Missile Test "Success":

The military is touting the latest Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile test as "phenomenal" and claims a THAAD system could be ready for emergency deployment within a year. According to this report, "military officials said the test went better than they could have hoped." [Yet in the next paragraph, the story quotes an official saying "It performed as expected." Does this mean that when it comes to missile tests performing "as expected" is "better than they could have hoped" for? Never mind.]

Since I've learned so much about defensive missile capabilities from in prior comment threads, I am once again interested in what the VC readership has to say about this latest test, whether the THAAD system is worth the $4 billion invested in it, and what this development means for our defensive capabilities.

K Bennight (mail):
Is even a 25% chance of taking out an incoming nuke worth it? I think so.
7.13.2006 2:34pm
Joel B. (mail):
THAAD ends MAD?!

Buhbye Iran!
7.13.2006 2:36pm
Bpbatista (mail):
This must be a hoax. The NYTimes, WaPo, academics and virtually every other liberal Democrat has been telling us for years that missile defense cannot possibly work (including Professor Adler's colleague at CWRU who hit the trifecta by being a liberal Democrat academic who published an op-ed in the NYTimes!).
7.13.2006 2:40pm
te (mail):
The missile defense system succeeded in it primary goal of funneling billions of dollars of taxpayer dollars into the pockets of corporations that primarily make contributions to the republican party. That is it's purpose and it is a marvelous success in that regard.

Anyone who actually thinks it is intended to shoot down incoming nukes is probably so deluded and clueless as to think that the purpose of our being in Iraq is to "spread democracy."
7.13.2006 2:47pm
Josh_Jasper (mail):
This is nothing new. We've *had* the capability to sometimes shoot down SCUD type rockets. A SCUD is not the same as an ICBM, or even the medium range missiles North Korea is creating. If it were, we'd have shot a simulated down in a test allready.

As for Iran, really, the threat is not in them shooting missiles, it's in them *selling* a nuclear bomb to a terrorist group, or financing it's use on thier own against someone they don't like.

Explain to me again how this system will prevent a truck fron driving from Teheran into Baghdad?
7.13.2006 2:48pm
anonyomousss (mail):
the article includes no information about how the intercepting missile was allowed to cheat.
7.13.2006 2:51pm
Avatar (mail):
Well, but even if it's not a magic bullet solution against any and all nuclear threats, there's at least one country out there with nuclear weapons, missiles, and run by a nutjob who just might stick one on the other and launch it at somebody we like (even if it's not us!)

Keep in mind that the "nuke delivered by truck" is actually very, very dangerous for the attacking country. If it gets intercepted, by intent or by chance, it's the SAME THING as having launched a nuclear missile, except that you didn't actually do any damage and you don't know exactly when the response will come. On top of that, the guys delivering the bomb may decide that they prefer to sell out and live in luxury for the rest of their lives. And the more cutouts you place between your own forces and the guys delivering the bomb, the higher chance that someone will sell out, or worse, decide that they should be in charge of your country and use your own nuke on you personally.

It's also much harder to threaten a followup strike with a civilian-vehicle-delivered bomb. You have to send in several teams initially, dramatically increasing the chance that one will blow the whole operation (and you finding out when your country is converted into a sheet of glass in retaliation...) You can't count on being able to deliver a second vehicle after the first detonation, because people are likely to go into a "shoot anything coming over the border" mode.

So if truck delivery is much less reliable than missile delivery, shouldn't we prefer that our enemies use the former?
7.13.2006 3:01pm
Tracy Johnson (www):
And where in the article did it say the missle 'cheated'? I find it odd that anyone would claim nonexistent text in the article.

The question of whether this anti-missile has anything to do with overland portage also seems strangely irrelevant.
7.13.2006 3:10pm
Brooks Lyman (mail):
Considering the billions that we spend on the military (which all my left-wing pacifist (?) friends say is wasted) spending some of it on missile defense seems like a good idea. I mean, how much is LA or NYC worth to us - particularly to the people who live there?

As a hard-headed conservative Republican, I'm not in favor of wasting money, but if we could knock down SCUDs 15 years ago, we ought to be able to do a good bit better today. Go for it!

As for someone like North Korea or Iran selling nukes to terrorists, well, that's a problem too - one we're also working on. But NK is working on an ICBM that is supposed (when perfected) to be able to hit the continental US and Iran could easily fit up an oil tanker or destroyer to carry short range missiles to within a few hundred miles of the US coast. So defense against missiles is not wasted money, in the missile age.

As for some some wacko Jihadi muslims driving a nuke from Iran to Baghdad, the purpose is to incinerate who? A relatively small number of US soldiers? Awfully high collateral damage, guys. Or if it's to incinerate their fellow Muslims, while I would want to discourage such behavior on humanitarian grounds, it's a family fight, after all. The resulting war of all against all in the Islamic world would probably distract the Jihadists' attention from the Great Satan (that's us, in case anyone has forgotten) for a goodly number of years....
7.13.2006 3:17pm
Grant Gould (mail):
Um, is THAAD actually the same system as was involved in the previous, faked tests? I was under the impression that THAAD was a terminal-phase interceptor intended to defend specific targets, whereas the previous tests were of boost-phase interceptors intended to defend larger areas? Or am I confused here?
7.13.2006 3:18pm
Humble Law Student (mail):

THAAD is specifically designed to destroy ballistic missiles in their terminal phase.


SCUDS are ballistic missiles. So, from what I understand they operate very similarily to ICBMs in that both involve ballistic tradjectories reaching outside our atmosphere. The obvious differences are range and warhead size. Further, the THAAD is dedicated and designed for ballistic missile defense. The Patriot systems used before were stopgap measures that didn't work very well (in terms of the numbers of interceptors required to make a kill).
7.13.2006 3:54pm
AppSocRes (mail):
It puzzles me no one considers that destroying an incoming ICBM with an interceptor missile is well within current technology if the interceptor is itself armed with a nuclear weapon. I grew up in a city (Boston) ringed with sites containing Nike missiles that were intended to intercept Soviet bombers. Nobody back then mentioned that current missile technology made such intercepts impossible. The kicker -- which only recently became public knowledge -- was that Nike missile warheads were nuclear rather than conventional explosive. Taking out a bomber with a nuclear Nike missile was well within the technological capabilities of the time.
7.13.2006 3:56pm
jimbino (mail):
It seems that all it would take to defeat an ABM defense would be a nuclear explosion somewhere over the target area timed to release an EMP sufficient to knock out all electronics, including radar, sensor and guidance systems in the proximity, whether in the air or on the ground. The incoming missile itself would not be affected, as long as it did not have an electronic fuze, since it, being ballistic, has a course that was determined shortly after its launching.

I agree that Star Wars has everything to do with moving taxpayers' dollars into military contractors' pockets and nothing to do with deterrence. Just like Medicare Part D has everything to do with moving taxpayers' dollars into drug manufacturers' pockets (since now we can no longer get our cheap drugs from Canada, Brazil or India) and nothing to do with retirees' health!
7.13.2006 4:07pm
I believe the "better than expected" and "as expected" discrepancy comes from the fact that the test was for communications &radar systems, and the basic launching system. It wasn't really a full test, but the kill vehicle hit the missile anyway, so it passed the test they were performing, and then went and did something that they didn't think it would quite be ready for at this point.

THAAD isn't an ICBM defense, so its not really doing anything to defend the US against NK or Iran. Though I'm sure there must be a lot of crossover technology between the various systems.
7.13.2006 4:16pm
Humble Law Student (mail):

THAAD is an ICBM defense but more properly a ballistic missile defense system (of which ICBMs are apart of). Albeit it is only designed to provide "point defense" over specific targets/areas.
7.13.2006 4:27pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
I can think of no other technological advance which was opposed during its development phase because it didn't work yet.

In other words, stop. It might just work. Can't have that.
7.13.2006 4:29pm
Humble Law Student (mail):
Here is a good article.
7.13.2006 4:32pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Interesting about the Nike Hercs and nuclear warheads. The presumption was that the bomber/bomb would have the equivalent of a dead man switch. So an aircraft kill wouldn't do it, except that it might set the thing off over, say, Maine instead of Massachusetts. You needed a weapon kill.

Hit-to-kill at velocities used in missile warfare today would do just as well, if it could happen.

Problem with a nuclear warhead is either you get an EMP kill on the missile, or a blast kill, or radiant energy. The first can be shielded against. The second doesn't do much in space, and the third could work, if the warhead was close enough. But the problem is getting close enough.

With the incoming missile going a zillion miles an hour and the BMD missile going a zillion miles an hour, with a passing speed of two zillion miles an hour, the timing window for the BMD detonation is tiny. If you can solve that without having to go to huge nuclear blasts over US cities--or even Hudson Bay--you're getting close to hit-to-kill, which is better.
7.13.2006 4:37pm
PaulV (mail):
Richard Aubrey, we have computers that work fasy enough to intercept ICBMs now. Plus the deterence of defense missiles are another factor to plug into equation. Point defeense would be important to Japan and west coast of US against NK launch.
7.13.2006 4:58pm
Bruce Wilder (www):
>whether the THAAD system is worth the $4 billion invested in it

It certain is worth it to the people getting the $4 billion. It is not worth diddly squat, in general, to the people of the U.S.

> and what this development means for our defensive capabilities.

It means that we have wasted $4 billion.

This is one of the most exasperating subjects to discuss with a true-believer Republican. Rumsfeld et alia have been methodically planning to make nuclear war not only thinkable, but mandatory. Maybe, nuclear winter is their answer to global warming. Might work.
7.13.2006 5:05pm
A related bleg: why can't Israel use its Patriot and Arrow batteries to defend against Katyushas? (And on the policy side, why didn't Israel develop anti-Katyusha and anti-Qassam systems?)
7.13.2006 5:07pm
It may be that you can't reliably hit a missile with a missile; that was certainly the claim about 'star wars'. But back when that claim was made, an IBM PC AT cost twelve thousand dollars, ran at 8 MHZ and had, umm, 640 Kbytes of memory. So maybe that particular objection has been overtaken by events, if it was ever true.
7.13.2006 5:07pm
nrein1 (mail):
I really think the question of whether an anti missile system can be developed is nto the pertinent question, the pertinent question is it worth committing resources to that could be used elsewhere. I say no. To me the likelihood of a country attacking us with muclear missiles is almost infitesibly small. I think the billions that are being poured into it could be better used elsewhere within the defense/security budget. Perhaps beefing up port security so a nuke couldn't be snuck into the country. Training more linguist who then could do a better job of monitoring extremists. I believe it is 10 or so billion a year that is being spent. That money could do a lot more good then in missile defense.
7.13.2006 5:17pm
Bpbatista (mail):
It seems amazing that so many otherwise rational people are willing to leave our country exposed to missile attack by crack-pots who are threatening that very thing when the technology is at least arguably there to prevent it. If these folks' argument had been listened to back in the 1940's, the Manhattan Project would never have been begun -- let alone completed -- because of the expense and alleged infeasibility of the technology. What will it take to convince these people that spending less than approximatly .03% of annual GDP is reasonable if it gives us the ability to prevent the vaporizing of say LA, Seattle or Tokyo?
7.13.2006 5:22pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
My experience in talking to people who oppose missile defense is that they really oppose weapons systems of any kind. I ask them: "What weapon system do you support?" At that point they try to change the subject. I'm not saying this applies to all opponents of missile defense just some. The "it will never work" argument is just a cover—they would oppose it even if it did work.

Missile defense ideas come in many forms, anything from the pop-up x-ray laser to kinetic kill. It's a really contentious subject even within the defense community where everyone is trying to protect their own funding. I've yet to hear a compelling argument either for or against from anyone. So beware of opinions on this subject.
7.13.2006 5:42pm
Mark F. (mail):
How about the U.S. requesting a binding treaty requiring that all nations of the earth give up their nuclear weapons and refuse to build new ones?
7.13.2006 5:45pm
David (mail):
My question is, whatever happened to the Strategic Defense Initiative, (SDI), often sarcastically referred to as"Star Wars"?

Back in the '80's, then President Reagan was touting this as the end all be all, literally. Since it was a DEFENSIVE system made to intercept missiles, rather than an offensive system, in a debate with Walter Mondale, actually offered to GIVE the system to the Soviets, as a way of preventing attacks.

Ironically, Mondale, and the Dems. berated him for saying that in a full page ad in the NY Times.

Nonetheless, we STILL are debating the issue of deterrance, after all these years and billions of tax payer dollars.
7.13.2006 5:47pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Problem with a nuclear warhead is either you get an EMP kill on the missile, or a blast kill, or radiant energy. The first can be shielded against. The second doesn't do much in space, and the third could work, if the warhead was close enough. But the problem is getting close enough.

Another possibility: a nuke detonation requires very precise timing -- it's a lot more than just show two pieces of fissionable material together. If they don't approach VERY fast, the neutrons emitted by the two have time to cause a fizzle, a very radioactive one, but not a blast (or not as big a one).

A nuke detonation might put out enough to affect a warhead within range and start it fizzling. I knew a fellow who, back in the "neutron bomb" controversy, suggested that this was the real worry of the Soviets. A functional neutron bomb, if detonate near a silo, disable the missile's warhead even if the silo's structure survived the blast.
7.13.2006 6:00pm
Bpbatista (mail):
Mark F:

You must be joking. Ask the Poles and Czechs -- to name just a few -- about the value of "binding" treaties.
7.13.2006 6:01pm
Jack31415 (mail):
I like the analysis of the perils of truck-delivered nukes. A true nuclear explosion with attendant casualties in the 10's or 100's of thousands on US soil would unlease a War on Somebody that would make Iraq look like beanbag.

A truly radical damn-the-consequences terrorist *might* be willing to indulge in this type of nihilism on the theory that the political structure of the U.S. would change dramatically for the worse.

My belief is that an urban dirty bomb has a ratio of poltical gain to political risk that a terrorist would grab at. Being nuked would garner more sympathy and loyalty to the U.S. than anything we could do on our own initiative.

Terrorist organizations are political organizations with aims and goals. Having all hell break loose and tremendous sympathy generated for your enemy isn't really a rational goal, for anyone.
7.13.2006 6:12pm
jimbino (mail):
You all are wasting your time sharing your ignorance about THAAD. As a nuclear physicist and rocket scientist involved in design and testing of fighters, bombers, ABMs and nuclear weapon trigger testing, not to mention doomsday teletypes and Tempest certified electronics, I need to point out that the EMP released by a 15-kiloton nuclear or even a smaller conventional explosive only a few miles above the continental USA carries the threat of causing more devastation throughout the country—far more, in some ways, than the devastation caused by several nuclear weapons targeted at major cities, if the direct loss of life is not considered. The EMP might well knock out all radars, all ABM guidance systems, all radio communications, and all power transmission, leaving the USA open to riots and other types of attacks, making Katrina look like a tempest in a teapot!

Such a calamity could be caused by launching the EMP bomb on a small missile from a freighter on Lake Michigan or even flying a small jet to 30,000 ft. (The pilot wouldn't have to have had lessons on landing.)

As the CIA well knows but doesn't want you to know, Iran and others already have that capability, as do numerous private citizens right here in the USA. Check it out on the Web!!!

What can you do? Turn off your computer, TV and radio at night, or better yet, unplug them, since the effect of an EMP set loose at 30,000 ft is like that of a real close lightning strike. If you do, you may be the only person to get Seinfeld reruns or Howard Stern after the big event.

By the way, I am currently in the market for work, and I won't submit to a drug test.
7.13.2006 6:15pm
Dick King:
This is off topic -- we're not going to equip our interceptors with nukes any time soon -- but blast in space is worth more than you think.

Go to here , and search inside for cigar . The intuition is that if you shape a small amount of inert material around the warhead you can shape the explosion's plasma cloud. Counterintuitively, a cigar-shaped warhead delivers a pancake-shaped explosion and vice versa. [The plasma cloud expands where the material isn't.]

A half-angle of ten degrees delivers half the intensity into a few percent of a steradian, which is a hundred times the blast effect you would expect.

7.13.2006 6:34pm
TomFromMD (mail):
Can I really be the first to say it?

"Don't get MAD: Get THAAD!"
7.13.2006 9:25pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
A related bleg: why can't Israel use its Patriot and Arrow batteries to defend against Katyushas? (And on the policy side, why didn't Israel develop anti-Katyusha and anti-Qassam systems?)

Problem is that an anti-missile is a very complex and expensive system, and Katuishas are the ultimate in cheapies. No guidance, even. You probably could make 'em for $25 each, and in the Soviet deployment, anyway, each lauch vehicle fired 6-8 per salvo. Use Patriots against them and you'll run out of missiles, or money, in a hurry. Also the Katyusha is a battlefield weapon, with a low trajectory. The Patriot is, I believe, designed to intercept incomings at much higher altitude.
7.13.2006 10:04pm
Lorenzo (mail):
I'm old enough to remember when Everett Dirksen said "A billion here, a billion there - pretty soon you're talking real money." Four billion dollars is less than 1% of a single year's defense budget. If it has the same percentage chance of working, it's a bargain. There will never be a single magic bullet system that works; missile defense requires layers of defensive systems that individually look pretty weak, but collectively can be overwhelmingly effective. That effort is worth more than arguing where $4 billion COULD have been spent by a government that spends a quarter-billion dollars every HOUR.
7.13.2006 10:25pm
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
Katyushas are such short range weapons, that they are not in the air long enough to get your Patriot/Arrow aimed at one. The MTHEL is a whole different matter though.

As well, as the Soviets originally intended them, they are ment to be used in barrage mode - firing off dozens, or even hundreds, at a time. There just wouldn't be enough Patriot/Arrows to go around

Oh, and for the commenter who asked about progress on the Patriot over the last 15 years: the latest PAC-3 is a whole different system from what we used in the Gulf War - able to engage more targets, and more types of targets - even cruise missiles.
7.14.2006 1:43am
why can't Israel use its Patriot and Arrow batteries to defend against Katyushas?

Katyushas are a different problem from ballistic missiles, and need a different solution:

The Mobile Tactical High-Energy Laser is a short-range weapon being developed with Israel, which wants it to destroy Katyusha rockets fired at its border villages by Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. The weapon looks like a searchlight. In tests during late 2002, the Army used the high-energy laser to heat artillery shells, which exploded in flight. In earlier tests, the laser shot down 25 Katyushas, both singly and in salvos. Artillery shells generate far less heat than rockets do and are more difficult to track. Also, because rockets are pressurized, they are easier to blow up than shells.
7.14.2006 1:44am
the latest PAC-3 is a whole different system from what we used in the Gulf War - able to engage more targets, and more types of targets - even cruise missiles.

And even RAF Tornados and USAF F-16s. =)
7.14.2006 1:46am
plunge (mail):
"And where in the article did it say the missle 'cheated'? I find it odd that anyone would claim nonexistent text in the article."

The point is that real missles DO cheat. Most of the tests that have turned into PR for how great these missle systems are ultimately get revealed to not only do not include a missle that's actively trying not to get shot down (as any real missle would try), but they often include a missle that broadcasts its position, speed, and trajectory to the defense system.
7.14.2006 3:20am
Not a lawyer, but ...:
The link to the October 2004 article, posted by Humble Law Student, is very useful. Three quotes from the article:

(1) Intercepting ICBMs involves unique challenges including stopping a much faster missile that also is usually a smaller and more elusive target, compared to a missle launched 200 miles away (within a military theatre). In other words, while DoD HOPES that THAAD will be useful against ICBMs, even demonstrating it can shoot down SCUDs doesn't PROVE that it will work against missles fired from a continent away.

(2) the next actual shoot down test will take place in September 2005 and will feature the THAAD interceptor launched against a Scud-type missile. It appears that the September 2005 test was pushed back to July 2006 (based on the latest article saying this was the "third test", and the October 2004 article saying that the September 2005 test would be proceeded by two tests.) If so, there would seem to be negative implications for the likelihood that future test and deployment dates will be met.

(3) The fourth part of the system is Fire Control: Communication and data-management backbone, links THAAD components together and to external units as well as the entire Ballistic Missile Defense System.

Related to this, I think, the current article says: the remaining flight test program is providing verification of the integrated THAAD element at increasingly difficult levels. So perhaps the Fire Control component - the one that launches the THAAD and sets it off in a particular direction - wasn't tested yet? My reading is that the target data was essentially manually fed into the system, because the goal of the third test was to see if "a bullet can manuever to exactly hit a bullet", not to test if "a bullet can be accurately aimed to get close enough to another bullet in real time".

But, unfortunately, it is precisely the ability of a fully automated system (things happen in space way too fast for human beings to react in a timely manner), including interpretation of radar and other sensor data, to make correct decisions in real time, that remains a major hurdle.

(5) The arguments, above, that computers are now so much faster than they were in the 1980s, and thus that a computerized system CAN handle incoming missle(s), has a sort of irony to it. Pro-missle defense folks said, back in the 1980s and 1990s, that computers ALREADY were fast enough. So someone saying "computers are now, in 2006, fast enough" is only really credible if he/she has some sort of absolute benchmark - a terraflop? a petaflop? that either is or is not met (and even more credible if he/she opposed fielding a missle defense back then because of computer speed, but has changed his/her mind today.)

In short, RELATIVE performance (today versus 1985, for example) is irrelevant - computers today could still be orders of magnitude short of the speed they need. And all of this is hardware, anyway - as people should know, writing extremely complex software that performs correctly the very first time it is needed in a production environment is hardly something that is the norm. A lot of experts think a very complex software system that has never actually been used in a real environment has a high likelihood of failure particularly if not VERY thoroughly tested.

(6) The current article said the test indicates THAAD could be ready for emergency deployment "as soon as a year from now." It's worth noting some weasel words here: "could", "emergency deployment", and "as soon as". ("Emergency deployment" presumably means "not determined to be operationally ready, but we're fielding it anyway".)

(6) Finally, there are THREE positions one can take on missle defense, not two. One can support deployment NOW; one can oppose missile defense entirely, EVER; and one can support the concept but believe that a LOT more basic R&D and realistic testing needs to be done before spending tens of billions of dollars to put missles into underground silos even though they are extremeley unlikely to work. I'm sure that most Republicans ("prudent spending", right?) support position number 3, since position 2 is big government at its worst - spending money simply for political objectives like appearing to be tough on defense, and being able to attack opponents as defeatist.
7.14.2006 10:53am
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
And, as a corollary to your third position: developed at some sort of consistent and objective-oriented level of vigor and funding.

Many of the "best and brightest" in the military engineering community avoid getting involved in programs like missile defense, simply because the future of one's job rests on the caprice of the next congress or administration.
7.15.2006 7:07am