How does the United States shoot down a nuclear missile?
IT IS SAID that the late leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, once warned that in the scenario of a nuclear war, “the survivors will envy the dead”. Nonetheless, on July 4th, North Korea tested its first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) which, if successful, could reach the United States mainland. This sparked up fierce rhetoric between the international community (mainly the United States) and North Korea. The United States president, Donald Trump, warned earlier in August that North Korea would be met with “fire and fury” if they continued threatening the US. China also agreed last month to enforce UN sanctions against North Korea, banning exports of petroleum and imports of textile products. Nevertheless, Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s not so charismatic leader, remains firm with his potential plan of fire nuclear warheads at Guam or the West coast of the United States. With the threat of a nuclear war, a genuine important question needs to be raised, has the United States the ability to stop an incoming ICBM?
It is still unclear if Pyongyang has mastered the technology to hit the continental United States, but experts are getting worried. The United States Defence Intelligence Agency reported last August that the North Koreans now have the ability to fit nuclear warheads in their missiles, delivered by ICBMs. An ICBM has a minimum-range of 5,500 km, which puts the United States mainland at risk. Nonetheless, there is still the chance that the missiles North Korea has developed might not be able to re-entry the atmosphere. However, this does not mean that they do not pose a threat to the United States. Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Kim has increased the amount of missile tests; this year alone, North Korea has fired 22 missiles during 15 tests. Two of these have been the Hwasong-14, which is the first ICBM in their arsenal. The United States Government has estimated that it has a maximum range of somewhere between 7,000-9,500 km. Since the ICBM needs to reach a certain height (it leaves the atmosphere) and speed, the only way to stop an ICBM is a frontal collision. This gives the Americans different remedies to fight the ICBMs.
There are mainly four types of defence systems: The Ground-based Midcourse Defence (GMD), Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), the Patriot, and Aegis Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system. The THAAD fires interceptors, which collides with the incoming missile at the end-phase of its journey. The Patriot system was first used as an enemy aircraft defence system, but was later used during the Gulf War on tactical ballistic missiles. Since then, it has been modified to be used on these kind of missiles. The BMD is sea-based, firing from navy ships. The interceptor type it uses, Standard Missile-3, is designed to intercept short to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Of these four different defence systems, only the GMD is fully designed to shoot down an ICBM and the only system capable of shooting down the missile midcourse. Its sole purpose is to defend the United States mainland. Its missiles, Ground-based Interceptors (GBIs), are located in California and Alaska. When GBIs are fired from the two bases, it uses data which is collected from the GMD radar system to calculate the missile’s flight path. Different rockets are constructed to the GBI, which detach during the flight. In its final minutes, only a kinetic kill vehicle (EKV) is left, and together with the radar data and its own infrared sensor, it modifies its flight path in order to collide with the incoming enemy missile.
The GMD, however, should not be seen as completely trustworthy. In 9 out of 18 tests since 1999, the GBIs have missed their targets. An essential part of the GMD is the radar system. There are seven types of sensors in the radar system, which are located in space, land and water. In order for the GBI to collide with the incoming missile, the radar system must first detect a missile launch on the Korean Peninsula. After the launch, the radar system must track the missile and calculate its flying path, which is easier said than done. When the last GMD-test was performed in May, the GBI succeeded to collide with the incoming missile. However, the sensors were stationed in a formation making it an effortless job to track the missile. A situation far from reality. Should the GMD fail in an actual attack, the THAAD, BMD and Patriot could be used as a last resort, but they are not designed for these types of missiles. With these facts in mind, the chance that the United States interceptors actually collide with an incoming ICBM are slim, and the stakes with a failure too high. This leaves diplomacy as the only viable option.