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Missle Defence – An Imperfect Shield

Having looked at the impact of nuclear war and steps to take to survive an attack, you may wonder what the U.S. is doing about missile defense to protect us from these rogue actors like Iran and North Korea? This brief primer on U.S. missile defense will get you up to speed with all you need to know.

Rafael Defense Iron Dome system engaging Iranian supplied cruise missiles fired from the Gaza Strip in an attack on Tel Aviv Israel (Getty Images)
Rafael Defense Iron Dome system engaging Iranian supplied cruise missiles fired from the Gaza Strip in an attack on Tel Aviv Israel (Getty Images)

This blog will be the third and final installment in my series of posts on nuclear war. In case you missed the first two installments, check out:

Enough of my shameless self-promotion. Let’s talk missile defense

U.S. Missile Defense – A Layered Defense on a Global Scale

The U.S., Russia, and other major nuclear powers don’t possess missile and air defenses to stop a large-scale general nuclear strike of 100s to 1000s of nuclear missiles and warheads. The concept and technology development to create a North American missile defense system started in the 1960s. While tremendous technological progress has been made over the past six decades, the major nuclear powers ( Russia, U.K., USA, France, and China) continue to reach the same conclusion: the cost of a general missile defense system is economically unfeasible. Further, creating such a system would be deemed a threat to the balance of power, the so-called policy of MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction, that holds the major powers in check from launching a nuclear war of any size.

“The systems that we have … are not focused on trying to render useless Russia’s nuclear capability. That, in our view, as in theirs, would be enormously destabilizing, not to mention unbelievably expensive.” —Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense

To avoid an arms race in anti-missile systems, the U.S. and USSR entered into the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) treaty in 1972. In parallel, both parties negotiated drastic reductions in their nuclear weapons systems and warhead stockpiles resulting in the SALT Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty.

Global U.S. Missile Defense Assets (Source – Heritage Foundation)
Global U.S. Missile Defense Assets (Source – Heritage Foundation)

With the downfall of the former USSR in 1991, the U.S. became concerned about the possibility of rogue nuclear strikes by elements of the former USSR to start, but as time passed, threats from North Korea, Iran, and an emergent China. In 2002, the U.S. withdrew from the AntiBalistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty). The U.S. began to immediately develop a layered missile/air defense system to protect ourselves and our treaty allies across the globe. These efforts focused on thwarting a limited rogue nuclear attack or an accidental weapons release. North Korea and Iran, in particular, have been a major concern for decades. These states, which are proxy powers of China and Russia, have motivated the global network of space and earth-based early warning radars and sensors and the land and sea-based anti-missile batteries (interceptors) deployed today.

As the following diagram illustrates, the U.S. now has missile defense assets spanning the globe. In the 1980s and 1990s, the original system consisted of early-warning satellites, sophisticated Cobra Dane long-distance radars, and upgraded early warning radars to warn of an attack by the USSR. These initial facilities are still in use and located at :

  • Flyingdales, UK - upgraded early warning radar for Russian land-based or North Atlantic ballistic missile submarine-launched missiles

  • Thule, Greenland - upgraded early warning radar to detect Russian land or sea-based missile strikes over the North Pole.

  • Shemya and Clear Alaska – A Cobra Dane and an upgraded early warning radar to detect sea-based missile strikes from the northern Pacific or strikes over the North Pole from China or Eastern Russia.

  • Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Beal Air Force Base, California – early warning radars cover the western, southern, and eastern approaches from sea-based missile strikes from the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans

  • Early warning and tracking satellites – Infrared launch plume detectors to detect initial missile launch and optical and radar tracking to determine incoming missile trajectory and handoff to other radar sensors, control, and missile defense system.

These initial radar systems and satellites provided (and still provide) a 360-degree detection bubble around North America, Greenland, Iceland, Europe, and the U.K., as shown in the following diagram.

Missile Early Warning Radar Coverage Map (source -  Wikimedia Commons)
Missile Early Warning Radar Coverage Map (source - Wikimedia Commons)

In 2004, just two years after leaving the ABM treaty, the U.S. began to deploy its first GMD, Ground-Based Midcourse Defense, missiles at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenburg Air Force Base, California. Eight interceptors were initially deployed. A decade later, deployments reached a total of 44 interceptors. Today 64 GMD interceptor missiles are deployed.

Japan’s Missile Defense System (Source – Japan Self-defense Force)
Japan’s Missile Defense System (Source – Japan Self-defense Force)

In 1998, North Korea launched the first of its many ballistic missile tests and, in 2006, conducted its first atomic bomb test. As the North Korean missile tests grew in both frequency and capability, the U.S. and Japan expanded our early warning network of land and ship-borne early warning radars and anti-missile systems to counter the threat. On land, the U.S. and Japan deployed two TPY-2 long-range radars at Shariki and Kyogamisaki combined with Patriot anti-missile batteries armed with the new PAC-3 interceptors. At sea, the U.S. provided the Japanese Navy with the AEGIS radar and missile control system along with the SM-3 anti-missile interceptor. The AEGIS and TPY-2/Patriot systems layer defense against a North Korean Attack. AEGIS-equipped Jamapese Navy destroyers would engage the enemy attack over the Sea of Japan. The TPY-2/Patriot system would engage missiles that break through the initial defense.

In 2011, the Palestinians (Hamas terror group) armed with Iranian-made Gard missiles and mortar bombs against Isreal. A combination of U.S. Patriot and the newly deployed Israeli Iron Dome anti-missile systems knocked down better than 90% of the Palestinian barrage from the Gaza strip.

A few years later, in 2015, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen began a series of rocket attacks against Saudia Arabia and the UAE oil field facilities. Between the Palestinian Hamas/Houthi missile attacks and a decade of Iranian missile tests and atomic weapons development, the U.S. greatly expanded early warning and anti-missile systems across the middle east, much as it did in Japan. The U.S. deployed TPY-2 early warning radars to US CENTCOM, Isreal, and Kareclk AFB, Turkey monitoring both Iran and Russia. The UAE and Saudi Arabia received Patriot anti-missile system to counter the Houthi threat. Even as we speak, Isreal, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are subject to continued missile attacks. More than 95% of the thousands of missile attacks have successfully been intercepted and destroyed over the last decade. These real-world engagements have helped perfect and improve the U.S. and Israeli systems.

Finally, The U.S. Navy deployed AEGIS-equipped destroyers with their potent SM-3 interceptors to Rota, Spain, to bolster Europe’s souther defense zone from a potential Iranian attack. Negotiations with Poland and possibly Romania are underway for greater coverage of NATO’s Eastern defense zone from Russia and Iran. These deployments had been on hold, but deployment in Eastern Europe has become an urgent priority after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

And just like that, decades of threats and events have forced the U.S. and U.S. Allies

to build a global missile defense!

Now that you understand the breadth of U.S. commitment and deployment of missile defense systems worldwide, let’s turn our attention to the “nuts and bolts” of the systems that make up the U.S. layered missile defense strategy.

How a Layered Missile Defense Works

To understand missile defense systems, we first need to understand a nuclear missile’s launch and flight sequence. Regardless of the missile range, intercontinental, intermediate, or short, its flight path is characterized by three stages:

  • The Boost Phase: extends from the time a missile is launched from its platform until its engines stop thrusting. The unique thermal signature allows infrared satellite sensors to detect and track the missile. Loaded with propellant, the missile is most vulnerable to an attack in the boost phase. The U.S. and all other nations lack drone or other combat aircraft platforms capable of mounting a boost phase attack. Boost phase attack is an area of intensive research which we will discuss at the end of this blog.

  • The Midcourse Phase: the longest of the three phases, offers a unique opportunity to intercept an incoming threat. Space-based optical and radar satellites track incoming enemy missiles during the midcourse phase, feeding tracking and point of impact data to ground-based early warning radars and anti-missile systems. Enemy decoys are more readily identified in the midcourse phase. The first layer of the U.S. missile defense, GBM, Ground-Based Midcourse, interceptor missiles engage the targets at this time.

  • The Terminal Phase: Typically less than one minute long, enemy warheads achieve their highest velocity during the terminal phase, drastically shortening the window of engagement. The incoming warhead’s rapidly reducing altitude limits the coverage area of our terminal phase air defense interceptors: THAAD- Theatre High Altitude Area Defense interceptor, Navy AEGIS SM-3, and Patriot PAC-3.

Three phases of Missile flight ( Source – Air Power Development Centre, DoD Australia)
Three phases of Missile flight ( Source – Air Power Development Centre, DoD Australia)

U.S. Missile Defense Interceptors range and engagement phase  (source – Heritage Foundation)
U.S. Missile Defense Interceptors range and engagement phase (source – Heritage Foundation)

Different Missile systems are designed to combat specific types of incoming missiles by the range of the missile, short, intermediate/medium, and Intercontinental, and the phase of the attacking missile, midcourse or terminal. The U.S. is continually upgrading its interceptors and missile defense systems to engage a wider range of threats. For example, the latest upgrade to the U.S. Navy’s SM3 missile, SM3 Block IIA, allows midcourse intercept of medium and Intermediate-range missiles. SM3 Block IIA is ideally suited for midcourse intercept of North Korean intermediate-range missiles fired at Japan.

Let’s turn our attention to each U.S. anti-missile system, starting with the GBM (Ground-based midcourse), the system with the widest coverage area and longest reach. I’ll use a common format to describe each system, starting with the flowing data points:

  • Cost of each interceptor

  • Range of the interceptor and typical missile flight phase of engagement

  • The intercept “kill method.”

We’ll close with a brief history and description of each system, including the advanced phased array radars, which can create 100s of separate RADAR beams and track 100s of targets simultaneously. Interestingly enough, phased array antennas are at the heart of 5G and emerging 6G cellular technology – but I digress!

GBM – Ground-Based Midcourse Interceptor

  • Cost per missile: $70m to $90M

  • Interceptor range: 5000 to 7000 Km - Midcource Intercept

  • Kill method: “Hit to Kill” - Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) sensor/propulsion package

First deployed in 2004, the GBM is the U.S.’s primary midcourse missile defense weapon and provides complete coverage for all 50 states and, at our discretion, Canada. All other U.S. systems provided coverage of limited theaters/regions. A total of 64 interceptors are planned. At the date of this blog, 44 GBM interceptors are deployed, with 40 at Fort Greenly, Alaska and four at Vandenberg AFB, California. The GBM system is integrated into the worldwide array of ground, sea, and space-based early warning systems we described earlier in the blog.

Ground-Based Midcourse Interceptor Launch  ( Source- DoD Missile Defense Agency)
Ground-Based Midcourse Interceptor Launch ( Source- DoD Missile Defense Agency)

The GBM interceptor is a three-stage solid-fueled rocket carrying an Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) designed by Raytheon. Upon launch, the GBM booster guides the EKV into an intercept position to attack the incoming enemy missile/warhead. The EKV is released and uses its thrusters and guidance sensors to destroy the target by kinetic impact. GBM is a “Hit to Kill” weapon.

This is an incredibly complex system requiring significant upgrades and improvements. In cumulative tests up to 2019, only 11 of 20 live intercept tests were successful, which is a 55% success rate and implies three GBM interceptors would need to be fired at each enemy weapon to achieve a 90% success rate of intercept. Post-test analysis point to issues with the EKV for a majority of test failures. A new and greatly improved EKV will be retrofitted to the system in 2025.

THAAD -Theater High Altitude Area Defense

  • Cost per missile: ~$5M to 6M

  • Interceptor range: > 200Km/ 124 miles – Terminal Phase Intercept

  • Kill method: “Hit to Kill” kinetic kill vehicle

Motivated by the Iraqi SCUD medium-range missile attacks of the first Gulf War, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system entered service in 2008. The THAAD system was designed from the ground up to be easily transportable. The THAAD AN/TPY-2 phased array radar and missile launcher are designed for C-130 transport and can be readily deployed globally.

THAAD Interceptor Missile Launch ( Source – Lockheed Martin)
THAAD Interceptor Missile Launch ( Source – Lockheed Martin)

THAAD has an impressive intercept operations record with a nearly 100% success rate in test and deployment. On 17 January 2022, THAAD made its first real-world intercept against an incoming Houthi ballistic missile in the UAE. No wonder THAAD has achieved such wide acceptance and deployment with Isreal, Romania, the UAE, and Guam purchasing THAAD systems, adding to the seven THAAD batteries deployed by the United States. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia just signed a contract for Seven THAAD batteries to protect their cities and oil facilities from Iranian-backed Houthi missile attacks to complement the Patriot systems already deployed.

The THAAD system is undergoing continuous improvement gained from live combat engagement and evolving threats. THADD-ER, extended range, adds an additional booster stage to extend coverage area/range by nearly 10x. THAAD-ER testing began in 2020 and could be ready for production by 2024 to provide a rudimentary interim capability against hypersonic missile threats.

AN/TPY-2 C130 transportable Phased Array Radar ( Source- Raytheon Missile Defense)
AN/TPY-2 C130 transportable Phased Array Radar ( Source- Raytheon Missile Defense)

Even more impressive than THAAD’s interceptors, the system’s AN/TPY-2 (Army Navy / Transportable Radar Surveillance -2) phased array radar operates in multiple frequency bands (I and J bands (X band)) and contains 25,344 solid-state microwave transmit and receive modules. The radar can acquire and track a classified number of missiles (estimated at > 100, similar to the U.S. Navy AEGIS system) at ranges up to 1,000 km. Japan and Turkey deploy the AN/TPY2 system as an early warning radar system tied into their existing anti-missile systems.

AN/TPY-2 can operate in two modes: forward-based mode and Terminal mode.

  • Forward-based mode: the radar detects ballistic missiles after they are launched.

  • Terminal mode: the radar helps guide THAAD interceptors toward a descending missile to defeat the threat.

U.S. Navy AEGIS – SM3

  • Cost per missile: ~$11M to $20M

  • Interceptor range: 2500Km as a weapon. Capable of early MidCourse & Terminal Phase Intercept

  • Kill method: “Hit to Kill” kinetic kill vehicle

AGEIA Standard Missile 3 Block II2  ( Source – U.S. Ballistic Missile Defence Agency)
AGEIA Standard Missile 3 Block II2 ( Source – U.S. Ballistic Missile Defence Agency)

In the early 1970s, the U.S. Navy began deployment of an advanced phased array ship-borne missile and air defense system, Aegis, beginning with the guided-missile cruiser USS Ticonderoga, the namesake ship of a series of 27 Ticonderoga Class Aegis cruisers. In 1991, the U.S. Navy integrated the AEGIS Systems into a new class of U.S. Navy Guided Missile Destroyer (DDGs)s, the Arleigh Burke class DDGs. In 2013 Aegis continued deployment in the new Zumwalt class stealth enhanced DDGs. In the early 2000s, as threats evolved from possible Russian medium-range tactical nuclear strikes against US Carrier Task Forces, the U.S. Navy augmented AEGIS with a new series of Standard Missiles, the SM3 series, to deal with the threat. With proven performance and upgrades in the pipeline for short and medium-range ballistic missile defense, several allied navies selected Ageis for their next-generation guided-missile ships. Allied Aegis-equipped ships include the Japanese Navy (Kongo class destroyers), Spain (F100 class frigates), South Korea (KDX-3 class destroyers), Australia, and Norway (F-314 type frigates).

In 2014, the U.S. Missile Defense agency repackaged the Aegis system for shore-based deployment in Romania (Eastern Europe) as part of the wider US/NATO European missile defense program EPAA (European Phased Adaptive Approach) against both Iran and Russia. Poland will be the second European site to receive Aegis ashore, with an expected deployment in 2022 (this year).

Ticonderoga Class Cruiser firing an SM3 BLK IiA in a missile defense at sea exercise (source- U.S. Missile Defense Agency)
Ticonderoga Class Cruiser firing an SM3 BLK IiA in a missile defense at sea exercise (source- U.S. Missile Defense Agency)

In response to continued threats from North Korea, on November 17, 2020, the U.S. conducted a live ICBM missile defense test of the Aegis. An ICBM-representative target was launched from the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll towards Hawaii. A U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyer, the USS John Finn (DDG-113), stationed in a defensive position between Kwajalein Atoll and Hawaii, successfully engaged and destroyed the test ICBM with the new SM3 Block IIA missile. One month later, Japan signed a major defense deal to upgrade their Kongo class destroyers with these missiles providing Japan a second layer of defense against a North Korean strike. Japan has been involved in the development of the next-generation SM-3 Block IIa, with Mitsubishi joining the Raytheon effort.

With a Medium, Intermediate, and Intercontinental ( ICBM) live engagement success rate of over 80%, the SM3 Block IiA missile/ Aegis defense system provides a highly effective deterrent against Russia and North Korea for Japan and Eastern Europe.

Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3)

  • Cost per missile: ~$3M to 6M depending on the quantity ordered

  • Interceptor range: 70km with a maximum altitude of 24km – Terminal Phase Intercept

  • Kill method: “Hit to Kill” Kinetic (no vehicle) with Ka-band millimeter wave seeker

Patriot Battery Missile PAC  Missile Launch (source – U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command)
Patriot Battery Missile PAC Missile Launch (source – U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command)

The PATRIOT, Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept of Target, entered service in the early 1970s as the first Army air defense system based on solid-state phased array radar capable of simultaneously tracking multiple targets. Since then, Patriot missiles and phased array radar have undergone three generations of upgrades to meet the evolving threat. The current configuration deploys Patriot systems with the PAC-3 missile, and the AN/MPQ-65A phased array radar. The Army intends to replace the AN/MPQ-65A with a new radar, the Lower Tier Air and Missile Defense System (LTAMDS), in 2022.

Patriot AN/MPQ-65A  phased array radar (source – U.S. Missile Defense Agency)
Patriot AN/MPQ-65A phased array radar (source – U.S. Missile Defense Agency)

The Patriot System is the primary theater air and short-range missile defense system of 18 nations, including the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Taiwan, Greece, Spain, South Korea, the UAE, Qatar, Romania, Sweden, Poland, and Bahrain. The Patriot system is typically deployed with THAAD to form a two-layer defense. THAAD acts as the long rage first layer of the dense, and Patriot acts as the secondary defense layer. For example, Saudi Arabia deploys defense of specific oil production and population centers consisting of two Patriot launchers and a single THADD launcher. The THAAD and Patriot radars and fire control systems can interoperate with THAAD, initially acquiring incoming threats, engaging them at range, then handing off any surviving threats to Patriot for follow on engagement.

Patriot has seen extensive live fire and war deployment starting in 1981 including:

  • Persian Gulf War

  • Iraq War

  • 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict

  • Syrian Civil War

  • Yemeni Civil War / Saudi Arabian–Yemeni border conflict (2015–present)

In the early 1980s Patriot had a roughly 50%engagement success rate. By the start of the Saudi – Yemeni conflict, the Patriot kill ratio had increased to nearly 80% in wartime live-fire operations.

Iron Dome – Tamir missile

  • Cost per missile: $20,000 to $100,000 depending on order size

  • Interceptor range: 4Km to 70km depending on the target, typically < 10Km

  • Kill method: high-explosive blast-fragmentation warhead (effective against non-nuclear threats)

Iron Dome Launcher Firing Tamir Interceptor (Source – Israeli  Defense)
Iron Dome Launcher Firing Tamir Interceptor (Source – Israeli Defense)

Technically, Isreal’s Rafael Defense Iron Dome system is only marginally effective against ballistic missile attacks. According to the Wall Street Journal, Iron Dome would provide little defense against ballistic missiles launched from China but could be used against cruise missiles launched from Chinese bombers. As the threat of cruise missile attacks at U.S. and allied bases in the pacific has increased, in 2021, the U.S. purchased two Iron Dome systems for deployment in Guam to augment the Patriot and THAAD batteries protecting this strategic U.S. Navy base.

The U.S. decision should come as no surprise. As Raphael, the maker of Iron Dome, notes on their website: Iron Dome is the world’s most deployed missile defense system, with more than 2,000 interceptions and a success rate greater than 90%. The system can protect deployed and maneuvering forces, as well as the Forward Operating Base (FOB) and urban areas, against a wide range of indirect and aerial threats.

Iron Dome engaging a barrage of Hamas missiles over Tel Aviv (source – Chanakya Forum – Indian International Affairs)
Iron Dome engaging a barrage of Hamas missiles over Tel Aviv (source – Chanakya Forum – Indian International Affairs)

At $20,000 per Tamir interceptor missile in volume, Iron Dome is the most cost-effective short-range air and missile defense system in the world. Unfortunately, Hamas has developed a short-range mass-produced drone weapon at roughly $2000 (estimated), eroding the economic viability of the Iron Dome System. The Tamir missile’s so-called “Cost Exchange Ratio” to the Hamas drone is now 10:1.

Economics remains the core issue prohibiting broad missile defense deployment. Missile defense is expensive and complicated, and brute force mass attacks can overwhelm missile/air defense systems. Only critical infrastructure can realistically be protected from anything but limited attacks.

This begs the question: What could change missile defense economics? The answer is energy weapons for terminal and boost-phase engagement, which we will explore in the next section.

What’s Next – Directed Energy Weapons for Terminal Point Defense & Boost Phase Engagement

Missile defense is expensive. As this blog has shown, the costs range from $90M to engage an ICBM with a GBM midcourse interceptor missile to ~$20K for a short-range Iron Dome Tamir missile. It is no wonder that U.S. military planners pursued a limited shield for national coverage and provided more extensive theatre weapons for high-value civilian and military installations and equipment only. We can’t really afford to do anything more comprehensive.

Directed energy weapons (D.E.) completely change that equation. The U.S. is pursuing anti-missile and air systems energy with an estimated cost of $2000 per shot or less and an unlimited ability to shoot without reloading or resupply (aka unlimited magazine depth)

Research into energy weapons started in the 1960s. After billions of dollars of research and decades of canceled programs, the U.S. finally deployed an operational laser weapon, XN-1 LaWS (Laser Weapons System), on the USS Ponse, Austin-class amphibious transport dock 2014.

The Army, Navy, and Air Force are pursuing a coordinated roadmap and technology advancement using two D.E. technologies:

  • HEL – High-energy Lasers

  • HPM – High Powered Microwave

HEL (laser) systems are being developed for short-range air defense for counter-unmanned aircraft systems and counter-rocket, artillery, and mortar missions. HPM (microwave) weapons are essentially jammer systems on steroids and create a focused EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) effect to knock out enemy electronics and communications systems. The much lower cost per shot and functionally unlimited magazine depth make these systems attractive. However, DE systems have limitations not faced by standard kinetic weapons. Rain, fog, and smoke from the carnage of modern warfare can reduce the range and effectiveness of D.E. systems. For this reason, deployment of D.E. systems will complement, not replace, standard kinetic weapons.

U.S. Directed Energy Weapons Roadmap (source – DoD congressional report)
U.S. Directed Energy Weapons Roadmap (source – DoD congressional report)

The U.S. currently fields DE HEL weapons under 100 kW beam power. This current generation of weapons was specifically developed to defend against drones, mortars, and short-range rockets. Low-cost weapons like drones can’t be cost-effectively countered by larger, more expensive anti-missile/air defense systems like Patriot or Iron Dome. With costs approaching $100 a shot, a 100kW DE HEL weapon offers enough energy to destroy swarmed drones or salvos of other lightly armored weapons with less than a second of dwell time on each target. While powerful enough to destroy lightly armored weapons like drones, the 100Kw energy level is not great enough to engage more heavily constructed cruise missiles or large aircraft.

By 2030, the U.S. Defense Department will begin to field weapons with nearly 500 kW beam power that can engage larger land and sea attack cruise missiles (conventional or nuclear-armed), aircraft, and, interestingly enough, armored vehicles.

By 2035 Directed Energy weapons will be able to engage ballistic missiles and, more importantly, hypersonic missiles. With a beam strength in the 1MW, the range and destructive power will have reached a point to replace short-range systems like Iron Dome. The cost per shot will be reduced by 20x to 50x compared to an interceptor missile and have a functionally unlimited magazine. Further, 1MW D.E. weapons will have the ability to track and engage ballistic missiles.

A US Navy View of Combined DE and Kinetic Weapons for Missile and Air Defense

A recent Congression Research Service report from May 2022 provided an interesting unclassified glimpse into the need for combined directed energy and standard kinetic at missile systems. Both China and North Korea are building up an array of short and medium-range missiles to overcome the missile defenses of U.S. Navy carrier task forces and Japan’s anti-missile defense forces deployed at sea in Japan’s Aegis-equipped destroyers. The ultimate goal is to force U.S. and Allied Naval assets to stand off at long distances, crippling their effectiveness, or be destroyed by the onslaught of salvos of missiles and drones from China and North Korea.

The Navy is concerned that massive missile and drone attacks will force U.S. carrier battle groups to stand off out of range of these weapons, limiting the fleet’s operating range and effectiveness. This is especially true of conflicts in the Taiwan Strait, with little more than 100 miles separating mainland China and Taiwan. Carrier battle groups will have to operate behind Taiwan, using the island itself as a natural barrier. Naval task forces and carrier groups heading toward Taiwan would face a barrage of medium-range anti-ship missiles and drones (UAVs) as they head into battle.

This is not at all far fetched scenario. There is a historical precedent for overwhelming a fleet’s defenses, Japan’s massive kamikaze attacks. On October 25, 1944, the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines marked the first use of massed kamikaze attacks by the Empire of Japan. Over 5000 kamikaze pilots died in the attacks destroying 34 U.S. Navy warships, including the escort carrier St. Lo. In the age of modern naval warfare, missiles and UAVs armed with sophisticated radar, infrared, and optical sensors and artificial intelligence would replace kamikaze pilots and planes with even more deadly effectiveness. This lesson is not lost on the Chinese.

To defend against a massed attack, The U.S. Navy has invested heavily in layered defensive kinetic weapons to protect their ships. These defense weapons include:

  • AEGIS SM3 missiles for long-range engagement (U.S. Navy destroyers carry ~90 SM3 missiles)

  • Phalanx Close-in Weapons Systems (CIWS) – A radar-guided gatting gun firing 75 rounds a second with an effective range of < 2000 meters

  • SeaRAM CIWS which combines a Phalanx CIWS with 11 x Rolling Air Frame (RAM) missiles with an effective range of <10,000 meters

These incredibly effective defensive weapon systems have a single weakness: a finite magazine depth. A Congressional report noted that with a limited magazine depth, CIWS systems can only “shoot down only a certain number of enemy UAVs and anti-ship missiles before running out of SAMs and CIWS ammunition—a situation (sometimes called “going Winchester”) that can require a ship to withdraw from battle, spend time traveling to a safe reloading location (which can be hundreds of miles away) and then spend more time traveling back to the battle area.” If the magazine depth issue were not daunting enough, these weapons are expensive and suffer from what the Navy refers to as a “highly negative cost exchange ratio.” Put another way, the cost to shoot down an enemy weapon is many times more expensive than the enemy weapon itself.

Adding Direct Energy weapons, specifically, a HEL weapon from the U.S. Navy’s Solid State Laser (SSL) program, to a ship’s anti-missile and air defense completely changes the situation. As the congressional report goes on to explain, SSL HEL weapons have the potential to dramatically improve the depth of magazine and the cost exchange ratio:

  • Depth of magazine. SSLs are electrically powered, drawing their power from the ship’s overall electrical supply, and can be fired over and over, indefinitely, as long as the laser continues to work and the ship has fuel to generate electricity.

  • Cost exchange ratio. Depending on its beam power, an SSL can be fired for an estimated marginal cost of $1 to less than $10 per shot (much of which simply is the cost of the fuel needed to generate the electricity used in the shot).

Lockheed Martin’s HELIOS system. (source - Lockheed Martin)
Lockheed Martin’s HELIOS system. (source - Lockheed Martin)

This year ( 2022 at the time of writing), the U.S. Navy is deploying its new HELIOS, High Energy Laser with Integrated Optical dazzler and Surveillance system, on DDG-51 Flight IIA destroyers. Initially deploying with a 60 kW-class high-energy laser, HELIOS can be upgradable to 150kW and is designed to counter UAVs and small boats. The system includes a dazzler. A dazzler is a directed-energy weapon intended to temporarily blind or disorient its target ( human eyesight or electronic sensors) with intense directed radiation.

HELIOS marks the beginning initial deployment of an effective D.E. CIWS to augment the existing Phalanx and SeaRAM CIWS weapons in U.S. Navy Destroyer squadrons. The U.S. Navy’s next-generation guided-missile destroyer, scheduled to debut in 2028, is slated to deploy next-generation 150kW/600kW caliber D.E. weapons. May we live in interesting times, eh?

Closing and Final Thoughts

Every day our enemies are testing our systems, attacking U.S. and Allied installations, ships, and economic targets. Practice makes perfect. These continued attacks are only helping refine and improve our missile defense capabilities and, just as important, spurring innovation and development. Our defensive systems' cost exchange ratio will shortly be below that of our attackers putting the economic initiative back into our hands.

Over the decades, threats have forced the U.S. to stitch together a global defense of ourselves and our allies. In those same decades, our systems went from barely functional ( <50% kill ratio) to highly effective ( >90% kill ratio). Our missile defense shield has its flaws. After all, no defense system is perfect. But with each enemy attack, new upgrades and new technology narrow the gap, and for that, we should be thankful.

On a personal note, I’ve enjoyed researching and writing this trilogy fact and science-based blogs:

What started as a rebuttal to a non-technical friend’s argument that “nuclear war is not survivable” at a dinner party turned into writing a rebuttal that took on a life of its own. I hope you enjoyed reading these blogs as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. As always, I want to hear your feedback, good, bad, or indifferent so please comment on this blog. In addition, I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have on the topic of nuclear warfare or any other technology topic you have a question about.

What’s next? Another short story in the Zahara series is my next project for your enjoyment. I’ll also be working on several technical blogs covering adaptive array antenna technology and synthetic aperture radar. Technologies critical o military and civilian applications from 5G cellular to space-based all-weather surveillance Please sign up and enjoy free content with no advertisements, fees, or other of the usual noxious crap you’ll find at most other sites and blogs!

Sources and Additional Reading

General missile defense

GMD -Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System

THAAD – Terminal High Altitude Area Defence System

U.S. Navy AEGIS System and SM3 Block IIB Missile

Patriot Missile System

Iron Dome System

Energy Weapons

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