Nuclear Friday: Star Wars Legacy Systems

As I pointed out two weeks ago, Reagan’s legacy vision that ballistic missiles would become “impotent and obsolete” wasn’t practical. It wasn’t a threat to nuclear stability either, as some of its critics claimed. Nor was it the program that won the Cold War, as Reagan’s idolators claim. Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative found itself without a purpose after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Budgets were cut and Bill Clinton merged SDI into the older and nearly defunct Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. But research continued, and I think the legacy programs of SDI make more sense make more sense today than SDI did in the 80’s

The world faces new threats of limited and regional nuclear wars. Attacks will come in the tens or at most a  hundred weapons. In this context, missile defense is much more plausible. Stopping all out nuclear war may be impossible, but saving lives and strategic assets in a limited exchange is becoming possible. Missile defense makes more sense today than it did in the 80’s.

Here’s a good summary of missile defense in the US from Amy Butler of Aviation Week:

This is from 2012. Budgets for missile defense have gone up since then. There’s also mention of GW Bush withdrawing from the ABM Treaty. That’s one of the few decisions W ever made I agree with. The US had been violating the treaty for a while and W would soon turn the BMDO into the independent Missile Defense Agency. As mentioned, Obama increased budgets after 2012.

But now we need to discuss where the US is today. The legacy of Star Wars is alive and well, though two of the weapons systems I will discuss have roots that date back to before SDI and even into the Carter administration.

Patriot PAC-3

If ya’ll watched Desert Storm back 1991, you will remember the Patriot missiles intercepting Iraqi SCUD’s. They were not as good as they were made out to be. Patriot was an antiaircraft system hooked up to new radars and pressed into anti-missile efforts. It was quite good at its late 70’s antiaircraft role and was even capable of intercepting missile warheads. But its fragmentation warhead did not always destroy incoming Iraqi warheads. The intercept rate was as high as the news said, but some of those missiles still fell and detonated.

PAC-3 does much better with a narrowly focused “shotgun” fragmentation warhead and the guidance systems to get it there. It’s quite good in short range missile attacks, but can only serve as a last ditch effort in the case of medium range attacks when other systems have either failed or been overwhelmed.


Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, THAAD:

This is a true Star Wars legacy system developed by the BMDO in the Bill Clinton years. Its a kinetic kill weapon. The idea is to launch and position an interceptor in the path of an incoming warhead. It’s a true space weapon because it intercepts at the upper edge of the atmosphere and the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle can ignore aerodynamic issues. It’s a Brilliant Pebble, the squee worthy hover rocket in the video I posted two weeks ago. And I think it’s about as small as the smallest hover-rocket in that video. I can’t say for sure because the only picture of the THAAD EKV I can find is this:



Sorry there’s no scale here, but given the small size of the THAAD missile, the EKV has to be pretty small and light, something you could easily pick up and hug.

THAAD is a kinetic kill weapon. It puts itself in the path of the incoming warhead and the energy of the closing velocity obliterates them both. One THAAD battery can cover an area the size of New Jersey from short and intermediate range missiles.

THAAD has recently been deployed to Guam, South Korea, and Hawaii, with options for deployment in Okinawa and the Japanese Home Islands.

But why doesn’t Japan want THAAD now? Well, they would, if they didn’t have something better.

Aegis BMD: 

This is another of the systems that predates Reagan’s SDI. The US Navy has always known it was vulnerable in an age of guided missiles, and has sought to protect itself. Aegis was the result, though when it rolled out there were mistakes, including this very bad one.

Applying SDI technology to the Navy’s existing Aegis capacity was brilliant. It’s the only system I think really works for intermediate range missiles. the various versions of Aegis BMD have a few different types of kill vehicles and are the only missile defense system the US has that has a chance at taking out an ICBM. Aegis is mostly ship-based, and Japan has invested heavily in this system. Two of the three ships in this Japanese flotilla have been fitted with Aegis BMD:




Aegis BMD came up in the recent Vice-Presidential candidates debate. Pence made the the claim that the Obama administration backed out of deploying BMD systems in Poland. Well, back in 2009 the Boeing GBI system was cancelled for Poland because GBI was not ready. Back in 2012 the Aegis Ashore system was approved for Romania and Poland. The Romania station has already been built. The Polish system is under construction.

Boeing GBI:

This was the system abandoned by Obama for Poland in 2009. It doesn’t work, but if it did, it would be a non-nuclear version of the Safeguard system. Here’s what its kinetic kill vehicle looks like:



I like this picture because it shows a human scale. But the Boeing GBI is much larger than any of the Aegis pebbles. It’s on a missile designed to reach halfway around the world and intercept missiles on their way up. This not strategically relevant at this time. The deployment was cancelled, but research continues.

Kinetic Kill is Dumb. What about Lasers and Rail Guns? 

Yeah, we were promised lasers, rail guns, and particle beams. This boost phase intercept laser was a turkey and was cancelled in 2012. But the Navy at least got an anti-taunting laser out of the deal. And the Navy also got a workable rail gun out of SDI.

Missile Defense Makes Sense Today:

Recent gains in US missile defense have angered China and Russia. China has more than a minimal deterrent capability against the US, and Russia has more than that. Russia still maintains Galosh around Moscow in accord with the ABM treaty even though the US violated the treaty first. At least W had the sense to withdraw.

All these missile defense systems are targeted at non-nuclear powers and emergent nuclear powers. Established powers have nothing to fear.




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