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  • Three Paths to Missile Defense
    Posted by David A. Fulghum 7:47 PM on Aug 17, 2010

    Israel, the People’s Republic of China and the U.S. are all looking for a missile defense but each is taking a separate technology path.

    Israel is developing specialized ground-based defenses such as Iron Dome that can deal with hundreds of short range ballistic missiles. China is buying one of the world’s biggest inventories of surface to air missiles (SAMs) – originally built to shoot down cruise missiles and aircraft. The U.S. is looking at small lasers and advanced air-to-air missiles that could be carried by unmanned aircraft.

    While the details will not be clear until 2014-15, the Missile Defense Agency is pressing ahead with plans generated by a 10-years forecast that U.S. officials hope allies will support, adopt and help pay for.

    In support of that forecast, the newly renamed Airborne Laser Test Platform – carrying a high-power, multi-megawatt chemical laser is conducting tests to prove it can predictably shoot down a target missile at ranges of over 100 mi.

    “Last Feb. we had the first engagement against an actual threat missile,” says Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O’Reilly, commander of the Missile Defense Agency. “Now we’re trying to shoot it down at more than twice that range [of more than 50 mi.]. It was the first time we ever used lasers like this.”

    Air Force scientists thought that they had discovered that the energy beam transmitted through the atmosphere at twice the anticipated range. They appear to be wrong. An additional test in June indicated that they have again underestimated the laser’s destructive range.

    Another technology that falls within the 10-year scope of MDA predictions is Boost Phase Intercept (BPI) of enemy ballistic missiles shortly after launch.

    “From a technical point of view, boost phase is the most attractive place to shoot down a missile,” O’Reilly says. “The challenges are timing, [position and the] Mach 9-10 interceptor missile speed you would need to shoot down a missile in the 2-4 minutes that it is boosting. The issue is practicality. How close do you have to be, and in what position? If you are on strip alert [in an aircraft with an interceptor missile] and the target missile has already launched, that’s a problem.”

    But if manned aircraft are taken out of the formula, then there may be a way to make BPI a viable capability.

    “We’re interested in remotely piloted vehicles,” Reilly says. “We’re studying that with the U.S. Air Force so that we can maximize the potential to have an aircraft at the right place and time to intercept. The challenge is to have faster missiles – which makes them big and gives you problems with finding aircraft to carry them – or to make more energetic missiles with different propellants. It is promising. But are we going to have boost phase interception in the next 4-5 years? I don’t see that.”

    Israel’s missile defense system avoids the need for BPI because its borders are close to enemy launch sites. The problem there is the volume of enemy missiles they expect to absorb in any new conflict.

    “I was in Israel a couple of weeks ago looking at “Iron Dome” [one of the lower-level defenses],” Reilly says. “It’s impressive, but when you look at the volume of missiles it will have to address it is quite challenging because the whole system has to operate within seconds in a very confusing environment. With Iron Dome, they are going to deploy a lot of them and deploy them right up front so it’s an attractive system for that.”

    The Pentagon’s newly released 2010 annual report to Congress on military developments involving the People’s Republic of China provides some clues about how China is tackling the missile defense problem. It involves ships, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), electronic warfare and computer network attack.

    New PLA Navy ships reflect the leadership’s priority for an advanced anti-air warfare capability at sea which has historically been a weakness of the fleet, the report says.

    The PLA Air Force is building an inventory of long-range, advanced SAM systems that is now one of the largest in the world, Pentagon analysts say. Over the past five years, China’s efforts have included the acquisition of a number of SA-20 PMU2 battalions, the most advanced SAM systems offered for export by Russia and the introduction of the indigenously designed HQ-9. Other systems include the SA-10 PMU1.

    Chinese doctrine includes the “Joint Anti-Air Raid” campaign plan that involves air and missile defense as well as early warning and reconnaissance. It provides the basis for much of China’s planning for anti-access and area-denial operations over both China’s offensive and defensive forces in the event of war.

    The Joint Anti-Air Raid campaign is strategically defensive, but includes attacks of enemy bases and naval forces at the operational and tactical levels.

    Tags: China, Israel, U.S., MDA

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