Tag Archives: ballistic missile defense

War and the Innocent Bystanders

During a visit to Tokyo in 2017, Donald Trump called on Japan to buy “massive” amounts of American weaponry. At the time, North Korea was testing new rockets regularly. For the Japanese government, buying Aegis Ashore, a pricey American missile shield, allayed both concerns. Not all Japanese, however, were happy with the purchase, especially in Araya, a quiet residential neighbourhood of low-slung homes next to the sea in Akita city—and the site of a proposed Aegis base.

Akita City, Japan

Jittery locals fretted about electromagnetic waves from the system’s radar and debris from its rockets. They worried about becoming a target in a conflict, as the city’s oil refineries were during the second world war. “Why, why here?” asks Sasaki Masashi, a retired railway worker and head of a neighbourhood council. “It says: ‘Please attack us’,” complains Sakurada Yuko, another anti-Aegis campaigner. They have collected signatures, harangued officials and voted against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party  which unexpectedly lost a seat in Akita in elections to the upper house of parliament last year.

In June 2020  Akita received unexpected but welcome news: the government declared it was scrapping the $4.2bn purchase of Aegis Ashore. Kono Taro, the defence minister, cited the ballooning cost of ensuring that boosters did not fall on civilian property….

Excerpts from Anti-anti-missile systems, Economist, Aug. 15, 2020

A Hypersonic Death: The Race to Develop Hypersonic Weapons

For decades, the U.S. military—and its adversaries—have coveted missiles that travel at hypersonic speed, generally defined as Mach 5 (5 times the speed of sound) or greater . Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) meet that definition when they re-enter the atmosphere from space. But because they arc along a predictable ballistic path, like a bullet, they lack the element of surprise. In contrast, hypersonic weapons such as China’s waverider maneuver aerodynamically, enabling them to dodge defenses and keep an adversary guessing about the target.

The US Department of Defense (DOD) is leading a new charge, pouring more than $1 billion annually into hypersonic research. Competition from ambitious programs in China and Russia is a key motivator. Although hype and secrecy muddy the picture, all three nations appear to have made substantial progress in overcoming key obstacles, such as protecting hypersonic craft from savage frictional heating. Russia recently unveiled a weapon called the Kinzhal, said to reach Mach 10 under its own power, and another called Avangard that is boosted by a rocket to an astonishing Mach 27. China showed off a rocket-boosted hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) of its own, the Dongfeng-17, in a recent military parade. The United States, meanwhile, is testing several hypersonic weapons. “It’s a race to the Moon sort of thing,” says Iain Boyd, an aerospace engineer at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “National pride is at stake.”

China’s military sees hypersonic weapons (as well as cyberwarfare and electromagnetic pulse strikes) as an “assassin’s mace”: a folklore term for a weapon that gives an advantage against a better-armed foe. If tensions were to spike over Taiwan or the South China Sea, for instance, China might be tempted to launch preemptive strikes with conventional hypersonic weapons that could cripple U.S. forces in the Pacific Ocean.For now, maneuverability at hypersonic speeds makes the weapons nearly impossible to shoot down—unstoppable…

At hypersonic speeds,  “You’re flying under extraordinary conditions”—extreme velocities, forces, and temperatures.  At hypersonic  speeds “temperatures start to get high enough to worry about… A vehicle’s survival requires resilient superalloys and ultra–high-temperature ceramics. And perhaps novel coolants…

Other nations are chasing the trio of leaders—or teaming up with them. Australia is collaborating with the United States on a Mach 8 HGV, and India with Russia on a Mach 7 Hypersonic Cruise Missile (HCM). France intends to field an HCM by 2022, and Japan is aiming for an HGV in 2026.

THE United States is largely defenseless against such weapons, at least for now, in part because it can’t track them…To remedy that shortcoming, the Pentagon plans to launch hundreds of small satellites with sensors capable of tracking heat sources an order of magnitude cooler than rocket boosters. The full Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor network could be up and running by 2030, he adds. (The satellites would also be used to help guide U.S. hypersonic weapons.)  Once you have such sensors, “we can find a way to build the interceptors…Interceptors could destroy a hypersonic vehicle either by colliding with it or by detonating a warhead nearby. But Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is also exploring using directed energy: lasers, neutral particle beams, and microwaves or radio waves.

Richard StoneJan, National pride is at stake.’ Russia, China, United States race to build hypersonic weapons, Science, Jan 10, 2020

HyperSonic Gliders: Arms Race at the Speed of Sound

Hypersonics are like missiles that travel at over five times the speed of sound, but are able to manoeuvre in mid-flight, making them much harder to track and intercept than traditional projectiles.  France is the fourth of the five permanent UN Security Council members to join the so-called “stealth by speed” contest, after China, Russia and the United States.  “We have decided to issue a contract for a hypersonic glider”–V-MaX (Experimental Manoeuvering Vehicle)–that can travel at over 6,000 kilometres per hour, Defence Minister Florence Parly said last week, promising a test flight by the end of 2021.

In March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin stunned Western military analysts – and many in Russia – by unveiling plans for a new arsenal of hypersonic weapons which he said would render missile defence systems obsolete….A few months later US President Donald Trump threatened to walk away from a key arms control treaty with Moscow.

Hypersonic gliders would be carried to the end of the earth’s atmosphere by a launch vehicle and would then “glide” back to a target on the ground. “The goal is high-speed manoeuvrability. That’s how it differs from a ballistic trajectory,” the French government’s defence procurement and technology agency (DGA) said.  “Once the initial speed is reached, we can play with speed and altitude to move up and down, to the left and to the right, creating a trajectory that is more difficult to intercept,” it said…

In December 2018, the Kremlin touted the capabilities of its new hypersonic glider, aptly named “Avanguard”.  The Kremlin said that in tests, the intercontinental projectile reached 27 times the speed of sound – 33,000 kilometres per hour, or Mach 27.  “At this speed, not a single intercepter missile can shoot it down,” Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov boasted.  China has also reportedly carried out several successful tests since 2014 of a glider that can reach speeds of between Mach 5 and Mach 10.

Excerpts from Race for ‘hypersonic’ weapons heats up as France joins fray, Agence France Presse, Jan. 29, 2019

The fate of SS-18 Satan

While Ukraine renounced its own possession of nuclear weapons in 1994, many scientists and design bureaus in the country still have the know-how required to manufacture important components of strategic weapons.

China has often been particularly keen of this knowledge, acquiring Ukrainian help in designing their first phased-array radar system.  Ukrainian aerospace, tank and naval engineers is also a common phenomenon in China, most notably Valerii Babich, designer of the Varyag aircraft carrier. There are even rumors of “Ukrainetowns” in some Chinese cities founded by the large number of expats hired by Chinese firms. Ukrainian and Russian businessmen even sold Kh-55 nuclear cruise missiles (without the warheads) from Ukrainian stockpiles to China in the 2000s. As China continues to modernize their ICBM fleet, it begs the question: how much help is Ukraine providing, willingly and unwillingly?

This wouldn’t be the first time Ukraine’s ICBM knowhow was possibly exported. In the fall of 2017, Ukraine’s Yuzhnoye Design Bureau, based in Dnipro, was accused of providing rocket engines to North Korea. While Ukrainian media has denied this allegation, there was a definite case of Yushnoye employees who were caught selling the plans on the RS-20 (SS-18 “Satan”) to Chinese missile engineers. Although the Chinese engineers were caught by Ukrainian police, Chinese diplomatic influence resulted in the charges being cleared. This trend has continued, as recently as 2016 when a scientist at Dnipropetrovsk National University left for China with many materials regarding the use of composites and heat-shielding coatings on rocket launchers—which were considered Ukrainian state secrets…

Given all the different vectors through which rocket and missile technology are flowing from Ukraine to China, it’s reasonable to say that Ukraine has provided considerable aid to the Chinese ballistic missile program.

Excerpts, Charlie Gao, Do China’s Nuclear Missiles Have Ukrainian DNA?, The National Interest, June 23

Drone Missile Defense

The best time to shoot down a hostile missile is straight after take-off. During this initial “boost phase” it moves more slowly, is easier to spot (because its exhaust plumes are so hot) and presents a bigger target (having not yet ditched its first-stage fuel tanks). A bonus is that the debris may come crashing down on the country that launched it—your enemy—rather than you. But the main advantage of “boost-phase missile defence” is that your military does not have to deal with decoys.   A missile that has breached the atmosphere and begun its midcourse glide can throw off lots of decoys. In the vacuum of space, tinfoil balloons, or clouds of aluminium strips known as chaff, will keep pace with the missile that released them. Not even the American military can distinguish sophisticated decoys from a warhead (though it might manage with crude ones designed by Iran or North Korea, say).

The downside, though, [of a boost-phase missile defense] is that requires speed. Interceptors (anti-missile missiles) fired from sea or land will probably be too late. Ronald Reagan’s proposed solution was “Star Wars”: armed satellites orbiting above hostile nations’ launchpads. It cost a packet, didn’t work and was scrapped in the 1990s. But some experts say the moment has arrived for a sequel: high-altitude drones. North Korea’s arsenal of ballistic missiles could probably be countered if as few as three drones were suitably stationed at all times, says Dale Tietz, a former Star Wars analyst. An American Global Hawk drone, which can fly uninterrupted for 30 hours, held 18km above nearby international waters could probably carry several interceptors fast enough to shoot down missiles heading north towards America, he says. It could be alerted to launches by infrared-sensing satellites already in orbit.

Protecting Israel and Europe from Iranian missiles would be harder. Iran is bigger than North Korea, so interceptors would need to be faster (and therefore larger) to reach deep inside its territory. The Pentagon has started to research drone-missile defence, but should be spending more, says David Trachtenberg, a former deputy assistant defence secretary, because the payoff could be “tremendous”. Such an approach would fail against really big countries like China and Russia (which in any case can launch missiles from undetectable submarines). In one sense this is a plus: what does not work against a country cannot antagonise it. Congress would oppose any system that would spur an arms race, says Kingston Reif of the Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a think-tank.

Supporters of drone-missile defence note that America’s existing system, which aims to shoot down hostile intercontinental ballistic missiles with interceptors fired from Alaska and California, has failed every big test since 2008. Sceptics retort that although American drones are stealthy—dozens went undetected over Pakistan during the hunt for Osama bin Laden—better radar and anti-aircraft batteries could render them vulnerable or force them to patrol too far from their intended targets. If North Korea were to develop faster missiles this problem would be compounded, says David Montague, a former head of the missiles division at Lockheed (now Lockheed Martin), a defence firm.

Two years ago a report by the National Research Council advised the Pentagon to give up the attempt to design a boost-phase missile system. The challenge of keeping interceptors close enough to enemy launchpads is “pretty much insurmountable”, says Mr Montague, who was one of the authors. Which camp will prevail is not yet clear. But if the current system fails its next test, probably this summer, the debate will heat up further.

Missile defence: Star Wars 2: attack of the drones, Economist,  May 17, 2014, at 29