All posts in “Missile Defense 101”

Observations of a Missile Launch – I

Much discussion and analysis (or what some try to pass off as analysis) in the ‘verse.  Many, most in fact, are focused on the specifics of the failure and potential threat to the US.  But there is more to this than meets the (media) eye, so let’s break it down here.  We’ll break this into several parts – the missile, launch and implications thereof, responses from the US and regional allies/partners and what are the future implications.  These will be spread over the next few posts.

1_28_nk450The Taepo dong -2 (TD-2, alternately labeled the Unha-2 SLV) that was the object of concern is a three stage, indigenously developed, long-range missile purported to be a Space Launch Vehicle (SLV) but which also, by default, bears much resemblance to early ICBMs.  There isn’t much publically, or open-sourced available on the specifics of the vehicle, but there has been some fairly sophisticated supposition and conjecture based on known factors of indigenous North Korean capabilities and assistance or cooperative development with other countries like Iran, Syria, China and Russia, officially and not.
So – what do we know?  We know that it was a three-stage vehicle, with the first stage consisting of a cluster of four engines – most likely derived from the No Dong which itself is evolved from the SCUD B.  Clustering is an economically and effective means of gaining greater power for a booster stage with a wealth of experience available from around the world (a good example is found in the early days of the US space program with the use of eight Redstone tanks for LOX and RP-1 storage teamed with eight H-1 engines drawn from the Thor-Delta rockets of the period in building the first stage of the Saturn I).     It was probably fueled with a combination of nitric acid (RFNA) as the oxidizer and kerosene as the fuel, again similar to the SCUD.

There are certain advantages in this combination, not the least of which is long/close familiarity with handling it from similarly long association with the SCUD.  Disadvantages though, include the fact it is less energy dense than, say, a nitrogen tetroxide/UDMH  (unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine) combo that is less corrosive on the equipment, more energy dense (providing greater initial impulse and thus able to generate more thrust to lift more payload).  Comparing imagery released today from North Korea TV (illustration 1 – TD-2 images from NHK), it appears the flame characteristic tends towards RFNA/kero – old tech.


Implications that carries for the booster design point to a less advanced base model for use as an ICBM than if a hypergolic mix of N2O4/UDMH had been used.  To be sure, the early US ICBMs used non-storable liquid fuels (LOX/Kerosene or RP-1 typically), which impacted their availability/readiness.  Additionally, it could force design compromises in the airframe in an attempt to lighten and/or force more propellant volume to offset the lesser potential energy of this combination.  Likewise, the second stage, presumed to be a No dong would similarly be RFNA/Kero while the third stage, one of the new items in this iteration may well have been derived from the Iranian Safir and used UDMH as that is the preferred propellant for exoatmospheric stages.  By appearance, beginning with the payload shroud and presumed length it appears to be a match with the Safir upper stage.


Finally, the other major thing that is apparent about this design is the lack of aerodynamic control fins, indicating directional control is likely provided by thrust vanes, gimbaled engines or vernier jets. The first and last are the more likely as gimbaled engines imply a great(er) degree of complexity and design sophistication than is supported by observations of the rest of the missile.

So – all of this together seems to indicate a missile of rather basic design with some interesting tweaks along the way (vernier jet or exhaust vane control, for example) in a package that in and of itself would not be a weapon, but one that could serve as a prototype to develop the necessary key elements – staging, guidance, throw weight, warhead, should it prove successful in a demonstration space launch.

Was it sucessful?  It depends…we’ll look at the flight in the next post and some interesting nuances that stem from the larger result.

Missile Defense – It’s Not Just for ICBMs

It began in 2001.  Crude, homemade and unguided.  Indiscriminate as to objective or target – not meant to do anything but inspire terror.  It has a name – صاروخ القسام‎ ṢārÅ«kh al-Qassām;


Comprised of a  simple steel rocket filled with explosives, powered by a homebrew mixture of sugar and potassium nitrate (fertilizer) with warheads made of TNT and urea nitrate. Four hits in 2001, 35 in 2002 and by 2007, it was measured in the thousands.  As low tech as the rockets are, they are giving the IDF fits in attempting to thwart them.  Efforts to build a shield based on a variety of kinetic options, under the rubric of “Iron Dome” have met with desultory success.  This is due in no small part to the fore shortened battlespace.  A Qassam launched from the Gaza travels roughly  9 seconds before landing at or near its current max range of 12km (20km for the later models):


To effect an intercept in the terminal stage requires the right weapon positioned for effective coverage with an exceptionally quick detect to launch cycle.  Absent the wonders (and suspension of physical laws) of Hollywood f/x, for a conventional missile or gun-based system, the odds for a miss are high  and in this scenario, so is the penalty for misses.  Consider:

The upshot is that the prime minister, who just two months ago declared that “we will not fortify ourselves to death,” was compelled to approve recommendations to fortify 8,000 homes in Sderot and the communities of the “Gaza envelope,” to the tune of NIS 300 million. Such protection is necessary because these homes lie within 4.5 kilometers of the Gaza Strip.

But a mere day later, it turned out that the plan was too ambitious and that budget shortfalls meant that only 3,600 homes in Sderot and the Gaza envelope can be fortified within the next two years. The solemn declarations to fortify the homes, revoked only hours later, are just the latest chapter in a gloomy saga replete with deception, lies, concealment of the truth from policymakers, groundless promises to Sderot residents, the unexplained rejection of the arguments for examining additional defense systems other than Iron Dome, and bizarre decisions made in the Defense Ministry. (

So two of the three pillars of missile defense are already accounted for, under current conditions – active and passive defenses.  Each is found wanting so leaving the IDF with the third leg, offensive measures which, it would seem, came under consideration some several months before the current operation – ostensibly while taking onboard the “lessons learned” from the 2006 campaign in Lebanon.  Still, with all that behind them, parallels – justified or not, are being drawn in the Western media and the Arab street over “disproportionate response” and so while Israel may benefit in the short-run from decapitating strikes against Hamas leadership, in the longer run it isn’t too hard to foresee a resurgence of the antebellum status quo, absent a breakthrough in defensive weaponry.

What lessons might we draw from this scenario?  That missile defense is necessary at levels lower than we commonly think of (metropolitan vice intercontinentalal) to afford national decision-makers options other than a bunker mentality or having to resort to use of massive conventional forces – definitely.  That development of said capability at the local, as at the intercontinental range, is hard and if anything, probably more pressing because of the disruption, damage and loss of life it can incur. 

There is also a Navy quotient in here as one ponders the access denial possibilities that the deployment and employment of literally hundreds of these crude weapons entails in the opening or continued operations of  an SPOD or APOD, that is defendable from the maritime environment.  Suppose you are the CO of an LCS given charge to provided air- and missile defense to a contingent of Marines and Seabees ashore to open or keep open an APOD for further staging of forces when the first waves of Qassam’s (or their successors) are inbound.  How will you counter them?  Are the right mission modules being designed and built for this contingency?  Food for thought…


Multiple Kill Vehicle (MKV) Completes Hover Test

MULTIPLE KILL VEHICLE COMPLETES HOVER TEST, Dec. 3, 2008. Missile Defense Agency Director Lieutenant General Patrick O’Reilly announced that a test of the Multiple Kill Vehicle-L (MKV-L) was conducted Tuesday, Dec. 2 at the National Hover Test Facility at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.  Preliminary indications are that planned test objectives were achieved. Objectives of the test included having the MKV-L hover under its own power and prove its capability to recognize and track a surrogate target in a flight environment.  During the test, the MKV-L’s propulsion system demonstrated maneuverability while tracking a target. The MKV-L transmitted video and flight telemetry to the ground. The MKV-L mission is to destroy medium through intercontinental-range ballistic missiles equipped with multiple warheads or countermeasures by using a single interceptor missile…

So Scribe — what’s a hover test look like?

Glad you asked — peek below the fold to see…

Continue Reading…

More Cold War Secrets Revealed

The latest revelation of well known public research facilities with a hidden Cold War mission comes from the merry ol’ – England’s Jodrell Bank telescope, to wit:

London, Nov 23 (ANI): The creator of the giant space telescope at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in the UK has disclosed after 50 years that the telescope was secretly modified to track incoming Soviet nuclear missiles during the Cold War.

According to a report in Telegraph, the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank was set up to provide a “four-minute warning” of missile attacks during the Cold War, its creator, Sir Bernard Lovell, has disclosed.

Sir Bernard Lovell, who founded the renowned Cheshire observatory at the end of the Second World War, has told how the facility was adapted on the orders of military chiefs to provide a “four-minute warning” of an impending attack by Soviet Russia.

Of course there were cost overruns incurred by the facility owing to modifications.  The facility remained a primary warning and tracking sensor until RAF Fylingdales was opened in 1963.  Fylingdales became part of the BMEWS (Ballistic Missile Early Warning System) that included Thule AFB (Greenland) and Clear AB, Alaska.  Unique among the phased array radars that made up the network, Fylingdales has three faces.  With a recent modification, it will join the network of Upgraded Early Warning Radars (UEWR) that form the Global Ballistic Missile Defense System.

“To Provide for the Common Defense…”

“So when all else fails, when all the negotiations have broken down, when there is a missile in the air, you have to have the ability to destroy it.  Because the only other ability you would have is to apologize to the relatives of those who died.”

Missile Defense 101: Sensors (Pt I)

Sensors – Intro

A layered system such as the BMDS requires a multitude of sensors with differeing characteristics.  Why you ask?  For several reasons.  One is the nature of the threat – be it short, medium or intercontinental in range, there will be one or more differing sets of sensors that will come into play.  Another lies in the reason for a multi-layered system – redundancy.  But the primary reason is tied to the characterisitcs of the ballistic profile.  recall that here we broke it into three phases – boost, mid-course and terminal.  Each phase has certain characterisitcs that lend themselves to one form of surveillance and tracking over another.  For example, the boost phase is charcterized by a (relatively) short, intense discharge of energy that yields a large thermal signature which is ideal for an IR seeker.  Conversely, during the midcourse phase, there is relatively little energy expended by the RV bus and thus a cold body against a cold background is a less than ideal target for an IR seeker, but a better target for radar. 

Because the BMDS is also a global system, its sensors are found on a variety of fixed- and mobile platforms, both land- and sea-based as well as on orbit.  There are also airborne sensors, but they are mostly used in the course of the testing program and as such, will be passed on for now.  In discussing the BMDS sensors our taxonomy will be to first categorize by use in one of the three flight phases, and then further categorize by sensor type – e.g., IR or radar.  For this post, we begin with the boost phase.

A final comment before proceeding to the more granular discussions.  A number of the sensors integrated into the BMDS are legacy systems and as such, have a dual, or in some cases, multiple missions.    Most of these will be self evident as the discussion proceeds, but also understand that there is a great deal that perforce will not be able to be covered in this forum.  What can and is covered is derived strictly from open sources and available to one and all.


Continue Reading…

Missile Defense 101: Intro

‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
‘To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.’
— The Walrus And The Carpenter by Lewis Carroll.

Well, the time has come to talk of things – Missile Defense in particular, and as promised, this will be the primary topic for the coming week.  There are many things the BMDS (Ballistic Missile Defense System) is and is not (and one thing it is, is a repository for an eyewatering collection of acronyms.  Help deciphering the same may be found here).   It is not nuclear, nor is it the space-based, directed energy weapon system envisioned and advocated under the Reagan Administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative.  Rather, it is conventional, terrestrial-based (for the most part) and kinetic (i.e., "hit-to-kill") in origin.  It is composed of globally-deployed sensors and shooters tied together with an extensive command and control communications network.  To gain an understanding of this "system of systems" we will break it down into its component parts, beginning with the sensors, follow with shooters, then some discussion on the C2 tie-in.  Your "Rosetta Stone," as it were, is the illustration above.  Following that we tie them all together in the context of an engagement sequence where you, dear reader, will hopefully come to understand and appreciate the challenges of operating a globally-dispersed system such as this.  Along the way we will utilize open-source videos and imagery to illustrate our points, not unlike this: 




At the end of a very long day/night for YHS (that has stretched into the bright new dawn…):

American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 20, 2008 – A network of land-, air-, sea- and spaced-based sensors confirms that the U.S. military intercepted a non-functioning National Reconnaissance Office satellite which was in its final orbits before entering the earth’s atmosphere.

At approximately 10:26 p.m. EST today, a U.S. Navy AEGIS warship, the USS Lake Erie (CG-70), fired a single modified tactical Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) hitting the satellite approximately 247 kilometers (133 nautical miles) over the Pacific Ocean as it traveled in space at more than 17,000 mph. USS Decatur (DDG-73) and USS Russell (DDG-59) were also part of the task force.

The objective was to rupture the fuel tank to dissipate the approximately 1,000 pounds (453 kg) of hydrazine, a hazardous fuel which could pose a danger to people on earth, before it entered into earth’s atmosphere. Confirmation that the fuel tank has been fragmented should be available within 24 hours.

Due to the relatively low altitude of the satellite at the time of the engagement, debris will begin to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere immediately. Nearly all of the debris will burn up on reentry within 24-48 hours and the remaining debris should re-enter within 40 days.

Bravo Zulu to Lake Erie, Decatur, Russell and the legion of operators, engineers and rocket scientists afloat and ashore who have been crunching on this project since before Christmas.  You made history today (OK, last night)…

Perspectives on Aegis BMD and Shooting Down a Failed Satellite

UPDATE: 20 Feb (21 Feb UTC) MARK INDIA – all indications intercept successful.  More to follow…

In the 24 hours since the press conference announcing the decision to use a special modification of the Aegis BMD/SM-3 system to mitigate risk from the failed NRO satellite, reaction across the ‘verse (net) has been, well, predictable:

“It’s really an attempt to protect super secret spy gear from falling into hostile hands”
“It’s really an ASAT test”
“It’s to show the (Chinese) (Russians) (fill-in-the-blank) who’s boss”
“It’s (MDA’s) (Navy’s) naked attempt to show off its wares for more funding”

And, of course, there is the expected Greek chorus from those opposed to any form of missile defense and take any opportunity to campaign against it.

So, let’s review the bidding.

The Problem 

US 193, by all accounts, appears to be the object of concern. Launched in December 2006, this presumed next generation intelligence collection satellite failed shortly after being placed in orbit by its Delta SLV. Failed in the sense that all communications with the satellite were lost and it apparently failed to deploy its solar panels and main sensor arrays. The problem then became one of not if but when it was going to return to Earth and if so, where and what the consequences would be. Consequences because embedded in the structure of the satellite is a tank containing over 1,000lbs of hydrazine propellant. While there are no open source photos of US 193, there are of the Lacrosse radar series to give a sense of scale and construct. Image 1 below is a drawing of one of the latter Lacrosse series – note the extended frame around the central core which would include the propellant tanks, and the size of the solar panels and antenna array.

Image 2 is a photo of the earliest Lacrosse’s main body structure. Again, note the size compared to the seated figure in the foreground.

The propellant tanks, smaller in this platform, are in the section to the viewer’s far left. In US 193, the tank has been referenced in size to a school bus.

Why is this background important?

As violent as reentry can be, things can survive, intact to impact earth and present a hazard. The image above is one of the hydrazine tanks that survived the break-up of STS Columbia. To be sure there are several differences at work – chief being that Columbia was designed to survive re-entry and even in break-up, that structural make-up mitigated some destructive action. Also since it came at the end of a mission most of the hydrazine had been expended. Still, construction of the tank both here and in US 193 would lend itself to surviving reentry, especially with the latter having been essentially in deep freeze for the past year.

Consequence Management

Space-faring nations have an obligation to minimize the impact of their operations on the nations that lay below. This is especially true where hazardous payloads are concerned. In 1978, one of the most egregious examples of failure to do so occurred when the reactor core of Cosmos 954, a radar-ocean surveillance satellite (RORSAT) operated by the then-Soviet Union, failed to separate on command and enter a higher/storage orbit at the end of life of the satellite. Instead, the entire satellite re-entered the atmosphere and spread nuclear waste from the reactor core – 110 lbs of U235 with a half-life of over 713 million years, across an area of over 48,000 square nm. More typically the re-entry is a controlled one and targeted for a remote ocean area, as was the case with the recently de-orbited Progress cargo module from the ISS.

But a controlled de-orbit is possible only if communications are held with the subject vehicle, and such is not the case with US 193. With a large hazmat payload that has a very large probability of surviving re-entry and a ground track that takes it over major population centers on all continents, options were sought for reducing the risk this object posed.

Usually, it’s about this time that Hollywood calls on Bruce Willis and a super secret, hail Mary program is unveiled that is the salvation of all. Well, that’s Hollywood and this is the real world. And even Doug Flutie well agree that Hail Mary passes have a low degree of probability of success. So you go with proven technology, practices and personnel in developing a CONOPS.

Your first decision is to decide if you do anything at all. See the first sentence in this section again. As a space faring nation we have an obligation to use any and all means at our disposal to lessen the effects of our actions on those who lay below. Imagine the outcry if this tank landed in or near a populated area with subsequent injury/death occurring from the payload and we had the means to at least try and lessen the odds of that happening and did nothing? One word folks – Katrina. Believe it or not, one has to think that was an unspoken factor in the decision to proceed.

Once the decision is made to proceed with an intercept option, the question is with what. For the last 7 plus years the US has been engaged in missile defense tests with a variety of land- and sea-based systems. The satellite, while on orbit, is nonetheless descending.

As such, it may be considered as a potentially re-entering ballistic missile for possible intercept scenarios. That last sentence glosses over an awful lot of modeling and simulation that must take place to enable this scenario. It also assumes robust tracking requirements. Because of the variables of the re-entry, the most flexibility for the shooter, especially from a positional advantage would be desired to ensure an intercept that would take place (1) as low as possible to the atmosphere to minimize persistence of on orbit debris and (2) ensure what debris that does survive breakup and reentry will form a debris field over a remote ocean area.

Process of elimination identifies the Aegis BMD/SM-3 system as best meeting the above, but the operational system is not configured for this mission. Used for the midcourse ascent/descent phase intercept of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles (SCUD and No Dong class respectively), the SM-3 BLK 1/BLK 1a series uses a kinetic energy, hit-to-kill warhead which has proven itself in several tests over the past five years (12 of 14 successful tests), each increasing in complexity. The supporting Aegis BMD system has been part of the NMD, providing long range surveillance and tracking for the ground based interceptors as well as providing engage capability in its later modifications for SM-3. Still, modifications to both the missile and BMD software would need to be made to effect this mission – modifications that are unique to this requirement and not supportable for normal operations. The ships and crews are already configured and trained in BMD operations, so the risk moderation here is building on proven technology, tactics, training and procedures.

The Questions

This is just an ASAT test (or alternately, designed to put China/Russia in their place or showcase MDA/Navy hardware)

No – for several reasons. First the missile itself, the SM-3, in its normal configuration is energy limited from an ASAT role. Recall again that mods had to be made to the SM-3 and the BMD software to meet this special mission requirement. Even then, the intercept is envisioned at about 200-225km altitude which is just above the upper reaches of the atmosphere. For reference, ISS is between 332 – 339 km and the Chinese ASAT test about 800km.

It’s just a cover for making sure sensitive spy equipment doesn’t fall into hostile hands.

In years past when the collection methods were primarily store and dump, that might have been the case. Today, with so much analysis and processing done off-board and in view of the stresses of re-entry on sensitive components, the likelihood of any exploitable material surviving to be recovered would be negligible.


Perspective – this is a one shot deal (sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar). It no more represents an expansion of space-weapons capabilities or geopolitical intent than the NB-52’s launch of the X-15 imputed hypersonic cruise missile capabilities to the B-52 fleet. Recognize it for what it is, a serious attempt by a space faring nation using existing technology to mitigate risk of a hazardous object that presents challenging engineering, technical and operational issues to the professionals involved in the process. Let’s wish them bon chance and see what develops.

P.S.  Compare/contrast with the actions that took place before/during/after Cosmos 954’s re-entry in this CIA post-ex summary.


Implementing the Maritime Strategy: New Naval Operating Concept (NOC) to be Written

Sometimes vindication comes quietly – as, say, a couple of years later in part of an interview and provides demonstrative proof that there is a core group that ‘gets it’:

“In a Nov. 15 interview with ITN, Morgan said that when Navy officials wrote the NOC in 2006 “we knew we were doing the process in a backwards way.” “Here we had this operating concept before we had the strategy, and now that we’ve got the strategy in place what we want to do is sort of put the horse back in front of the cart,” he said. “We want the strategy to lead.” (emphasis added)
Amen? Amen