Can GMD Stop Russian Missiles?

That was our “topic of discussion”: the other day. And the answer, according to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, is “nope.”

I don’t mean the argument about whether European-based interceptors could fly out in time to engage Russian ICBMs. I’m talking about countermeasures.

CDI has what I was looking for earlier — the “Missile Defense Agency FY 2009 Budget Estimates”: Here’s what it says about enemies:

bq. Our program is focused on the threat from North Korea and Iran but remains flexible to address emerging threats given the wide and dangerous proliferation of ballistic missile technologies.

The key excerpt explains how the development and fielding of capabilities are planned in a “block structure,” including a block (already largely complete) with North Korea’s name on it, and a couple of blocks with Iran’s name on them:

bq.. * Blocks will be based on fielded BMDS capabilities—not, as before, on biennial time periods—that address particular threats. Each block will represent a discrete program of work.
* When MDA believes a firm commitment can be made to the Congress, the Agency will establish schedule, budget, and performance baselines for a block. Schedule delays, budget increases, and performance shortfalls will be explained as variances.
* Once baselines are defined, work cannot be moved from one block to another.

Based on the above tenets, MDA has currently defined five blocks.
* Block 1.0: Defend the United States from Limited North Korean Long-Range Threats
* Block 2.0: Defend Allies and Deployed Forces from Short- to Medium-Range Threats in One Region/Theater
* Block 3.0: Expand Defense of the United States to Include Limited Iranian Long-Range Threats
* Block 4.0: Defend Allies and Deployed Forces in Europe from Limited Iranian Long-Range Threats and Expand Protection of U.S. Homeland
* Block 5.0: Expand Defense of Allies and Deployed Forces from Short- to Intermediate-Range Threats in Two Regions/Theaters

Future blocks (Block 6.0, etc.) will be added when significant new capabilities are expected to be fielded based on a consideration of technological maturity, affordability, and need. For example, a new Block 6.0 might include enhanced defense of the United States against complex countermeasures, drawing on multiple kill capabilities from the multiple kill vehicle (MKV) program and discrimination and system tracking capabilities through upgraded hardware and software on weapon systems, sensors, and C2BMC.

p. So, back in 2008, when this document was prepared, MDA’s plans for the foreseeable future included only fielding 1) theater defenses and 2) “long-range” systems oriented specifically to North Korea and Iran. The MKV program and other future initiatives would have to bear fruit before “complex countermeasures” could be tackled.

This could mean that 1) the North Koreans and Iranians would be expected to upgrade their countermeasures with time, or it could mean that 2) MDA had its sights set on still tougher challenges in the future, like Russia or China. Or, if you are skeptical, the MKV program could have simply been 3) a backhanded concession that current technologies were already inadequate. And it could have been a bit of all three.

Regardless, the point is, until progress could be made on these new technologies, more capable defenses weren’t even scheduled.

Back in April, Secretary of Defense Gates hinted broadly that the correct answer was #2, telling Congress:

bq. * We will restructure the program to focus on the rogue state and theater missile threat.

That, of course, is also when he moved to “axe the MKV program”:

bq. * We will terminate the Multiple Kill Vehicle (MKV) program because of its significant technical challenges and the need to take a fresh look at the requirement.

One possible interpretation of the above is, We don’t think it is feasible to tackle bigger fish than Iran and North Korea, and actually are not interested in trying anyhow.

The “FY 2010 Budget Estimates”: document is available on the MDA site. It no longer features the block structure, but the section on threats names two countries: Iran and North Korea. It echoes Gates’s earlier comments about MKV, while indicating intent to pursue some new “ascent phase” defense technology — apparently something that could shoot down a missile after boosting but before deployment of countermeasures. But that’s a topic for another day.

4 thoughts on “Can GMD Stop Russian Missiles?

  1. Allen Thomson

    The problem is that “complex countermeasures” is MDA-speak for “effective countermeasures.” And those, as Richard Garwin and the fine folks at MIT point out, aren’t complex. MKV was the only known program that had any chance of addressing the antisimulation class of midcourse countermeasures. (Or, I suppose, limited numbers of biobomblets.)

    Ascent phase strikes me as iffy, since countermeasures or bomblets would probably be deployed immediately after booster burn-out, like within a minute or so.

  2. CorentinB

    Allen, here I think it may be useful to distinguish between what could be termed “boost” phase and “ascent” phase. Maybe the two terms use to be used interchangeably, but one has to distinguish the time during which the fuel is burning from the period during which the missile / RV is ascending.

    The whole point in developing boost-phase MDs is that the intercept would occur while the propellant is burning, and so while its infrared signature is extremely visible, much more than during mid-course. The other reason would be to destroy a large, single target instead of having to cope with countermeasures.

    So of course, the whole job would be extremely difficult and time-sensitive (the window of opportunity may be as small as 4 or 5 minutes) but I don’t think “traditional” countermeasures would be a problem here. At least, it doesn’t seem to be the biggest one.

  3. Josh


    The FY10 MDA document draws a distinction between the two phases, and indicates interest in new ideas that would apply to the post-boost “ascent phase.”

    I think Allen is right to be skeptical about this. If the boost window is small, the “ascent” window — post-boost, pre-deployment of midcourse countermeasures — is liable to be much smaller. Garwin recently touched on this, and I suspect we’ll hear more about it in the years to come.

  4. CorentinB

    Josh, Allen,

    My mistake ! I should have taken a look at Richard Garwin’s briefing and also at the 2010 MDA doc before putting in my two cents about that…


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