Recent Developments in US Missile Defense

A GMD interceptor is transported on a truck.

A GMD interceptor is transported on a truck.

Updates 12/17/2015: -Congress has added $30 million in funding to the GMD program. $20 million is for the development of the EKV system, and $10 million is for the development of the Divert and Attitude Control System (DACS), which makes precise adjustments to the kill vehicles’ trajectories as they close on their targets. In addition, Patriot PAC-3 MSE procurement has received an additional $100 million. Source: Defense News

-The Romanian SM-3 interceptor site has “started up,” meaning that it is capable of operation. However, it has not been formally declared operational, as full C4ISR integration is yet to be achieved. Source: Defense News

The past year has been a successful one for US missile defense efforts. Many US missile defense programs have either passed tests or made progress of some nature. This article will provide a brief rundown of each program, what it achieved, and the possible implications.

First, and perhaps most interesting, is the Multi-object Kill Vehicle (MKV) program, which is part of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program. In the context of missile defense, a kill vehicle is a maneuvering vehicle which is released from the interceptor. It then steers itself into the oncoming warhead, destroying both the kill vehicle and the warhead with sheer force of impact.

The GMD program aims to defend the US against ICBM attack by intercepting warheads in midcourse. The MKV is a kill vehicle ferried atop a three-stage Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) missile into space. Like the current GMD payload, the Raytheon-designed Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV), MKV is designed to intercept warheads in midcourse (between boost phase and terminal phase). Both the interceptor kill vehicle and the warheads travel at very rapid speeds, making precision and error-free operation critical.

Unlike the EKV, however, the MKV will be able to intercept more than one reentry vehicle per interceptor missile launched. MKV is in the concept development phase, meaning the system is still being designed and conceptualized. As such, nothing is set in stone. The goal of MKV appears to be allowing one single GBI missile to engage multiple ballistic targets, a more cost effective proposition than the one-propulsion-stack one-intercept EKV+GBI system currently fielded.

Notably, the MKV program is curious given the US’s claim that missile its defense program is intended to thwart an Iranian or North Korean attack. US missile defense is seemingly adequate for that task: GMD has over 30 EKV-armed interceptors deployed (with 44 planned) and neither Iran nor North Korea possess the capability to reliably and rapidly launch a large number of ICBMs, for the time being. It seems, then, that the MKV program has been initiated either in anticipation of future Iranian or North Korean advancements, or because US missile defense has greater aspirations than stopping a few Iranian or North Korean warheads. While the current GMD interceptors are likely adequate for defense against Iran and North Korea, they would be woefully ineffective against China or Russia, who possess a large number of MIRV missiles. The MKV could address this problem if it were to intercept a large number of these reentry vehicles cheaply. In this case, the MKV could have massive implications for US homeland defense by mitigating the nuclear deterrence of other nations. Given the potential for an arms race to occur should the MKV achieve the capability to counter MIRVs, it seems unlikely the US would purchase enough MKVs to threaten Russia or China, which begs the question: “what is the MKV really for?” Whatever the reason, the program is definitely worth keeping an eye on considering its possible implications and the interesting circumstances. As more details emerge, the intentions and capabilities of the program may become clear.

MKV is not the only recent development in the US midcourse defense program. Boeing has also recently been awarded a contract for developing a Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV) to replace Raytheon’s EKV (discussed previously). As MKV, RKV, and EKV are all propelled by GBI, it will be interesting to see how MKV and RKV differentiate themselves. The most likely explanation for their concurrent development: RKV is a cheaper short-term solution, while MKV’s deployment will occur sometime after RKV’s. As opposed to MKV, RKV intercepts only one nuclear warhead, similarly to EKV. Also worth noting is that the RKV’s development team is composed not only of Boeing but of Raytheon and Lockheed Martin as well, meaning RKV is being worked on by all three major US missile defense companies. The replacement of EKV with RKV should alleviate some of the worry surrounding GMD after multiple test failures as well as increase the deterrent value of the GMD program as a whole.

Raytheon’s Patriot PAC-3 MSE missile is three for three in intercept testing. The road-mobile Patriot PAC-3 system intercepts terminal-stage warheads at short range, making it useful for point defense of military installations or other important areas. MSE stands for Missile Segment Enhancement, a new version of the PAC-3 missile modified for longer range. The PAC-3 MSE has intercepted tactical ballistic missiles and other modified Patriots. The PAC-3 MSE represents the continued evolution of the Patriot system in the missile defense role after its poor showing in Operation Desert Storm. The MSE allows for the US military to have greater confidence in the coverage of its Patriot batteries and in their ability to defend key installations against tactical to medium range ballistic missiles, reducing the deterrent value of such missile. If the PAC-3 MSE is exported to Saudi Arabia or South Korea, which both face ballistic missile-armed adversaries, it could complement current missile defense assets.

Lastly, the US has successfully completed land-based tests of the SM-3. The SM-3 is an anti-ballistic missile currently used for missile defense by Aegis ships. The land-based SM-3 is being developed for use in the European missile defense shield. Like the Patriot, it intercepts missiles in terminal phase. However, the SM-3 has a coverage many times larger than Patriot, by virtue of its larger size and ability to intercept targets in space. The SM-3 has longer range than the THAAD system, which is why it has been chosen for the European missile defense deployment. The successful intercept test comes at an awkward time, as tensions between Russia and the US over events in Syria, Ukraine and Turkey are rather high. Russia claims the system is a threat to its nuclear deterrence, a rather baseless claim considering the proposed system would be wholly inadequate against a Russian attack. The US claims the system is to defend against an Iranian missile attack, a claim which is at least plausible, although a war in which Iran fires ballistic missiles at Europe seems quite unlikely. In any case, the successful test of the SM-3 indicates the European missile shield program is making progress, and its eventual deployment has the potential to flare-up of tensions in the region.


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Alex Hempel
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