If you follow defense news you probably noticed that there was an important successful test of the long-awaited midcourse-intercept exoatmospheric kill vehicle. The EKV was the payload of a Boeing designed Ground Based Interceptor launched from Vandenberg AFB in California. After being accelerated to tremendous speeds to the edge of space, the EKV intercepted an inert ICBM warhead somewhere near Hawaii. The warhead had been launched from Kwajalein and the intercept happened shortly after the warhead reached apogee and began descent toward the continental US. This is a big deal. The long-awaited GBI system is will become active very soon, with the first 36 interceptors entering service within months and the fully planned 44 becoming operational by the end of the year. The missiles will be based at Vandenberg and Kodiak Island. GBI’s capabilities have their limits, but this is the first ever kinetic kill BMD system with any midcourse intercept capability against ICBM’s. This is a milestone, pay attention.
If you want to do some reading on this, here are some good sources. This DoD press release is a good place to start. The LA Times gives the story some local flavor. More details, including politics and money, here at Defense News.
There is one piece of missing information from all those links, and every other news source I could find in English. So many mentions of inert targets and simulated ICBM’s launched from Kwajalein, and just the same one minute video. But what exactly was the missile that was launched from Kwajalein? That’s pretty hard to find out if you don’t know where to look.
This official Missile Defense Agency video wasn’t much help:
I can tell from the slender profile of the Thing from Kwajalein that it wasn’t a Titan borrowed from NASA or the Air Force. From other research into missile defense I knew that ObitalATK makes most of the targets for missile defense research. By searching their site I was able to confirm that the target in this test was carried by a Minotaur launch vehicle. I don’t know which exact type, but you can read about the different kinds there. Here’s home video of a Minotaur at Wallops Island.
One interesting fact about the Minotaur is that it has a very high lift to orbit capacity. This was a suborbital flight, so it could have carried even more weight. This seems to be an awfully big missile to carry just one little target warhead. I strongly suspect it carried much more. The target was likely carried on something similar to a MIRV bus, a bus that could carry much more than just that little warhead. The intercept footage in the above video was taken from the ground in Hawaii. I am almost certain the Minotaur carried cameras that took much better pictures. Did anyone notice anything falling from the sky a couple of days ago?
But enough about Kwajalein. Lets have a little Q&A
What does the EKV look like?
I don’t know for sure, but the only official information is that it’s the same EKV from previous GBI tests. Only the side thrusters have changed, but not much it seems. EKV pictures are hard to come by, but here’s a good picture from a couple of years ago:
That round part in the back comes off before the final intercept. It looks big, but only weighs about the same as the person in the picture. It’s mostly hollow inside. It is not streamlined because it doesn’t come out of the GBI until it has left the atmosphere.
GBI is really fast. Is that so it can do a kinetic kill?
Yes, but maybe not in the way you think. You may have heard that anything moving at 5 kilometers per second or faster packs its own weight in kaboom. No warhead you could put on something that fast would add relevant damage above simple impact. GBI gets the EKV up to around 8km/sec, so the target is completely vaporized.
But that’s not why GBI moves so fast. It goes so fast because there is very little time to get the interceptor to the edge of outer space to attempt to destroy the target. ICBM’s have a total flight time of 20-35 minutes. This leaves a very short window of time to detect a launch, track the anticipated path, and make a decision to launch. GBI must reach the intercept area at the edge of space in mere minutes.
These high speeds make kinetic kill dramatic, but remember, the target warhead is moving too and fragile in some ways. If you could materialize a five gallon bucket full of water in front of a warhead beginning its descent, the warhead would tumble out of control and burn up even if the bucket was at rest relative to the earth. Since we just have missiles rather than bucket transporters, closing speeds and the resultant destruction are much more dramatic.
Just one target? I’m not impressed:
Yes, this was not a simulation of a real attack. There is a test scheduled for early 2018 with a salvo of missiles aimed at the US once all 44 interceptors are ready.
GBI is a system designed to protect against emerging threats and accidental launches. It is in no way intended to be anything like Reagan’s SDI. Established nuclear powers have the means to overcome it. Their deterrent capabilities are still sufficient, and likely always will be.
Conclusion: A new arms race?
Maybe. It’s already been happening to an extent for a few years now. GBI is an important step, and other nations have similar capabilities in development. Israel is probably farthest along, though having such a small area to defend makes things much simpler there. Germany has done tests with the US Navy of Aegis BMD and currently has a ground based system similar to GBI in development. Russia is farther behind in defenses, but has developed maneuverable bus technology to keep their missiles an effective deterrent.
The new race is about defenses and countermeasures, not about yields and numbers. That’s a lot better than used to be.
Bonus Fun Link:
Some of the best coverage of the recent test, along with other defense news can be found in this video from Tomo News. Yes, Tomo. Sadly, the video is not quite up to Tomo’s usual standards of weirdness, but it is as accurate and informative as they usually are. I consider Tomo to be one of the finest news sources out there. They have impressed me with the most accurate coverage of Texas politics I have ever seen. Been a fan ever since.