Missile defense against hypersonic weapons

Collin Meisel:
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Directed energy weapons (DEW), including lasers and high-power microwaves, provide one potential answer to the threat posed by hypersonic glide vehicles and other ballistic missile enhancements. DEW provides the ability to engage targets at the speed of light, but are limited to line-of-sight engagements and must overcome atmospheric attenuation caused by inclement weather or scattering from intentionally released high albedo gasses. MDA is actively working to overcome these challenges and eventually plans to “deploy lasers on high altitude, long endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) platforms,” according to MDA Director Vice Admiral James D. Syring. Utilized for boost-phase intercept – which engages targets before they reach hypersonic speeds or enable other countermeasures – this system has the potential to revolutionize BMD.

Railguns, another platform currently being explored by MDA, also act to close the speed gap created by hypersonic attacks. Presently capable of firing projectiles reaching speeds beyond Mach 5, railguns allow for multiple attempts at destroying missiles as they approach. While current railgun systems face questions regarding the endurance of their components, the ability to engage fast-moving targets on their final approach remains a vital component of MDA’s full spectrum BMD system.

Finally, left-of-launch capabilities – methods meant to stop a missile attack before it can take place, including cyber weapons – “remain a novel adjunct to wider antimissile efforts,” according to former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral James A. Winnefield Jr. In fact, there has been some speculation whether cyber weapons were used to thwart North Korea’s failed missile test on March 22 of this year. Regardless of the role left-of-launch tactics play in MDA’s BMD toolkit, the unlikelihood that the U.S. will be able to stay ahead of every attack means, according to Winnefield, there will always be a need for a “solid right-of-launch capability.”
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As with most good defensive systems, there is a need for defense in depth that could be provided by employing all of these systems to defeat an enemy launch.

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