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.

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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 the newer SM-3 IIA reach this area? Why not? Especially if it is empowered by extended and networked radar tracking systems and had the engineering to travel at the necessary speeds to create a collision.

A defensive interceptor missile cannot destroy an attacking ICBM or hypersonic missile unless it first establishes a “track” or flight trajectory of the traveling weapon, a circumstance which creates a need for high-fidelity, long-range and networked radar systems.

Naturally, this involves a need to establish a “track loop” beyond the boundary of the horizon and, in some instances, beyond the boundary of the earth’s atmosphere as well. Given this, how could a Navy ship operating with a radar envelope potentially limited to line-of-sight or a within-the-horizon scope be seamless and precise enough to find, follow and then take out an ICBM traveling through space?

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Ship fired SM-3 IIAs can now do this, as of a successful Nov. 16 ICBM intercept demonstration which, among other things, employed what’s called an “engage on remote” technology. In essence, this “networks” radar tracking systems to one another, enabling a pass-off of threat data sufficiently close to real-time to identify threats at much farther ranges. It could be described as a “relay” system of sorts wherein a more continuous track can be established; it is the kind of application now being fast-tracked for space weapons, Low Earth Orbit Satellite functionality, various kinds of airborne radar and, perhaps of greatest importance, tracking and destroying fast-moving hypersonic attacks. Segmented, or less integrated radar systems will result in a weapons track being lost quickly when a threat object is traveling at hypersonic speeds.

The success of the Hawaii demonstration has inspired major Pentagon weapons developers to rethink and expand the envelope for maritime-based missile defense.

“The Department is investigating the possibility of augmenting the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system by fielding additional sensors and weapon systems to hedge against unexpected developments in the missile threat,” Missile Defense Agency Director, Vice Admiral Jon Hill said in a statement.

A Raytheon “engage on remote” test was able to demonstrate this successfully with an SM-3 IIA in 2018. In concept, “engage on remote” would enable a Japan, South Korea, or Guam-based radar in the Pacific to network with ship-based Aegis radar to find a threat much earlier in its flight path.

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“In this developmental test, the destroyer used engage-on-remote capabilities through the Command and Control Battle Management Communications network as part of a defense of Hawaii scenario. After receiving tracking data from the C2BMC system, the destroyer launched an SM-3 Block IIA guided missile which destroyed the target,” a Missile Defense Agency statement said.

“‘Engage on Remote’ is an over the horizon fire control system. It enables us to see farther West into the Pacific, and instruct an interceptor missile to fire at certain coordinates. A radar from another location is feeding it data,” a Pentagon weapons developer told The National Interest.

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An anti-ICBM SM-3 IIA would bring more “shots” or options to strike or destroy an ICBM as it travels just beyond the boundary of the earth’s atmosphere. The SM-3 Block IIA could complement existing Ground Based Interceptors and help the Pentagon bridge the time lapse between now and the end of the decade when a new ICBM interceptor becomes available.

— Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest –

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