instruct an interceptor missile to fire at certain coordinates. A radar from another location is feeding it data,” a Pentagon weapons developer told The National Interest.
An anti-ICBM SM-3 IIA would bring more “shots” or options to strike or destroy an ICBM as it travels just beyond the boundary of the earth’s atmosphere. The SM-3 Block IIA could complement existing Ground Based Interceptors (GBI) and help the Pentagon bridge the time lapse between now and the end of the decade when a new ICBM interceptor becomes available.
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.