ABM: Under The Dome – K2B

Why spend tens of billions of US$ for ballistic missile defense if we cannot rely on it?

The previous post examined reasons, from K2B, that people ardently support massive weapons programs which do not work. K2B_txt We apply those points to the ferociously expensive anti ballistic missile program.

Short Summary:

The systems we discuss were introduced in ABM: UTD-Safeguard and ABM:UTD-Today.

  • Tactical anti ballistic deflector missiles.  Function within task definition.  

ABDs bump the attacking missile’s trajectory, swat it away from the intended target.  Gulf War (1991) Patriot missile did this to the SCUD missiles.  ABDs defend limited points of interest –  knocking the warhead aside is a success.  The deflected warhead still lands, causes ‘only’ collateral damage.

  • Tactical anti ballistic killer missiles.   Function with mixed effectiveness.

ABKs  destroy (kill) of the warhead while in flight toward its target.  The debris site is not damaged by warhead explosions.  Destroying the warhead without high explosives requires ultra high accuracy, ultra high agility, exceptionally good design. Current ABMs appear to be ABDs with occasional kills, or do not work.

This is our second review of our 4 AB killers – PAC-3, SM-3,  THAAD, and Missile Defense Agency GBI (ground based interceptor).

click for list of our other ABM posts

Here, we review effectiveness and program status, with an eye on why have we invested in the particular system.

Reminder:  Why we should care

Mass destruction from the sky remains as real as it ever has been. How do we defend ourselves?  Countries are building these things all around the world, not just the U.S. and Russia.  The threat will be with us as long as we retain technological capabilities.


Fig 1A    Minuteman III reentry bus with 3 warheads

Fig 1A Servicemen prepare the 3 warheads on the MIRV (Multiple Independently targeted warhead Reentry Vehicle) reentry bus.


Fig 1B     Trident missile reentry test at Kwajalein

Fig 1B shows what  warheads look like during the final 15 second descent onto target.

The threat of nuclear warheads raining on open cities certainly justifies serious research. In peacetime, it is not be enough to justify deploying unreliable prototypes.  An operating base ties up huge money supplies that could/should be used for other programs. (Review France and her Maginot defense.)

Safeguard    (1974-1974)    U.S. First Operational ABM

Safeguard: reft SPRINT, right Spartan

Fig 2:   Safeguard: left SPRINT, right Spartan

Fig 2.  Midcourse defense was the Spartan exo-atmosphic (out of atmosphere) interceptor. It reached well beyond the orbit of the International Space Station. SPRINT endo-atmospheric (inside atmosphere) interceptor attacked warheads that escaped Spartan.

Safeguard deactivated warheads with nuclear detonations.   Spartan cooked the warheads in space, and made EMP  to burn out command and control electronics of the  ‘friendlies.’  Neutrons from   SPRINT‘s  neutron bomb would have burned out warheads during the final seconds, and   cooked all biological entities nearby.   Safeguard had unfortunate  side effects.

SPRINT was intrinsically dangerous. Was it ever fully reliable?  Classified.  It has the feel of a K2B Potemkin gambit to convince the USSR that ICBM attacks were futile.  One installation was built, and decommissioned within 12 months.


Fig 3:    Double Action Revolver

Fig 3   Safeguard had the same guarantee as Double Action revolvers do:  Shoot the bad guy and no one will bother you again.

Russia still retains a Safeguard-like ABM system with nuclear payloads.  Today, nearly all countries building ABM defense are  trying for kill systems with hit-to-kill payloads.

Hit-To-Kill Anti Ballistic Missiles  We discussed the missiles more deeply here: Early 21st Century Systems

In our Knights to Battleships post, we identified 3 reasons for strong support of systems that are not effective (1) overblown patriotism, (2pre-judged attitudes and (3Potemkin concoctions – smoke and mirrors to convince the audience about the magic.  Add  (4war-profiteering to this to these reasons because of the overwhelming money that swirls about ABM systems.


Fig 4:    SM-3 LEAP  HTK  payload

HTK (Hit-To-Kill vehicles), KKV (Kinetic Kill Vehicles),  EKV  (Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicles).  All these acronyms mean the same.  KKV strategy has been described as “firing a bullet to hit an incoming bullet;” this is very hard to make happen.

Usable launch vehicles are no longer an issue; effective warhead removal is challenge number 1.

Fig 4 shows a U.S. KKV payload.  LEAPLightweight Exo-Atmospheric Projectile, is the name used for the SM-3 KKV. The left end has sophisticated imaging optics, around the mid-section are 4 side thrusters providing end-game agility.

PAC-3 Intercept

Fig 5:    PAC-3 Intercept

Rationale for KKVs are provided in the appendix of our Today post.    To actually destroy the warhead rather than swat it aside, the hypervelocity ABM payload  must

      • hit the warhead directly 
      • stop inside that warhead

If the KKV were to hit the launch body, the warhead might  be diverted but might retain a high probability for detonation. Stopping is required if the entire kinetic energy is to be transferred to the warhead; if it passed through, it need  transfer only a small part of energy, possibly not enough for a  kill.

These may have been accomplished, but PR tracts use  ‘hit’ and ‘kill’ casually and interchangeably – I have not been able to find a clear description of what success means for any given ABM mission.  Maybe mission controllers do not know, maybe ambiguity is a Potemkin gambit to keep the enemy guessing, or maybe the uncomfortable reality is that a kill cannot be guaranteed on a warhead that is trying to avoid the encounter.

PAC-3     Army- Patriot Advanced Capability 3
L= 5.2 m,  Dia= 0.25 m,  vel= Mach 5


Fig 6:    PAC-3 launch

The Army PAC-3 MIM-104E ABMs is a terminal phase, point defense missiles.  It uses an HTK intercept package and a back up high explosive to assist the kill.  It is not clear whether the performance specification refers to deflecting the warhead trajectory (as happened in the 1991 Gulf War), or its total destruction.

It is successful hitting the incoming missiles, certainly in ABD mode, and received its military designation.

Upgrade path–  Lockheed is lead contractor for its upgrade, called PAC-3 MS (Missile Segment enhancement or upgrade).   The MS  has higher thrust motors and side thrusters with larger, fold-in fins to allow higher speed, and increased range, ceiling and agility for a missile that fits inside standard PAC-3 launch tubes.  (Agility means high g lateral motion as target warhead performs evasive behavior.) Successful test: PAC-3 MS intercepted a warhead in a test (2013 Aug 15), and Lockheed received permission to sell the system to Afghanistan (2013 Aug 13).

Upgrade 2, discussed but not yet fielded, is an air launched version that would fit in a pod for the F-15C, Lockheed’s version of the NCADE launch-phase missile interceptor.  It would gain high mobility and a speed boost by being drop-launched at high altitude from supersonic aircraft.

The third upgrade was to have been MEADS (medium extended air defense system), a 2005 joint development treaty by the U.S., Germany and Italy that would have put the PAC-3 MS into a mobile platform. (PAC-3 installations are wheeled and movable, but  not mobile.) After our financial turndown, and the PAC-3-MEADS announcement in 2011 that it was  over budget and behind schedule, US and Germany limited further development, and withheld purchase commitment.

SM-3   Navy-  Standard Missile 3
L= 6.6 m,  Dia= 0.53 m for SM-3-IIA,  vel= Mach 7.9


Fig 7:    USS Lake Erie and SM-3 IB

The Navy SM-3 RIM-161 is a terminal phase, point defense missile that uses the LEAP HTK vehicle (Fig 4) to destroy warheads.

The SM-3 Block -I became operational in 2011.  Raytheon, rates our current SM-3-IA as  Initial Capability for ballistic missiles with range less than 5500 km (3400 mi), IRBM attack missile  ratings.


Fig 8A: SM-3 IA, IB


Fig 8B:  SM-3 IIA

Initial probably means that it has a high percent of successful hits for the slowest warheads, maybe even some kills.

SM-3TImeline_txtUpgrade Path–  Block -I was basically an Evolved Sea Sparrow on a booster, -IA became active in 2011 with its LEAP KKV and -IB is currently under test.  Fig 7 shows a launch 2013, May.

-IB will have its  LEAP payload upgraded for accuracy.  SM-3-IB will be  Robust against MRBMs (range < 3000 km, 1900 mi;  attack speeds of 4.5 km/s,  10,000 mph).
Supply your own definition for Robust.

IRBM attack warheads (range < 5500 km, speeds of  5 km/s, 11,000 mph) will require the version -IIA which should start testing in late 2014 or so.  This upgrade is a joint, cooperative effort by the U.S. and Japan.

The -IIB would have protected against the nearly orbital speed of an ICBM; it gave Russia an upset tummy since it protected against their own ICBMs.  So they were told that the -IIB existed only as PowerPoint presentations. All mention as been erased from Raytheon literature.  The probability is, all that existed were preliminary  calculations. The SM-3 IIB might have been slightly wider than the -IIA to accommodate better motors and thrusters (for higher agility), and a heavier KKV.  If successful, it might have replaced the useless GBI.

SM-3 has been designated as the U.S.’s ABM of choice, once its Aegis control base has been made land-friendly. In the -IIA form, it will handle all but the highest speed attacks.  It was probably chosen due to its very detailed growth plans.

But we must recognize:  Most SM-3 specs are written in future tense.

THAAD  Theater High Altitude Area Defense
L= 6.2 m,  Dia= 0.34 m,  vel= Mach 9.3


Fig 9:    THAAD in flight

Its prey is in the exo-atmospheric part of the warhead’s final approach to target.  The “T”  originally stood for “terminal phase,” but it is to defend a broad theater of battle, not a single point asset like PAC-3.

Its uses an HTK vehicle, and has no reported intercept failure in the last 8 tests.  This is another ABM that news reports like to tag as highly successful.

THAAD is an end-game solution, but not similar to SPRINT. The body is not designed for SPRINT-level accelerations and certainly can not reach 12 km (7.5 mi) altitude in 5 seconds.  (SPRINT launched at 100g.)

Standard questions apply:

    • How cooperative were these ‘intercepted’ targets?
    • Does THAAD have the ability to differentiate target from decoy?
    • Did THAAD deflect the incoming missiles, or did it make actual kills?
    • Can the THAAD handle any attack missile faster than a local SRBM?
      (SM-3 has a layout of what it can defeat, and when.)

The issue is serious.  Demonstrate 100 warhead kills out of 100 tests and we might feel safe under a THAAD ABM dome.  THAAD is currently deployed, but it has no MIM number and the quality of its targets probably were not high.

THAAD  should be classified as questionable efficacy  —  usefulness TBD.

GBI    Ground Based Interceptor
L=  17 m,  Dia= 1.3 m,  vel= Mach 33.8


Fig 10:   GBI Launch Vehicle – note size of workers

Fig 10 shows our most questionable ABM system.  It has the Spartan’s mid-course mission:  kill active warhead(s) between the time a long range missile has been launched and before it begins the final seconds of its reentry.

This is the ABM with a large fail record, the target of most of the criticism.  We face little intercontinental threat, although Putin occasionally rattles his reentry vehicles.


Fig 11:  EKV – deployed defective

Fig 11  shows the payload, called the Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) that must make solid contact with the true warhead, not the multitude of cheap decoys. Note  optics (gold) and agility thrusters around center line.

To be useful at all, it must be capable of killing the new Russian MIRV (multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles) that can jitter about to avoid intercepts.

These billion dollar devices could be defeated cheaply.  If I were to launch a Peacekeeper (8 MIRVs), there would be 3 live bombs, the rest duds –everything but explosive; in space, separate the 8 objects by 20 or 30 km – requires 8 GBIs to kill (at $1B each).  Or, fill the ICBM nosecone with tens of metalized $50 highway cones using chemical hand-heaters to look live.   Or, … (what would be your avoidance solution?)

If GBI worked, engineers could be developing sophisticated ways of detecting the spoofs quickly.  But GBI is a boondoggle descendant from the SDI days (1980s).  A good, in depth summary of GBI problems is MostlyMilitaryDefense.com.  Here is our summary of irresponsible managerial behavior  —

  1. 2002.  Pres George Bush directs DoD to construct one operational GBI base.
  2. Initial boosters salvaged from unsustainable Minuteman stages (obsolete, no longer made).  Pictures show decreasing diameters for each of 3 stages.
  3. Original EKV, later called CE-I (capability enhancement), was built from scrap parts, not sustainable. Installed in  first 24 operational missiles. Few successes.
  4. 2004.  First  GBI base became operational, Ft Greely Alaska.
  5. 2004.  Decision to develop CE-II to be CE-I with  purchasable parts; upgrades, enhancements added over time.
  6. 2005.  First-ever firing of vehicle, 1 year after operational.
  7. 2006.  First-ever intercept test, 1½ years after operational.
    Announced as full kill success, years later admitted to be a mere swat.
  8. New booster from Orbital Sciences, Pictures show 3 stages all same diameter.
  9. 2007.  Slowdown of  test rate while missiles are being installed in launch tubes.
  10. 2008 Oct. First-ever CE-II deployed along with missile #25.
  11. 2010 Jan. First-ever intercept test with CE-II.   (What? Sitting untested on active-duty missiles for 1½ years?  Is this  to DoD regulations, or MDA inertia?)
  12. 2010 Dec.  Second intercept test failed.  Investigation started for root cause.
  13. 2011.   Major CE-II design flaw uncovered.  10 total CE-2’s in active launch tubes.

Missile Defense Administration estimated 5½ year delay in redesign and new testing (2 years in, a test intercept failed).  In 2012, GAO estimated: testing costs for CE-2 reached nearly $1 Billion.

The GBI intercept success rate is miserable;  so bad that to get a success, they had to use a warhead broadcasting a radio beacon.  GBI has been under development since the SDI efforts of the 1980s (3 full decades ago).

LastTechAge:  tired of writing about GBI! So much classified, this must be the tip of mis-management iceberg.   Management is irresponsible or corrupt.  Contractors and their subs have raked a bundle.

Management style  a lot like “Success Oriented Management” popular in the  1970s and ’80s and responsible for some of our space shuttle issues. (see Farewell to American Manned Space Operations)

This ABM is most likely to be supported due to (1) over-arching patriotism,  (2) attitudes frozen in time, and (3) its use as a Potemkin gambit to confuse a  (stupid) enemy.   The most serious: it is a vehicle for (4) war profiteering:  Flim-flam the congressmen, rake in the profits, make personal fortunes.

Final comment – Kinetic Kill strategies.

Avoiding a nuclear hell is still the reason for Defense spending – a  true patriot wants to support work to avoid national disaster.  But does the existence of a wish make for sufficient reason to fund it?

I am old enough to remember when duck and cover was a grade-schooler’s best strategy to survive a nuclear explosion, probably was, too.  But how much is reasonable to spend on unreliable defense?

I worry that no truly 100% effective kinetic kill strategy can be built.  Can you hit hypersonic somethings that do random jitters along their trajectories?  That is tomorrow’s question because today’s question asks – can you hit anything not broadcasting a radio homing signal?

The fakery in the GBI program causes distrust for ABMs in general: Can we trust a future SM-3-IIA to be the ballistic missile killer we need? Does PAC-3 actually do more than the Gulf War Patriot predecessor?  Just what does success mean for THAAD?  Financial management claws money from the majority of the people and government winks.  Why not the defense industry?

A Potemkin ploy is not bad,  it is Ok to pretend, pacify the public, worry the Russians.  Just do not let top leaders be mistaken as George Bush was – the 1990s GBI did not work at all, but he authorized billions in 2002.  Reagan authorized SDI 30 years ago.  Leaders believing their own propaganda – it is easy to shrug off  historical examples, but it still happens.

3Pigs SR 1969 400x327

Fig 12:   “Its Contact Paper”   protection using the Potemkin gambit against the Big Bad Wolf

Fig 12.   When I clipped this (late ’60s) I saw it as  comment on the then- Safeguard type of ABM.  But a better metaphor for that is our double acting revolver.

GBI is nicely described as a gaudy sort of sticky-backed, plastic wallpaper, a trompe l’oeil brick wall to protect against the Wolf.

Faking it is very appealing since we cannot use the nuclear Safeguard card, but robust technology may still be beyond our reach for 2 reasons.

  1. Interaction time   The EKV and warhead approach each other with a speed of up to 17 km/s (38,000 mph).  This allows about 100 thousandths of a second to ID/calculate/accelerate-to-hit.  Practice this, then show me when you are successful.
  2. The coup de gras    At GBI speeds, how will EKV stop inside warhead, not make its own exit wound?

The GBI is our space-borne Maginot Line.  Shut it down or at least convert it to R&D.   Validate upgrades with kills, then put it into operation.  Do not build fake operational East coast bases advocated by certain congressmen!

Charles J. Armentrout, Ann Arbor
2013 August 17
Listed under    Technology   …   Technology > Aerospace
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About LastTechAge

I am a physicist with years of work in fusion labs, industry labs, and teaching (physics and math). I have watched the tech scene, watched societal trends and am alarmed. My interest is to help us all improve or maintain that which we worked so hard to achieve.
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