Why It Is Hard to Kill a Nuclear Missile in Flight

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January 23, 2021 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Next-Generation InterceptorNGIMDAICBMMissile Defense

Why It Is Hard to Kill a Nuclear Missile in Flight

Enemy missiles come with decoys and other measures that future U.S. missile defense must take into account.

The ultimate promise of the Pentagon’s new high-tech Next-Generation Interceptor (NGI) to shoot down enemy nuclear missiles may likely reside in the complex mixture of sensor and networking technologies woven into the NGI’s technical construction. This is largely because a kill vehicle able to track and destroy an enemy missile in space will not only need the requisite kinetic “force” but also must rely upon accurate sensing and guidance to effect a successful intercept.

This is why emerging weapons systems, such as the Missile Defense Agency’s NGI program, are increasingly built with a specific mind to engineering hardened networking and command and control technologies, given the growing speed and sophistication with which enemy weapons systems are evolving.

An actual collision in space, derailing or destroying an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is very hard. Taking one out comes to fruition by virtue of an elaborate, integrated technical progress which the MDA continues to modernize. Referred to by developers as Command, Control, Battle Management and Communications (C2BMC), the MDA’s networking systems need to find, track and precisely target approaching threats. This must be done while simultaneously taking other measures to harden communications against interference, jamming or other kinds of intrusions.

“We are improving the C2BMC systems which link satellites to radar, command and control, fire control and fire detection systems sensors, to increase reliability by building in redundancy. Multiple redundancies can make sure the NGI is fully guided to its target,” a senior Pentagon official told The National Interest.

Perhaps first a Space-Based Infrared or Overhead Persistent Infrared sensor detects the heat signature of an enemy ICBM launch. That sensor then networks its data to command and control centers able to launch a Ground-Based Interceptor. In this scenario, the interceptor must not only fly into space but then find, identify, track and destroy the approaching weapon during its mid-course phase of flight beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Given that ICBMs are increasingly equipped with an ability to travel alongside “decoys” or other kinds of countermeasures intended to spoof or confuse defensive interceptors, GBI-dispatched kill vehicles will succeed or fail due to an ability to successfully distinguish and actual ICBM from a decoy or nearby space debris.

Perhaps of even greater relevance, multiple precision-guided interceptors may be needed to destroy several ICBMs at once. Should the networks themselves malfunction, get jammed or fail to organize and transmit threat data fast and accurately enough, an intercept attempt might not succeed, therefore allowing an ICBM to pass through to its target.

One of the industry teams now working to innovate a new generation of missile defense command and control for NGI is a Northrop Grumman-Raytheon effort to merge target sensing with kill-vehicle intercept technology and successful information sharing. Sensing, speed and target discrimination are all fast becoming much more complex challenges, a reality currently inspiring Northrop Grumman engineers build upon innovations it uses for the Pentagon’s existing Ground Based Interceptor.

“The threat had moved beyond the ability of the current ground based interceptor, so we are using the best off the shelf technology and new innovations,” Terry Feehan, Northrop Grumman’s vice president and program director for NGI, told The National Interest.

Feehan was here referring to Northrop’s effort to build upon and extend elements of its work on C2 (command and control) systems and networking for GBIs, something which can be leveraged to engineer new technologies for NGI. Much of the strategy relies upon an established ability to architect new systems with the technical standards and infrastructure necessary to accommodate ongoing upgrades and innovations as they become 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.

Image: Reuters.