Here's What You Need to Remember: Even in the event that mobile launcher were able to obscure, vary or conceal the launch point of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), its heat signature upon launch might likely be detectable by satellites
A Chinese newspaper is criticizing the recent successful intercept of a mock nuclear missile, in this case, a simulated ICBM, by a U.S. Navy destroyer using an SM-3 IIA missile. The Beijing-backed paper alleged that the ship-launched missile defense capability would not prove effective in a “real-war” scenario or have any chance of stopping a maneuvering hypersonic missile.
The claim in the paper, which quoted a Chinese defense analyst, was not supported by any technical data, operational context or evidence-based information. Rather the article argued that the United States “only used a mock missile and was done under an optimal scenario in which the defending side knows where and when the missile would come from.”
Essentially, the Chinese-government backed Global Times newspaper says the U.S. demo did not approximate a “real-battle” scenario and went on to claim that both Russia and China have mobile launchers. The thrust of the argument advanced in the story was simply that Russia and China are now developing more “advanced missiles, including hypersonic ones.”
The comments and arguments advanced by the paper seem to invite several pertinent questions, such as the many factors either left out or not addressed by the story. The most apparent problem with the Chinese newspaper’s claims is that seems to lack the awareness of the Navy’s advanced SM-3 IIA; the missile is a modern variant of the interceptor which is larger in size and, perhaps of even greater relevance, it is engineered with new, advanced, more discriminating seeker technology enabling it to improve precision and better track enemy targets. While many technical details of an emerging weapon such as the SM-3 IIA are likely not available for understandable security reasons, it certainly seems possible that the SM-3 IIA might be able to track and destroy moving targets.
Also, even in the event that mobile launcher were able to obscure, vary or conceal the launch point of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), its heat signature upon launch might likely be detectable by satellites. In fact, fast-evolving methods of tracking threats are advancing detection technologies through the proliferation of new Low and Medium Earth Orbit satellites. The SM-3 IIA intercept was a breakthrough first-step in a series of fast-moving developments intended to refine, test and deploy an even wider-range of ship-mobile ICBM defenses.
These fast-emerging systems are specifically designed to improve space-based meshed networking to track fast-maneuvering enemy missiles, such as ICBMs or even hypersonic missiles at some point in the future. Lastly, the interceptor itself may not need as much of its own tracking to follow the launch and trajectory of a missile fired from a mobile launcher, as the flight path may well be known by space sensors or other methods of detection before ship-based SM-3 IIA fire control is fired. This means ship commanders may already have an accurate track of a weapon, given improving space connectivity, sufficient to offer coordinates, details or flight-path specifics to sailors operating and programming an SM-3 interceptor system.
While referred to by the Chinese paper as a “mock target,” the ICBM was a Northrop-built trainer missile designed to very closely replicate an actual ICBM. It was in effect described as simply an “unarmed” ICBM.
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.
This piece first appeared in late 2020 and is being reprinted due to reader interest.
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