Navy destroyers might kill hypersonic missile attacks

Having a Navy destroyer able to take out ICBMs is a development that radically impacts strategic and tactical dynamics associated with missile defense in a way that multiplies defenses in unprecedented ways.

The mid-course phase of flight during which an ICBM travels through space toward its descent back into the earth’s atmosphere is typically a 20-minute process depending upon launch origin and trajectory. Therefore, it is of course much longer than any boost phase ascent or terminal phase descent onto a target, offering the best and most advantageous opportunity for defensive intercept.

So, given the possibility of an attacking salvo, or the continued proliferation of advanced countermeasures such decoys or other methods of ensuring an ICBM passes through space, an ability to take multiple intercept “shots” would be of enormous tactical value. Ground-based interceptors (GBIs) can travel great distances, yet they are land launched and restricted in terms of point of origin.

A Navy-ship fired SM-3 IIA, recently demonstrated to be capable of destroying ICBMs, brings new geographical launch possibilities. For example, a group of Aegis-capable Navy destroyers could fire SM-3s from the middle of the Pacific Ocean at ICBMs speeding through space for the U.S. from China. While an ICBM is likely to be at a higher altitude in space during the major portions of the mid-course phase, the period of time just after it leaves the earth’s atmosphere, or the minutes right before it reenters the earth’s atmosphere upon descent seems to present an optimal tactical window for an SM-3 IIA. A ship operating not far off the coast of the U.S., or near enemy shores in the vicinity of a potential enemy launch location, could provide a unique opportunity for SM-3 IIA-armed destroyers to fire intercepts at ICBMs operating just above the boundary of the earth’s atmosphere.


There is yet another interesting tactical possibility here which might include the idea that a highly-precise, larger and long-range SM-3 IIA interceptor could be used to intercept hypersonic weapons. Is it fast enough? Can ship-based radar track something at that speed? That may remain to be seen, however, one interesting nuance can be found in the Pentagon’s current effort to accelerate defenses against hypersonic weapons.

Hypersonic boost-glide vehicles, which skim along the boundaries of the earth’s atmosphere, occupy what Principal Pentagon Director for Hypersonics Michael White recently described as “in between space,” meaning it was difficult for most interceptors or ship-based defenses to reach. The areas just above and below the earth’s atmospheric boundary may be too high for certain ballistic missile defenses, such as ship-fired SM-3s, to reach, yet simultaneously be too low for space-traveling GBIs to hit. Could

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