Since September 1944, the ballistic missile has been considered to be the “the ultimate weapon.” Starting with the V-2 rockets that Hitler’s Germany fired at London and Antwerp, ballistic missiles have been unstoppable.
One short-range Scud missile killed more American troops in the 1991 Gulf War than the entire Iraqi army did. Russia and China have thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that can reach the U.S. in half an hour to deposit hydrogen bombs on any city in America.
North Korea and Iran are developing nuclear weapons and missiles to carry them.
Until now there has been no defense against ballistic missiles. However, earlier this month the U.S. Missile Defense Agency announced that a laser-armed plane shot down a ballistic missile in a test engagement.
A new era is dawning.
The United States has fielded a rudimentary missile defense system, consisting of smaller missiles that are intended to find and smash into incoming warheads. This is called the “kinetic kill” method.
President John Kennedy aptly described this as “trying to hit a bullet with another bullet.”
But there is a better way to shoot down ballistic missiles. Hit them with powerful laser beams.
The ballistic missile lifts off on its rocket engines, rises above the sensible atmosphere, then coasts toward its target once the rockets burn out. While coasting it separates its bomb-carrying warhead. Finally the warhead re-enters the atmosphere and plunges like a meteor toward its target.
It might be possible to hit that warhead with a defensive missile. The coasting phase of the attacker’s flight lasts some 20 minutes or more, giving the defense time to spot the incoming missile, identify the warhead and hit it with a “kinetic kill” vehicle.
However, during that coasting flight the missile could deploy decoys to confuse the defense. The decoys would be much lighter than the warhead, and once the medley of objects re-enters the atmosphere, the decoys would slow down and burn up. Then the defense would have roughly one minute to target and destroy the warhead.
It could be easier — and more certain — to knock down the missile with a laser beam within a minute or so of its launch.
If a laser of suitable power could be flown close enough to the missile launch site, the missile would be easy to spot as it rose on its fiery rocket exhaust. The laser could reach out and burn through the missile’s skin while its rocket engines were still firing, blowing up the missile much the way the space shuttle Challenger blew up when one of its rocket engines burned through.
Get ’em while they’re hot.
The airborne laser (ABL) system consists of a modified Boeing 747 carrying a chemical iodine-oxygen laser (COIL) with an output power of a megawatt or more. That laser beam can reach the missile before it moves a foot, even from a range of several hundred miles. The laser beam moves with the speed of light; nothing in the universe goes faster.
Talk about the ultimate weapon. And laser weapons are inherently defensive. They are weapons of pinpoint destruction. A megawatt sounds like a lot of energy, but it actually is about as powerful as a hand grenade. Slap a hand grenade against the skin of a missile, though, and you can destroy it quite thoroughly.
ABL-1 marks the beginning of a new phase in military weaponry, a phase in which the defense has the upper hand. At last.
It is also the subject of my latest novel, “Able One,” a realistic thriller.
Get ’em while they’re hot.
Bova, a Naples resident, is the author of more than 120 books, including “Able One,” his latest high-tech thriller. Bova’s Web site address is www.benbova.com