Robert Gates posturing on missile defence

2008-02-21

in Bombs and rockets, Daily updates, Politics, Rants, Security

Everybody has probably heard about how the United States shot down a supposedly dangerous satellite with a ship-based kinetic kill interceptor. Now, US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates is saying that this proves missile defence works. Of course, this is absurd. Satellites follow very predictable orbits. As such, it is pretty easy to hit them with missiles. Commanders won’t have that advantage when trying to shoot down the incoming missiles of their enemies: especially since those missiles will often employ physical or electronic countermeasures.

It is also worthwhile to consider what they would be saying if this test had failed: “Of course, downing an ailing satellite is completely different from missile defence! The fact that this test didn’t succeed in no way suggests that America’s $12.8 billion per year missile program is ineffective, nor that missile defence technologies aren’t worthy of billions more taxpayer dollars.”

It’s a good thing Canada never bought into the idea.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. February 22, 2008 at 9:41 am

Failing to destroy the satellite would have been an embarassment and a blow against the missile defence program. At the same time, success is a weak endorsement, for the reasons you describe.

. February 22, 2008 at 11:54 am

The $60 Million Missile
Why is it so expensive to shoot down a spy satellite?
By Michelle Tsai

“Customizing the Aegis system and missiles for the satellite mission was a major expense. The technologies were originally designed to intercept ballistic missiles using heat sensors, but the spy satellite was cooler in temperature. To account for this difference, the three SM-3’s needed new software, hardware, and sensors, and the launching systems had to be given new sensors and software updates. The bulk of this task would have been assigned to high-priced contractors—like Raytheon, the maker of the missile, or Lockheed Martin, maker of the Aegis system. And it would have taken a large crew of engineers to rewrite the code, debug it, and test it over and over again—all within three weeks. The stakes were also higher than they would be for a commercial software release, as the system had to work perfectly in a 10-second window; there was no opportunity to fix problems with software patches later on. (Before this week’s launch, the same anti-missile system had been successful on eight of 10 tries.)”

. February 25, 2008 at 11:57 am

Shooting Down the Hype

The satellite takedown doesn’t prove anything about our missile-defense capability.
By Fred Kaplan
Updated Friday, Feb. 22, 2008, at 4:56 PM ET

. February 25, 2008 at 11:58 am

The challenge of a missile-defense program is not to “hit a bullet with a bullet.” That feat, remarkable as it is, was demonstrated some time ago. The challenge is to hit several bullets with several bullets in a short period of time. To drop the metaphor, it’s to hit several warheads—each the size of a small refrigerator (much smaller than the satellite and thus much harder to find, track, and hit)—some of which might be zooming alongside decoys that might be very hard to distinguish from the warhead. (The missile defense agency has yet to conduct tests against any but the crudest decoys.)

And another challenge is to hit warheads that an enemy might fire from a surprise location—perhaps outside the easy range of our anti-missile interceptors. For instance, an enemy might fire missiles from a boat a few hundred miles (and, therefore, only a few minutes of flying time) from U.S. or allied shores—not enough time for our radars to track the missiles, much less shoot them.

The satellite shoot-down, as well as some previous testing, suggests that the missile-defense system, once it’s installed, might be able to shoot down a) one decoy-less missile b) fired from a distant, known site c) along an arc within range of our radars and interceptors.

. February 25, 2008 at 11:59 am

The smart way to play an arms race is to develop weapons that force the enemy to spend more money to counter them. A ballistic-missile-defense system pushes the enemy toward alternatives that cost less.

. March 25, 2008 at 1:15 pm

Sea-based X-band Radar

Sea-Based X-Band Radar is a floating, self-propelled, mobile radar station designed to operate in high winds and heavy seas. It is part of the United States Government’s Ballistic Missile Defense System.

The Sea-Based X-Band Radar is mounted on a 5th generation Norwegian-designed, Russian-built CS-50 semi-submersible twin-hulled oil-drilling platform. The hull was originally built at Vyborg Shipyard, hull number 101. Conversion of the platform was carried out at the AmFELS yard in Brownsville, Texas; the radar mount was built and mounted on the platform at the Kiewit yard in Ingleside, Texas, near Corpus Christi. It is based at Adak Island in Alaska but can roam over the Pacific Ocean to detect incoming ballistic missiles. The platform is classed by ABS and has the IMO number of 8765412.

The platform has many small radomes for various communications tasks and a central, large dome that encloses and protects a phased-array, 1,814 tonnes (4,000,000 pound) X band radar antenna. The radar is described as being 384 square meters, with “well over” 30,000 transmit-receive modules, which are arranged in a widely-spaced configuration. This configuration allows it to support the very-long-range target discrimination and tracking that GMD’s midcourse segment requires. The array requires over a megawatt of power.

. March 25, 2008 at 1:34 pm

“This is what is called a government-owned, contractor-operated facility,” the SBX’s engineer tells me. He and I are eating lunch in the dining room, which is contracted to yet another private company. From a blackboard filled with yummy offerings, I order a first course of coconut curried chicken and rice soup, followed by a tasty Asian-style pork chop. This ain’t your daddy’s Navy, because this is not the United States Navy. There is not a single U. S. Navy officer to be found on board the SBX. In fact, there is not a single uniformed member of the U.S. military stationed here. Over soup, I ask the engineer who the crew works for. “Interocean American Shipping,” he says. America’s most sophisticated weapons system, it turns out, is being entrusted to a commercial ship operator based in New Jersey.

. September 2, 2009 at 3:46 pm

Israel: A U.S. BMD Radar Arrives

September 29, 2008

A U.S. ballistic missile defense radar arrived at an Israeli air force base Sept. 21. The deployment is emblematic of long-standing U.S.-Israeli cooperation in the area of ballistic missile defense, and its integration will significantly improve both the U.S. and Israeli missile defense networks.

. September 3, 2009 at 3:42 pm

North Korea: The U.S. Capability to Intercept a North Korean Missile

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates expressed confidence on June 9 in the existing U.S. ballistic missile defense system’s capability to intercept a North Korean missile launched at the United States. STRATFOR examines this claim and the capabilities of the ballistic missile defenses involved.

These very different azimuths would be quickly distinguishable by radar both by U.S. and Japanese destroyers and by land-based radars, which acquire and begin to track a missile immediately after launch. Ascent-phase interceptors would have to be launched immediately after the missile is acquired by radar. There would be no time to call the White House and debate the potential response. These matters are decided beforehand and commanders in the region and captains at sea are given standing orders based on specific criteria for launching an interceptor.

If the decision has been made in advance to intercept a missile on a trajectory that could strike Alaska or the continental United States, two BMD systems come into play. The first is the Aegis/Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) system. Thirteen American Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers and three Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers based in the Pacific have this BMD capability. Two Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force destroyers are also equipped with it, and two additional destroyers are being upgraded.

The SPY-1 series radars on these warships have been integrated with the larger American BMD network, and can feed tracking data to other systems and plot their own intercept with the SM-3. Because these systems are ship-mounted, they are more flexible in their positioning. And because North Korea’s long-range missiles take days to move to the launch site and fuel, there is ample warning to move one of these ships into position (some of the U.S. BMD-capable destroyers are based in Japan).

Infrared sensors on the Defense Support Program satellite constellation would detect the infrared plume of the launching missile, immediately notifying the U.S. BMD network. Properly positioned in the northern Sea of Japan, an Aegis-equipped warship would likely be one of the first to acquire and track the missile launch by radar in the boost phase while the missile was still under power. Several SM-3 interceptors would likely be launched in order to maximize the chances of successfully bringing down the target.

The SM-3 Block IA (the variant currently deployed) is capable of ascent and descent phase engagement. It was successfully proven not as a BMD interceptor but as an anti-satellite weapon when it was used to bring down a wayward satellite last year. Based on its operational performance as well as in testing, the SM-3 is widely regarded as one of the most mature and capable BMD systems in the world. And because an intercept in the ascent phase would likely take place before the missile would be able to deploy countermeasures or decoys, there is good reason to think that the missile could be intercepted — especially with multiple interceptors. Gates’ confidence here is not without merit.

But should the SM-3s fail, there are also the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) System, with 33 interceptors total based at Fort Greely, Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. This is an earlier system and was deployed aggressively in 2004, even as its operational maturity was still questioned by many. The idea is known as “spiral” deployment, in which the operational interceptors would be upgraded as testing continued and the design was refined — but the system would be available in an emergency. Long popularly reviled as the poster child for the waste, excess and immaturity of missile defense efforts, the Missile Defense Agency is now expressing confidence in GMD. However, some experts are still skeptical.

R.K. September 3, 2009 at 4:11 pm

The boost phase approach does seem promising. The missiles are biggest and slowest then, and won’t have been able to deploy MIRVs or dummy warheads.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily make BMD a good idea.

Milan September 3, 2009 at 4:53 pm

True, though the boost-stage option requires the forward placement of both RADAR and interceptor facilities (laser, kinetic kill, etc).

In the specific case of North Korea, a lot of that has obviously already happened, with cooperation from Japan.

. September 17, 2009 at 9:32 am

U.S.: Backing Down on BMD

September 17, 2009

Rumors are flying late Sept. 16 that the United States could be shelving its plans to build a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Poland and Czech Republic. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates reportedly will hold a news conference on the issue sometime Sept. 17 or Sept. 18, and U.S. security officials are apparently in Poland briefing Warsaw on the development.

The BMD program has long been one of the most contested issues between the United States and Russia, which sees the program as a further Western encroachment on its sphere of influence. Moscow also sees the program as Washington militarily protecting Warsaw and Prague from Russian consolidation of its influence further into Europe.

In recent months, Moscow has countered continued U.S. support for Poland and the Czech Republic with its own support for Iran. The situation between the United States and Iran has intensified, with Russia also holding some of the only alternatives for Iran to continue rebuffing U.S. pressure. Washington has been nearing a breakpoint in which it must either take substantial steps to counter Iran or give Russia concessions to have Moscow back off its support for Tehran.

. September 12, 2010 at 8:32 pm

“The bomb that science found hidden in the world and made manifest would destroy the nation-state paradoxically by rendering it defenseless. Against such small and cheap and holocaustal weapons no defense could ever be certain. The thickest shields, from fighter aircraft to Star Wars, could be penetrated merely by multiplying weapons, decoys and delivery systems. The only security from the bomb would be political: negotiation toward an open world, which would increase security by decreasing national sovereignty and damping out the violence that attended it.”

Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. p.783 (paperback)

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