Military & Aerospace

Ballistic Missile Defences in 2030
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Not only can we hit a bullet with a bullet, we can hit a spot on the bullet with a bullet.

–Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering, Former Director, Missile Defense Agency, USA

History has often shown that a military technological invention could be neutralized or riposted with a countervailing technology that would, if not mitigate its capability; certainly provide an alternative or response to the first technology. Only a handful of military inventions, like nuclear weapons, have escaped this trend; ballistic missiles have not. Right from the days of the German V-2 rockets, major military powers have explored defences against rocketry. Though air defence seemed an immediate answer to ballistic threats, there was always a need to construct a “shield against this sword” even if it implied a metaphorical scenario of “hitting a bullet with a bullet”. A challenging technological endeavour, evolution of interception technologies has been a laborious grind since the initial efforts in the 1940s.

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A host of these baseline technologies are currently under development in major military-industrial bases, notably the United States and Russia. These technologies intend to create various interception, tracking and surveillance applications on ground, sea and airborne platforms, with the space frontier extensively being explored for parking tracking and surveillance machinery. Some have matured and progressed into deployment in limited numbers, while a host of others are at various stages of development. Most of these platforms are expected to pass through greater technology augmentation and upgradation lifecycles in the coming years. In that sense, the next few decades might witness operational maturity of many systems as well as the birth of new interceptor-vehicle concepts, largely influenced by the nature of the emergent nuclear security environment and the scenarios of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their delivery systems.

“¦the two sides agreed on the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, which banned all forms of missile defences in order to maintain mutual vulnerability. However, both countries continued to pursue ABMs in their bid to gain strategic advantage.

This article attempts to trace the direction of technological evolution in missile defences by the year 2030, and the factors that will shape this evolution. For this technology forecast, however, it is pertinent to analyse the past and current evolution of this technology and its strategic drivers. There are other variables also which merit attention, including the nature of the security environment in 2030, and whether it will merit the existence of ballistic missile defences (BMDs). Of equal interest will be the impact of BMDs in strategic equations, more so on nuclear deterrence.

Evolution of Interception Technology Development

The initial forays into interception technology started with the German Wasserfall, and followed by the Soviets’ Berkut and US projects Wizard and Thumper in the 1940s. Actual work on anti-ballistic missiles (ABM) started with the US Project Plato and the Soviet “A” in the early 1950s.1 Propelled by their nuclear competition, the superpowers competed to develop defences against the other’s longer-range missiles, which resulted in the US’ Nike-Zeus and Nike-X programmes, countered by the Soviets’ A-35 armed with the thermonuclear-tipped Galosh A-350 interceptor.2 Subsequently the US developed the Sentinel and the Safeguard system, deployed by the late 1960s. As this race threatened to destabilize deterrence equations based on Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), the two sides agreed on the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, which banned all forms of missile defences in order to maintain mutual vulnerability.3 However, both countries continued to pursue ABMs in their bid to gain strategic advantage.

The need to overcome the strategic stalemate created by MAD was reflected in President Ronald Reagan’s March 1983 speech announcing the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) or Star Wars programme in which he called for ABMs that would make “nuclear weapons obsolete” and shift the balance in US favour. The SDI heralded the development of a new generation of baseline BMD technologies and architectural models, many of which are being pursued even today and are likely to be reflected even in the systems of 2030. The SDI’s four-layered architecture called the Strategic Defence System (SDS) consisted of ground-, sea-, space-based and airborne components,4 delineating interception phases of a missile, namely, boost, post-boost, midcourse and terminal – form the fulcrum of contemporary BMD architectures.

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A vast array of systems were planned including space-based sensors and interceptors and various kill mediums consisting of nuclear-tipped, kinetic and directed energy (laser and particle beams). Considering the possibility of collateral destruction created by nuclear warheads, focus shifted to Kinetic Kill Vehicles (KKV) – destroying the warhead through collision (hit-to-kill).

China is known to be developing strategic air defence systems with ABM capabilities, though publicly opposing missile defences.

Significant part of KKV ventures revolved around two programmes: the Smart Rocks, which aimed at huge satellite garages to host a large number of KKVs; and the Brilliant Pebbles, which relied on “singlets” or small, self-contained kinetic interceptors orbiting the space in large numbers.5 The BP was considered more feasible and was to be backed by a constellation of low-orbit satellites called Brilliant Eyes. However, concerns over violation of the ABM Treaty, diminished threats from ICBMs after the Cold War, among others, led to termination of the BP programme, though its space component survived. A series of theatre defence projects were also initiated by SDI, including the Theatre High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), Patriot (Phased Array Tracking to Intercept of Target), and the Arrow.

The Soviets were not far behind. The Soviets had the first viable ABM system, A-35/A-350 (ABM-1), armed with the Galosh three-stage solid-fuelled interceptor missile, with a range of over 300 km, thus perceivably achieving exo-atmospheric capability as early as 1968.6 After the ABM Treaty, A-35 was deployed outside Moscow consisting of 64 nuclear-tipped Galosh systems. The Soviets upgraded this architecture to ABM-1B and ‑2 in the 1970s,7 and replaced it in the 1980s with A-135 (ABM-3) layered system with both endo- and exo-atmospheric capabilities through the long-range Gorgon (SH-11/ABM-4/51T6)8 and short-range Gazelle (SH-08/ABM-3/53T6). An interesting twist to this competition was the technological strategy the Soviets adopted during the Star Wars years, by shifting the focus to strategic air defence systems with innate ABM capability. In the years to come, Russia thrived on this niche to develop a new generation of strategic air defence systems which, it claimed, were on par with lower-end US BMD systems.

Book_Asia_2030President George Bush (Sr.) initiated the Global Protection against Limited Strikes (GPALS) in 1991 focusing on ground-based defences against limited missile threats and accidental launches.9 President Clinton transformed it to a limited nation-wide defence (NMD) project consisting of ground- and theatre-based interceptors, along with the Airborne Laser (ABL).10 His successor George W. Bush sustained these projects and announced a robust BMD deployment plan by 2004. After withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, he re-designated the NMD programme as Ground-Based Midcourse Defence System (GBMDS), which though could not be declared operational through 2005 owing to consecutive test failures.11 In 2006 many programmes showed signs of optimistic progress, prompting President Bush to plan the first foreign deployment of GBMDS in East Europe.


  1. “Missile Defense: The First Sixty Years”, Missile Defense Agency Backgrounder, 15 August 2008, at
  2. A. Karpenko, “ABM and Space Defense”, Nevsky Bastion, No. 4, 1999, pp. 2–47, at
  3. Initially, two ABM deployments, one each for the capital and another site, were allowed. The ABMs had to be within a radius of 150 km over designated areas with not more than 100 launchers and six radars. The 1974 protocol to the treaty restricted ABMs to a single area. While the Soviets maintained Galosh coverage over Moscow, the US deployed the Safeguard in Grand Forks, which it closed down in February 1976.
  4. For a detailed analysis of the SDS, see Sanford Lakoff, Strategic Defense in the Nuclear Age (Westport: Praeger Security International, 2008).
  5. From an initial plan for a 4000-strong constellation, the BPPebbles See “Brilliant Pebbles” at <>, accessed 19 October 2009; also see “Missile Defense, Space Relationship, and the Twenty First Century”, Independent Working Group Report, 2009 Report, The Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, accessed 15 October 2009. in outer space. was to have over 100,000
  6. “Strategic Defense and Space Operations”, Soviet Military Power 1987, at <>, accessed 15 October 2009
  7. ABM-2 consisted of S-225 endo-atmospheric interceptor developed during the early 1970s. See
  8. Over 32 Gorgons and over 68 Gazelles are currently deployed around Moscow. For more details on System A-135, see
  9. “Missile Defense Act of 1991”, Part C of National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 1992 and 1993: Conference Report to Accompany H.R. 2100, Report 102-311, US Congress, House of Representatives, 102nd Congress, 1st Session.
  10. See James M. Lindsay and Michael E. O’Hanlon, Defending America (Washington: The Brookings Institution, 2001).
  11. Bradley Graham, “U.S. Missile Defense Test Fails”, Washington Post, 16 December 2004; “US Missile Defense Test Ends in Fiasco”, AFP, Washington, 15 February 2005.

The US BMD plans, however, hit new roadblocks with President Barack Obama, who sceptical on the technology and had vowed to deploy only proven technologies while cancelling the money guzzlers.1 After a heightened debate, Obama withdrew from the East European BMD in September 2009 and instead backed a mobile deployment consisting of Aegis, THAAD and PAC-3 across Europe.

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Avowed to the disarmament cause, Obama perceives BMDs as destabilizing and could desire to curb many technological endeavours that could trigger an arms race. Nonetheless, the pursuit of baseline technologies could flourish, driven by the fact that missile technologies entwined with WMD resources continue to proliferate globally.

The Current Baseline Technological Spectrum

American BMD Pursuits

The current phase of US BMD technology development is an assortment of baseline technologies pursued since the Clinton and Bush years. While some projects were revamped and some terminated, the key ones are at advanced stages of maturity, promising interception capabilities for layered defence. For terminal or theatre defence phase, there are three notable systems – PAC-3, Arrow-2 and THAAD – which have moved into deployment. An improvement of the Patriot air defence system, PAC-3 has a 15 km-plus range at Mach-5 speed and is considered ideal for defence against slower, low-flying missiles.2 Arrow-2, a US-Israeli joint venture, has a higher altitude range (90 km); the two-stage solid-fuel system could intercept at upper segments of Earth’s atmosphere.3 While PAC and Arrow-2 operate as endo-atmospheric systems, the THAAD with a 100-plus km range has extended theatre defence capability to intercept missiles beyond the endo-atmosphere.4

Indian BMD venture is seen as a means to counter Chinese IRBMs supposedly deployed in Tibet, as well as Pakistani missiles.

The flagship project of US BMD is GBMDS, which is being developed to protect against long-range missiles in midcourse. Its primary vehicle, the GBI,5 relies on a variety of satellites and radars (such as Cobra Dane, X-band and AN/SPY-1) for launch warning, tracking, targeting, and discrimination. Bogged by development failures, the project sprung back to life after a successful interception in September 2006, adding to over thirty successful intercepts out of forty-two since 2001. After initial deployment in Alaska and California, the plan is to deploy over 30 GBIs by 2010, and to over 44 by 2013.

Currently, the only operational midcourse system is the Aegis BMD. Formerly known as Navy Theatre Wide, the BMD system integrated on Aegis destroyers forms the foremost sea-based component. Its main interceptor is the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) with over 270 km range and capability to engage short- to interim-range missiles in their early ascent or descent stage. Aegis has dual functionality of being a first-tier mobile interceptor as well as a forward-deployed early-warning system.6 The long-term plan is to deploy 84 Aegis ships with SM-3. The SM-3 Block I is redesigned to achieve a midcourse and even a boost-phase capability after upgrade to an advanced version, SM-3 Block IIA, undertaken with Japan. The successful intercept of a dysfunctional satellite by SM-3 in February 2008, while declaring its ASAT utility, also validated the interceptor’s capability to engage faster targets.

Among boost-phase technologies, the most visible in terms of innovation is the ABL programme, the world’s first high-energy laser weapon on an aerial platform operating inside Earth’s atmosphere. The system consists of a chemical oxygen-iodine laser (COIL) mounted on redesigned Boeing-747 aircraft.7 The first ABL aircraft rolled out in October 2006; the laser system has undergone a series of ground-based testing before being integrated on the test aircraft. The future of the programme will hang on the results of a crucial in-flight firing test of the laser system sometime in 2010, when the system’s capability to shoot down a boosting missile during flight should be proven.

Also read: India’s quest for anti-ballistic missile defence

Along with these interception technologies, the United States is also deploying a layered sensor network through ground-, sea- and space-based platforms, namely the sea-based X-band radar, Upgraded Early Warning Radars (UEWRs) in California and UK, a Cobra Dane radar in Alaska, and AN/TPY-2 in Japan and Israel – together forming an integrated battle management, command and control and surveillance network. The X-band radar is conducting the world’s sole naval BMD patrol in conjunction with the AN/TPY-2. For space-based sensors, NASA is working on the STSS low-orbit satellites with infrared sensors to track missile launches, midcourse flight and re-entry, and an NFIRE satellite for signature collation assistance. The space-based infrared system (SBIRS), meanwhile, had to be supplanted with the alternative infrared satellite system (AIRSS), due to cost overruns.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

A Vinod Kumar

is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi

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