Andrew Korybko

The US is making active progress in furthering its “missile defense” technology, which in reality functions as a first-strike enabler. The field of development is moving past that of simple land-based installations such as those envisioned for Poland and Romania, and its forthcoming strategic applications and mobility well exceed those of sea-based carriers. In fact, “missile defense” thinking has proceeded so far in the US that the country is now considering not only responding to second-strike missiles, but initiating preemptive non-kinetic military action to stop them from being launched in the first place. The so-called “left of launch” tactic is thus a hyper-aggressive escalation of the “missile defense” arms race, and when combined with publicly available information about high-energy boost-phase-directed weapons and non-conventional kinetic interceptors, the US’ forthcoming first-strike plans appear to look quite formidable.

The aim of the article is to articulate the state of US “missile defense” technology and propose possible solutions for defending against it. The piece begins by generally describing the three stages and types of weapons typically associated with “missile defense”, before moving into a description of their prospective manifestations. Finally, the article concludes with several recommendations for what Russia should do to respond in kind.

A Crash Course On Tactics

It’s expected that the reader is already somewhat acquainted with the topic of anti-missile defense, so a brief overview to set the specific context of this article should suffice. In general, there are three critical stages at which a missile can be intercepted – before launch (deactivation), during the boost phase, and after its bussing units’ (and the warheads’) atmospheric re-entry. Theoretically, the vehicle can also be subject to external interference while in space and immediately prior to or after reaching its apogee, the point prior to its descent and targeting. On account of examining recent US’ “missile defense” announcements and their integration into the grand tactical framework, this fourth theoretical stage is discounted from the analysis, but could very well become part of a forthcoming one if the US decides to formally militarize its presence in space.

Returning to the three stages of interception, each one has a specific weaponized component that is ideally suited for the missile’s (and its warheads’) positioning. The “left of launch” tactic that Lieutenant General David Mann discussed last week is a “holistic, non-kinetic” option, meaning that it’s not necessarily (although it could be) a direct attack on the missile and its associated launch facility. By using the specific description of “non-kinetic”, Mann is thus referring to electronic warfare elements that could deactivate the missile or disrupt its launch in some other way, most likely referring to weaponized space satellites or some other means.

The second interception stage, during the boost phase, is anticipated to be addressed by high-energy weapons, specifically lasers aboard the Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB), a previous project that is now being reconceived of as a drone. To quote Mark Gunzinger, a laser expert and advocate at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, this technology “would take two maturing military technologies – unmanned systems and directed energy – and combine them to create a new weapon system that takes advantage of the attributes of both.” Although much needs to be done in terms of developing the technology and organizing the specific nature of its deployment (which will be discussed), if these technical challenges can be surmounted, then the ALTB could become a major part of any future “missile defense” portfolio.

The final stage to be discussed, that of atmospheric re-entry interception, is more straightforward and traditional, in that it deals with kinetic projectiles that aim to destroy the warhead directly. Because multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) are dispensed from the bussing unit during this last phase, the US has decided to innovate by researching missiles capable of launching multiple interceptor warheads to compensate. Navy Admiral James Winnefeld, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explains the Pentagon’s reasoning as such: “If, for example, because of system improvements, we only have to shoot half the number of interceptors per incoming warhead that we see, then we can handle twice the number of inbound warheads.” This line of thinking shows that the US is preparing its ‘last line of defense’ to counter any second-strike swarm attacks that survive past the first two stages, which would appear to be the most likely and urgent scenario in the near term as technological advancements for countering the earlier two stages will take more time to develop and implement.

The Weaponization Of Research

The above section provided the reader with a basic enough understanding to grasp the tactical applications of “missile defense”, so now it’s time to describe what the latest research will look like once it’s deployed in the field. This part is subdivided into three categories as per the stages of missile interception:

“Left Of Launch”/Pre-Launch:

This preemptively aggressive stage of “missile defense” will likely be largely dependent on electronic warfare satellites, as these are the most realistic instruments for disabling and/or disrupting the second-strike facilities at the furthest and safest range possible for the initiator. The creation of such a system would be a convergence of electronic warfare and space-based offensive weapons, thus making it a cutting-edge hybrid development that’s sure to become a focal point in the new global arms race. However, because it’s currently very difficult to maneuver satellites at will and over long distances after they enter orbit, if the weapons system is identified by the defender in advance, then it’s a prime target for any anti-satellite counter-tactics, such as shooting it out of the sky, disabling its functions with laser or other technology, or ramming it with another space vehicle to either destroy it or offset its orbit.

Due to the vulnerability that space-based electronic warfare satellites have despite their possible application in the framework of “missile defense”, it’s necessary for the US to have a complementary back-up system to assist with actualizing “left of launch” orders. The solution is thus found in the X37-B hypersonic space drone currently under secret testing by the US Air Force. This vehicle essentially operates as a mobile space-based weapons platform that facilitates the “Prompt Global Strike” strategy. As it relates to “missile defense”, it could theoretically drop electronic warfare payloads over the identified ground-based launch facilities, thereby rendering them unusable if the technology is strong enough and the target states’ defenses can be successfully penetrated or nullified in advance (potentially via cyberattacks or sabotage). Looked at in this way, X37-B is an especially dangerous weapon that could become an adaptable platform for various offensive systems other than the conventional kinetic and nuclear ones that most commentators have already identified.

Boost Phase:

The core of the US’ missile interception plans during this stage rests on the ALBT, an unwieldly and never fully-developed 747-sized technology. The reader must be made aware that an ICBM’s boost phase is very short, so any possible action taken during this time must be both prompt and precise in order to be effective. However, should it attain these qualities, then it would be capable of destroying the entire payload before it hits apogee and separates into difficult-to-intercept MIRVs, thus making it invaluable. The issue, as previously mentioned, is that the technology has never been fully developed and its full potential is thus not known. For example, the US needs to find a way to accurately focus the laser beams, magnify them to a weaponized intensity, and project them along great distances in order to safeguard the ALBT from being shot down in the process. This is a lot easier said than done, but if the aircraft can fly high enough (potentially becoming space-based [or close to it] like the X37-B), then it would obviously acquire a much wider field of vision, and consequently, the depth capacity to penetrate targets at extremely distant lengths. It’s important for it to achieve this because otherwise it will have to stray too close or possibly even over to its enemies’ airspace borders in order to fire, thus making it even more vulnerable.

One of the ways in which the ALBT’s defense can be increased, be it during extremely high-altitude/space-based missions or something nearer to the earth, is for it to be protected by a drone swarm. Students from the Naval Postgraduate School just broke a record for controlling a swarm of 50 drones at once, and although these were relatively unsophisticated vehicles themselves, the innovation comes in using wi-fi systems to coordinate the multiple moving parts of this complex entity. The result of this breakthrough paves the way for expanding the technology towards use in weaponized drone systems, such as the ones which are envisioned to protect the ALBT, likely by throwing themselves into the way of oncoming projectiles. Advances in “drone carrier” platforms mean that the laser-equipped anti-missile aircraft would likely be guarded in the future by its own ‘support fleet’ of multifunctioning drones (both of defensive and offensive functions), much as how aircraft carriers are surrounded by the same albeit in a naval sense. The full consequences would be that large airborne “missile defense” systems could lurk near or above space, which unlike “airspace”, doesn’t have any international boundaries, thus theoretically carrying the fleet directly above the target in an extremely provocative (but not illegal) manner.

Re-entry:

The final stage of “missile defense” tactics sees the US trying to destroy any missile salvo that penetrates through the first two echelons of resistance. The first section spoke about the new developments underway to create Multiple Independent Interception Vehicles (MIIVs) that can release a burst of projectiles to defeat any incoming missile swarm. Aiding this technology greatly would be its incorporation into electromagnetic railgun systems currently being researched and described at length by the author in a previous two-part series.

In sum, the US is the leader in this emerging field and it wants to specifically apply its advances towards “missile defense” purposes. The grand strategy at play is to have land- and sea-based units outfitted with this technology in protecting against all types of missile attacks, thus forming a ‘safety bubble’ in which any invading US force would be protected, from the aircraft carriers and the beachfront landers to the advancing attackers. All parts of the military aside from the Air Force are envisioned to have some sort of anti-missile electromagnetic railgun technology eventually incorporated into their ranks, which serves the purpose of totally eliminating China and others’ primary deterrent to US aggression.

How this all relates to the “missile defense” context explored in this article is simple – the US can shoot multiple, low-cost, hypersonic projectiles against all missiles that come its way, thereby weakening the deceptive qualities of MIRVs that also functioned as a deterrent of sorts in their own right. When MIIVs are used as the electromagnetic anti-missile railgun’s ammunition, it reaches a game-changing effectiveness that would trigger a qualitative rethinking of the opponent’s entire missile-based strategy. Also, because of the current progression of this technology in comparison to the previously examined two stages, it’ll also likely be the first one to be deployed in some serious operational capacity, although this may not happen for another 5-10 years at least.

Russian Counter-Measures

Not being privy to classified military information, the author can only suggest generalized solutions and broad areas of focus for Russia to pursue in defending itself against the US’ forthcoming “missile defense” technologies. They mostly read as mirror responses to what was described up until this point in the article, but it’s still worthwhile to list them out in full:

Optimize The Newly Created Aerospace Force:

This military-organizational innovation brings together the Air Force and the Aerospace Defense Forces, and it’s probably the most natural reaction to everything outlined above in this article. The issue, however, is that two large bureaucracies were combined, which of course means that they must be streamlined in order to be effective. No public information is known about their current state, but making sure that they operate as needed is a necessary precondition towards making the entire entity function as anticipated.

Continue Hypersonic Research:

Russia needs to continue prioritizing hypersonic research, both in terms of its offensive and defensive capabilities. The former will help it even the military playing field with the US, while the latter will be instrumental in countering all of the progress that its rival has made thus far. By understanding the weaknesses of hypersonic vehicles (be they for missile launches or X37-B-type carriers), Russia can also craft better versions of this technology that go around whatever countermeasures the US currently has in place, thus giving it a strategic edge that could translate into a geopolitical advantage under the proper circumstances.

Deepen Anti-Satellite Weapons Research:

It’s immensely important for Russia to have the ability to identify, track, and disable the US’ satellites (be it through jamming, destruction, or disruption), especially those that could be used for electronic warfare purposes against its ground-based nuclear launch sites. How it chooses to do so is up to the Russian government, but it must be advised that the US is tacitly militarizing space at this very moment, so the impetus to respond is certainly there and must be followed upon as soon as possible. Likewise, as regards the above portion about hypersonic research, developments in this field could also help construct more formidable weaponized satellite systems if the political decision is made to symmetrically respond to the US in the future.

Launch An Electromagnetic Railgun Program:

The author isn’t aware of any current Russian military program concerning this technology, although it could very well be under secret development already. Nonetheless, because of the revolutionarily qualitative impact it has on the field of missile strategy, it’s unquestionably a priority for the Russian Armed Forces, and it deserves to be treated as such if it isn’t so already.

Achieve Strategic Interoperational Capability With China:

The last recommendation is undoubtedly its most important, and it’s that Russia needs to work hand-in-glove with China in countering the US’ latest “missile defense” moves. Both Eurasian anchors are existentially threatened by the Pentagon’s plans, and they need to further tighten their strategic partnership in order to adjust to the latest developments. This proposal might meet with caution by decision makers in both countries, but it should be clarified that an ‘official’ alliance in the military sense is not at all being suggested here, but what’s certainly needed is to coordinate each state’s strategic responses to the US.

This is already going on as regards Crimea and the South China Sea, for example, and it’s especially visible in both countries’ activity in Central Asia, but it needs to be taken to the highest strategic level in countering the contents of this article. Neither country might be able to adequately defend itself against the US’ latest technological developments on their own, but by strategically joining forces in doing so (even unofficially), then their odds greatly increase and they might even be able to reverse the entire strategic dynamic and eventually enact a long-term paradigm shift to their joint benefit.

Concluding Thoughts

The US has committed itself to irreversibly upsetting the balance of power between itself and the Russian Federation, and this trajectory is fraught with enormous destabilizing potential and the very real risk of an eventual American first strike. The latest provocative news about the “left of launch” tactic and the growing appeal that it’s garnering in Washington is disturbing, and it helps explain why other related decisions about boost-phase-directed weapons and MIIVs have been made. These technologies combine in such a way as to give the US an unrivalled advantage in global military affairs in the event that they’re realized, which poses a danger of the highest order for Russia’s sovereignty, especially in the context of the New Cold War.

It’s unfortunate that Russia’s best solutions seem to lay in the field of symmetrical responses, but such moves appear to be the most realistic in the current political environment, since it’s especially unlikely that the US will ever concede into recognizing the global threat that it’s unleashing through its behavior and voluntarily choose to restrain itself. Unlike the arms race of the First Cold War, however, this time the US must also compete with China, and with Beijing on the same strategic side as Moscow in this entire affair, it’s very possible that Washington might eventually be handed a loss that its decision makers weren’t at all expecting.