We Ran a Simulated ICBM Attack on the United States to Find Out: Could We Stop One?

Jul 06 2017 - 12 Comments
By Tom Demerly

We Went Inside Northrop Grumman Demonstration of Critical Anti-Ballistic Missile Technology.

Sometime in the future, diplomacy may fail.

An overnight incident in the Pacific between a U.S. Navy vessel and an adversary nation submarine causes a collision. A U.S. Air Force surveillance plane is fired upon as it flies near an international airspace boundary. A rogue nation continues ballistic missile testing.

What happens when it becomes a real world crisis with an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile)?

A missile launch indication from U.S. Air Force Space Command surveillance satellites happens at 0234 Hrs local. It is 1734 GMT, 10:34 AM in San Francisco, California in the United States. Sunday morning.

Silent lighted icons flash red on a U.S. early warning display. Red circles appear around them. They are automatically given a series of numerical designations: speed, altitude. Sea based radars add to the intelligence picture. More data becomes available. Algorithms extrapolate trajectory, acceleration, apogee, reentry and deceleration into the atmosphere. They calculate the missile’s potential impact point.

Missile launch (credit: Northrop Grumman)

I sit in a chair watching the arc of the incoming ICBM headed to the United States’ west coast. The missile reaches its apogee, its maximum altitude in near space, and begins its terminal attack phase. It happens fast. I realize I am sweating. This feels very real. As real as today’s headlines. As the missile descends toward its target it begins to slow, but it is still moving faster than a rifle bullet.

The United States homeland is under attack by ICBMs launched from a rogue nation. It is the first time a nation state has attacked the U.S. homeland since WWII. A shooting war has started.

Intelligence analysts know the threat of real damage is moderate, but that doesn’t help. The warhead is likely small, crude by modern standards. It may not even function. The guidance system is not very precise. Chances are just as good that this warhead will land short in the Pacific or go long into the California mountains as it will detonate over the intersection of Market Street and 6th Street in the Financial District of San Francisco. It could spread radioactive material over several city blocks depending on the altitude it detonates at. It may even fail to detonate.

But that is not the point of this attack. The point is for a rogue nation to send a clear signal to the U.S. government: We can reach you. We have the will to attack. You are not safe.

Given recent headlines the ballistic missile threat to the United States is in the spotlight. What is the U.S. doing to counter the intercontinental ballistic missile threat?

Recently The Aviationist visited a secure facility at Northrop Grumman to learn more about the present and future of ballistic missile defense for the continental United States. We participated in a chilling drill to intercept an ICBM fired from somewhere on the Asian continent (Editor’s note: at the request of Northrop Grumman officials, we agreed not to name any potential adversary nation specifically).

Inside Northrop Grumman’s facility. (credit: The Aviationist.)

Northrop Grumman’s Ken Todorov, Director of Global Air and Missile Defense, told TheAviationist.com, “This literally is rocket science.”

Todorov directed us through a simulated ICBM intercept over the northern Pacific using Northrop Grumman’s technology contributions to our nation’s Ballistic Missile Defense Systems. Several new technologies are showcased within Northrop Grumman’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. These systems are not yet operational, but they are must-haves for the nation’s ICBM defense. Given the threat from rogue nations in the Pacific region, Northrop Grumman’s new technologies are not just critical, but essential to our nation’s defense in the immediate term.

Without systems like GMD our west coast is, for the first time in history, under threat of nuclear attack from an ICBM in control of a rogue nation.

A constant stream of data from a wide array of sensors tracks the incoming ICBM. We see the track on our large monitor, nearly the width of the room, and on our individual monitors. It’s eerily quiet.

View to a kill: We run a simulation of an ICBM attack on the U.S. west Coast. (credit: TheAviationist.)

“Ground Based Interceptor launch, Ft. Greely, Alaska.” The systems operator tells us. The track of an ascending missile appears on our screen. It arcs upward gaining momentum, curving to match the downward trajectory of the incoming ICBM.

“Ground Based Interceptor launch, Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.” A second lighted trajectory traces across the screen, originating from the continental U.S. west coast. Two U.S. missiles are in the air, with new proposed Northrop Grumman technology melding the intercept data and targeting information to help provide mid-course intercept data.

The lines converge silently toward one another, beginning to form a brightly lighted “Y” shape on the displays. We all follow the lighted display across the screen, the ICBM arcing downward, the interceptors arcing to meet them.

“This is a bullet hitting a bullet in the exo-atmosphere” Todorov tells us, gesturing to the three missile tracks as they converge together on the big screen. The projectile we are trying to hit is moving at 10,000 MPH now, and it is about the size of a trashcan.

There are four phases of ICBM flight.

The boost phase is the most difficult to intercept the vehicle in, but is where the launch is detected. The ascent phase is vulnerable to detection by the Aegis weapons system and interception by RIM-156 and RIM-174 Standard Missiles launched from land or at sea from U.S. Navy surface ships like the Ticonderoga class cruisers and Arleigh-Burke class destroyers. In the third phase, the “mid-course” phase, the incoming ICBM could be targeted by the exo-atmospheric THAAD missile system or additional systems still in development.

Northrop Grumman technology has the capability to make all these systems perform better together, and improve the likelihood of intercepting missiles before they reach the United States or any user nation.

The lines on the big display in front of us converge.

They complete the big “Y” shape over the eastern Pacific off the California coast. There is no sound. In an instant all three missile designators disappear. The intercept was successful.

Missile tracking system close-up during ICBM launch simulation (credit: The Aviationist)

Using several new key technologies from Northrop Grumman we killed the incoming ICBM over the pacific before it reached the United States.

Later we see video of a successful, actual test intercept of an ICBM target during a demonstration of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) element of the ballistic missile defense system on May 30, 2017. A ground-based interceptor was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The “anti-missile” missile was armed with an exo-atmospheric kill vehicle projectile. It successfully intercepted and destroyed a simulated ICBM launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific with a direct collision at re-entry speed and high altitude. The demonstration was widely regarded as impressive proof of the capabilities of the ballistic missile defense system.

Northrop Grumman’s contribution to missile defense is significant. At the beginning of 2017 Ken Todorov told media that, “Members of Congress face a myriad of difficult questions about how to best protect our homeland from a growing number of threats. In this era of declining budgets, it is critical our top national priorities provide those at the “tip of the spear” with the tools to protect our homeland from existing and emerging threats.”

The headlines confirm the ICBM threat from the Pacific region is real, making the need for missile defense perhaps the most urgent defense agenda for the United States.

Note: The Aviationist.com wishes to thank Lauren A. Green, Manager, Branding and External Communications for Northrop Grumman Mission Systems and the entire team at Northrop Grumman for their kind assistance with this article.

Salva

  • Paul Rain

    Lol. Nice press release.

    “Chances are just as good that this warhead will land short in the Pacific or go long into the California mountains as it will detonate over the intersection of Market Street and 6th Street in the Financial District of San Francisco.”

    This deeply concerns me. Is there any way a regular citizen can help the Norks hit San Fran more accurately?

    • MyButtHurts

      That’s mean! 😱
      But VERY FUNNY! 😀

  • Hassan

    This article reads like a Northrop Grumman advertisement. Not much critical journalism here.

    • Some Rabbit

      I’d be surprised if their simulator would ever allow for an unsuccessful intercept.

  • hopefully this stuff works in the real world and isnt just “but it worked in the lab” type stuff

    • InklingBooks

      Agreed. For ICBMs, I have been told, real precision in targeting requires taking into account the variations in the earth’s gravitational field, something different for each path. For intercepting a missile, that counts double. Those slight but real variations apply to both the incoming and intercepting missiles.

      Also, I’d feel safer if I knew these anti-missile missiles could be equipped with micro-nukes. That’d give them a far greater lethal zone than mere fragmentation.

  • Chugs 1984

    Can you clarify Aviationist, was the heading of the missile known to the defenders in this test, or were they given no information except for what they could garner from sensors?

    • FelixA9

      I take it you don’t realize that sensors will tell us where the missile is headed?

  • InklingBooks

    Quote: “The demonstration was widely regarded as impressive proof of the capabilities of the ballistic missile defense system.”

    No, no, no. This can’t be happening. I remember it well. Reagan’s critics told us that his “Star Wars” scheme was mere fantasy, that really smart people—meaning those who read the NY Times like holy writ—agreed that it would never work. “Like hitting a bullet with a bullet,” they told us, smiling knowingly.

    “La, la, la, I’m not hearing you, Aviationist. La, la, la.”

    I also recall that, while the Reagan administration didn’t mind if the Russians seem to regard Star Wars as a soon-coming thing, they actually knew that a viable system was thirty or more years in the future, meaning about now.

  • leroy

    I think the the MDA should get rid of the maneuvering kinetic kill-vehicle and replace it with a small atomic warhead. That’s what the treaty-breaking Russians tested no more than a week ago. Such a system could destroy incoming warheads and any decoys that may accompany them. And since …

    Since the explosion would occur in space there would be no nuclear fallout. But even if we developed a nuke-tipped long or intermediate-range interceptor that detonated in the upper atmosphere, who cares? Better that kind of a nuclear explosion than one that takes place 1,000 ft. over Los Angeles! And it wouldn’t take 30 years to deploy.

    Make it a national priority, and we could do it in one year. After all, what nation could pull off things like the Manhattan Project and manned Moon landing? There’s only one.

    • Andrew Tubbiolo

      It’s well worth your while to spend the money on hit to kill. Use of nuclear weapons vastly complicates operating an ABM. The detonation of a nuclear weapon just above the atmosphere will generate a large EMP, and since your radar is going to be ‘focused’ on receiving RF from the volume of space centered on the blast, it’s quite likely your radar receiver front end is going to be overloaded and probably fried. This complication was the main engineering reason the US Safeguard system was shutdown. I take the Russian decision to use small nuclear warheads for proximity effect as a tacit admission that they can’t afford the cost of doing hit to kill in the 15km/sec closing velocity range.

      • leroy

        There are tradeoffs using a small nuke warhead, but the problem with hit-to-kill is decoys. If a half dozen mylar balloons are launched with the warhead hidden inside one of them you may not hit the right target. Better to take a chance with EMP and fallout then to have a city with millions of people destroyed by an A-bomb.

        Think of it as needing to kill a submerged Russian SSBN. If its wartime and you have to make sure you hit it and perhaps you only have a general idea where it is then drop a nuclear depth bomb. Any Russian sub within a mile or two will be crushed from the resultant pressure wave. It would be like hike hitting the hull with a giant steel bat. Crack that Delta right open!