Hitting a Bullet with a Bullet

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Published on: 05/22/2010
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Hitting a Bullet with a Bullet
Missile Defense from the Sea

by Edward Lundquist

As more nations acquire a menacing ballistic missile capability in all ranges and phases of flight, the need to be able to counter the threat is also growing. While shooting down a ballistic missile in space is not easy, the U.S. Navy, in cooperation with the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and with technology developed by the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Program Office, has proven that it is possible to intercept ballistic missiles using a weapon fired from a ship at sea. This ability is derived from the Aegis Combat System and the latest version of the Standard Missile, the SM-3.

In recent tests aboard USS Lake Erie (CG 70) and other surface combatants, the U.S. Navy’s Aegis Weapon System demonstrated the ability to track a target, develop a fire control solution, and launch a Raytheon RIM-161A Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IA, with an Exo- Atmospheric Projectile Kinetic Warhead. The SM-3 has successfully intercepted its targets in the exoatmosphere—at altitudes of more than 100 miles above the Pacific Ocean.

The Navy has demonstrated this capability in multiple exercises, and in February 2008, the crew of USS Lake Erie scored a perfect “bull’s-eye” on an errant bus-sized spy satellite. The operation was called “Burnt Frost.”

The ability to counter medium- and long-range ballistic missiles is becoming more important as more countries acquire them, says Rear Admiral Brad Hicks, who heads up the Aegis BMD Program Office within the Missile Defense Agency. “Lots of nations have expressed an interest in acquiring a ballistic missile defense capability,” said Hicks. “We have agreements in place with a number of nations to discuss the technical requirements of achieving a BMD capability. But only one nation has come forward and actually acquired the capability, and that is Japan.”

Lake Erie and Japanese Ship (JS) Kongo participated in the November 2007 Flight Test Mission-13 (FTM-13), in which two ballistic missile targets were successfully intercepted by two SM-3s during a “hit-to-kill” intercept flight test conducted jointly with the U.S. Navy at Pacific Missile Range Facility on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. During FTM-13, nicknamed, “Stellar Gryphon,” Lake Erie engaged the targets independently, while Kongo took advantage of the test to prove its successful tracking capabilities. Less than one month later, in JFTM-1, or “Stellar Kiji,” Kongo was the launching ship with Lake Erie providing support.

The Kongo test signaled a dramatic new capability for Japan, while affirming a significant commitment for Japan to defend against this growing threat. While the Kongo is not a new ship—it entered service in 1993—its new capability makes it a much more formidable asset.

“Japan had the forethought to build the multi-mission Kongo class with enough margin so that after 15 years of service it could be upgraded for a whole new mission,” Hicks pointed out. Kongo retains her multi-mission capability, including her self-defense ASW and AAW capability. “It is a real tribute to the Aegis combat system that we are able to upgrade it with an entirely new capability,” said Hicks.


“We learn a tremendous amount every time we do this,” said Captain Randy Hendrickson, who was Lake Erie’s commanding officer until reporting to the Pentagon in June. “The Navy and MDA are leveraging the existing Aegis and standard missile technology and are growing it, stressing it, and getting it to do things that it was not originally designed to do,” Hendrickson said. “Aegis missile defense is a powerful tool the Navy brings to the joint fight.”

The Burnt Frost event was not a typical intercept. Unlike the ballistic missile targets that Lake Erie is equipped to track and destroy, the satellite was a cold object in orbit and less likely to be seen by the infrared (IR) seeker in the warhead of Lake Erie’s SM-3 missile.

Ballistic missiles get hot as they travel up through the atmosphere, and a fire control solution can be computed to hit the target while near the apogee of flight, where the weapon’s IR seeker can maneuver for intercept. But the satellite was much faster as it traveled in its relatively flat orbital trajectory, making it a much harder target to hit. In fact, the target was traveling so fast the ship had to launch the weapon before it ever acquired the target on its SPY 1-B radar. Other networked sensors tracking the target were used to help Lake Erie place the missile in the right spot to be able to knock down the target.

In a normal intercept, the goal is to have the SM-3’s kinetic kill vehicle (KKV) warhead hit the ballistic threat nose-tonose. But for this shot, dubbed Operation Burnt Frost, the KKV had to hit the target on the side, further aft, where the spherical fuel tank was. Thanks to the computations and modifications by a government-industry team that included U.S. Strategic Command, Missile Defense Agency, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the Navy, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, Lake Erie’s combat system was able to put the missile in the right place and direct the warhead to seek the target at the precise moment to execute an interception.

USS Decatur (DDG 73) and USS Russell (DDG 59) also took part in the event, tracking and able to engage the target if needed. Three missiles were modified for Burnt Frost, but only one was required and the other two were returned to operational configuration.

“The satellite was a significantly different target than the ballistic missiles that Aegis BMD is designed to engage,” says Rear Admiral Joe Horn, a former commanding officer of Lake Erie and Hendrickson’s predecessor before reporting to the Pentagon as director of surface combat systems. “It was traveling over twice as fast as the typical target, and we needed to intercept it at a higher altitude than is customary. We had done modeling and simulation, which featured launching the missile prior to radar acquisition but had never done that before in a live fire setting. This resulted in software algorithm changes both in the missile and the supporting combat system equipment, which is supported by the firing ship’s computer program. It’s pretty technical stuff, but all very important in ‘hitting a bullet with a bullet.’”


Shooting down an incoming missile in space is hard, but not impossible. Chris Taylor, deputy director for public affairs, Missile Defense Agency, said that an Aegis warship is a good platform to conduct ballistic missile defense. “To begin with there is the mobility of destroyers and cruisers. More specifically, the ballistic missile defense capability leverages the extraordinary versatility of the Aegis Weapon System and is very compatible with the futuristic open architecture.” Taylor said the key to a successful intercept of an incoming ballistic missile target is twofold. “Get it early and get all of it.”

Geography matters, Taylor pointed out, and the earlier a threat is intercepted, the greater the probability that if there are any accompanying chemical, biological or nuclear agents, they, along with any other debris, will fall back upon whence it came. He added, “The sheer impact of hit-to-kill technology is that it is like a 10-ton truck hitting a concrete wall at 600 mph.”

Taylor said the Aegis BMD upgrade does not diminish any of the existing warfighting capability of the Aegis Combat System. “It enhances and leverages the Aegis Weapon System. It’s like another arrow in the quiver.”

Taylor said the next step in Aegis BMD is the co-development of the next generation of missile, the SM-3 Block IIA, with the Japanese. “The potential exists for Aegis BMD-equipped ships to address short-intermediate and extended-ranged threats in all phases of flight.”

“This means,” he added, “that Aegis BMD-equipped ships will be able to handle threats from short to intercontinental ranges and in all phases of flight. The potential will exist by 2015 for surface Navy platforms to handle all kinds of threats.”

Now that a system exists to address unitary threats, I asked Taylor about warheads that release multiple re-entry vehicles. “A multiple kill vehicle is in development for inclusion on existing and future U.S. iterations of the SM-3. The bottom line is volume kill against multiple re-entry vehicles.”

Taylor describes the kinetic warhead (KW), which rides atop the SM-3, as “about the size of a 40-pound turkey.” Against a ballistic missile, the infrared- guided kinetic energy warhead is traveling at more than 3.7 kilometers per second at time of intercept.

“In the final moments of flight,” Taylor said, “it diverts itself to the threat and destroys it with sheer kinetic energy … or in other words, like a bullet hitting a bullet. The impact obliterates the threat.”


The SM-3 first flew successfully in 1999, and its first successful intercept was made in 2002. The Navy and MDA are now 13 for 15 in successful BMD SM-3 intercepts. Add in the two successful SM-2 terminal phase test intercepts, and the program overall is 15 for 17. And that’s not counting the “real world” Burnt Frost effort.

Horn noted that the unique success of the Navy’s sea-based BMD capability figures prominently in the sea service’s shipbuilding and modernization plans. With MDA funding, the Navy is equipping 15 guided missile destroyers and three guided missile cruisers for BMD by 2009. While most of these ships are based in the Pacific, the capability will be installed on Atlantic Fleet ships, too, with Norfolk-based USS Ramage (DDG 61), now BMD capable, and USS Stout (DDG 55) soon to follow. All of the Arleigh Burke class of guided missile destroyers will eventually be BMD capable, and the Navy is looking to fund upgrades for all of its 22 Aegis guided missile cruisers.

Horn says the assignment shows the incredible confidence that leadership has in the system’s abilities. “The fact that the Aegis system has the performance margin to do jobs like this—jobs that weren’t even imagined when the designers engineered it in the 1970s—is also testament to their vision at the time. The nation has invested wisely in the Aegis Fleet.”

“The investment to upgrade an Aegis surface combatant to the BMD capability over the 40-year service life of the ship is less than a decimal point. It’s in the noise. Yet it’s a huge increase in capability,” says Hicks. “There are some launcher modifications and upgrades to the computer, and there are some adjunct computers that are required. It costs about $30 million to upgrade a ship, and the SM-3 missiles cost about $10 million each. That’s very reasonable when you consider the capability the combined ship’s weapons system and the missile provide.” The Standard Missile 2 (SM-2) Block IV is a shorter-range missile and has been demonstrated against shorter-range ballistic missile threats.

According to Taylor, both the Navy and MDA acknowledged the need for a sea-based terminal capability, even after the Nunn-McCurdy breach of the old Navy Area program in 2001. Tests in 2006 and again in June 2008 validated the near-term fix with the Navy modified SM-2s and the MDA modified Aegis BMD capability. With certification by the Navy, expected later this fall, installation of the terminal phase capability will begin on the 18 BMD configured ships. A farterm terminal phase capability is under review, and a path ahead is expected to be announced shortly.


Lake Erie may be the preeminent ship for missile defense, but it is also an operational unit of the fleet and maintains all of its warfare certifications. “We’re taking the BMD capability from the demonstration stage to being a core capability of the U.S. Navy,” said Lieutenant Commander Drew Bates, of Indianapolis, Ind., who served as combat systems officer on Lake Erie. He has participated in several firing missions. “Each one is different,” Bates reflected. “Each one has built upon the others. There’s been no treading water. There has been progress with each exercise.”

Bates said Lake Erie builds upon a capability the Navy has had for years. “The tactics, techniques and procedures, watch organization, and the command and control are already in place.” “But we do things differently,” added Hendrickson. “The engagement timeline is so quick in space. We are trained this way, and we operate this way all of the time.”

Bates agreed. “It takes upfront planning to ensure proper execution. There’s no time to ask for permission during the mission.” ♦

(Editor’s Note: Captain Edward Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior science adviser for Alion Science and Technology. He supports the U.S. Navy’s Surface Warfare Directorate (OPNAV N86)).

Military Space and Missile Forum – KMI Media GroupMSMF 2008 Volume: 1 Issue: 3 (December)

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