Is it technologically feasible to shoot down a North Korean rocket/ ICBM?
March 29, 2009 11:15 PM   Subscribe

Could the US or Japan shoot down the missile that North Korea is planning on launching next week?

In recent news reports such as this one, and this one, it is clear that the US is not planning on shooting down the missile North Korea is firing for the somewhat dubious stated purpose of a satellite launch.

My question is a bit more direct: Regardless of intent, are the US ships in the area, specifically the ones with Aegis systems, actually capable of shooting down and destroying a multi-stage rocket? In other words, regardless of whether we decided to do so, is it even technically feasible to do so?
posted by crazyray to Technology (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Yes. U.S. missile defence technology has come a long way. The Japanese and American ships carry the Standard Missile 3, which could very likely shoot down a single missile (it might take more than one interception attempt, but it would be unlikely to fail altogether).
posted by Dasein at 11:27 PM on March 29, 2009

It could be done, but it would be very embarrassing to try to shoot it and then fail. The technology has been shown to work when tested, but it's far from guaranteed to work all the time.

It's also possible for us to make it not ready to launch, or to make it fail when it does. Or, we may know it's going to fail all by itself and not be too worried about shooting it. It's happened before.

Crazy special ops missions are going on all the time, even in peacetime.
posted by ctmf at 11:50 PM on March 29, 2009

I asked a related question some time ago. What I took away from the answers in that thread is that we wouldn't want to try to intercept a missile and fail and that the chances of failure are unknown but probably very high. There are people who maintain that we have the capability but are keeping that capability secret. To me that makes no sense. If we really had a working anti-missile technology, then we'd be trumpeting it far and wide. On the other hand anti-missile proponents have a long history of exaggerated claims.
posted by rdr at 11:57 PM on March 29, 2009

We can sometimes shoot down a missile with known characteristics, a known launch point, and a known trajectory. Under ideal conditions. With no countermeasures. And we still fail a lot.

The odds of success under less than ideal conditions are left as an exercise for the reader.
posted by Justinian at 12:13 AM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

IANA air force geek, but surely a few interceptor jets could do the job, and I'd expect that to be more reliable than any barely-working star wars stuff. The mess that resulted though? Ick.
posted by pompomtom at 1:00 AM on March 30, 2009

Based on everything I've read about these tests, I would have to say no. They've gamed every test so far to make things appear far more capable than they really are. As Justinian says, they start with ideal circumstances and work their way up from there. In a couple of tests, the missile to be intercepted was even broadcasting its GPS coordinates as it came in.

Unfortunately, military "success" evaluations for weapons systems have been a lot more rosy in some cases than we'd like. One I recall from Desert Storm was a that a SCUD missile came in range of a Patriot battery, the battery didn't fire right away due to an issue with the computer. The SCUD had some internal malfunction of its own and smashed into the desert far short of its apparent target. After impact, the Patriot battery's computer got it's crap together and belatedly fired a rocket into the crater where the SCUD hit. That was counted as a successful intercept on the Patriot system's overall battlefield performance.
posted by barc0001 at 1:23 AM on March 30, 2009

The most cost effective, and assured method is probably to not do it and then claim you did. (I think North Korea is also aware that this is quite a good tactic when launching missiles to the combined result could be amusing).
posted by rongorongo at 2:29 AM on March 30, 2009

The Airborne Laser is scheduled to come into service, well, in 2008, but we're promised it will be there this year. And regardless of whether it would really work it is, well, really cool.

It's worth thinking to yourself though, if you had a system that worked one out of 10 times, what information would you release? Just having a system that might work changes the calculations on the other side.
posted by sien at 2:55 AM on March 30, 2009

If you have a system that works 10% of the time it's pretty much the same as having no system. If you have a system that's 50% effective, then the easiest thing for your opponent to do is to double production of their weapons. In order for a system to be a net win, you would need it to be very effective, especially in this case. North Korea isn't going to be fighting an extended nuclear duel with the United States. All they have to do is threaten to destroy one city in Japan or the United States. For that you don't need certainty. You just need a better than even chance of success.

North Korea knows that if they actually attack the United States, they would end up a heap of glowing rubble. The missiles and nukes are not being built for war fighting. They're being built to prevent an invasion, to extort money and food from the rest of the world, and to sell on to other countries. Analogously, anti-missile systems aren't being pushed because they work. They're being pushed as a way to feed money to defense contractors and to satisfy the public's deep seated need to belief that they're safe.
posted by rdr at 3:40 AM on March 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

The ship based SM-3 and land based Patriots in Japan are intended as area defense weapons, defending a relatively small circular area around the weapon; e.g., a ship or city. If the bad-guy missile is headed toward a defended area then there is a reasonable chance, with a little luck, that it can be shot down. If the missile is headed over the Sea of Japan, and over Japan, then there is not much that can be done.

If the N. Korean launch site is near the coast then conceivably a relatively nearby Aegis ship could do something in the early moments of flight before the missile gathers much speed; don't know if that's conceivable for lots of reasons. Likewise, in theory, we could have some hovering aircraft - manned or unmanned - with air to air missiles ready to wack the missile right after launch. Obvious political problem there since we presumably would have to violate their airspace to accomplish this. Moreover, any launch phase intercept would have to be conducted preemptively before the trajectory is known; e.g., before knowing if it is aimed for Alaska or Tokyo.

The satellite shoot-down last year was a special case; satellites follow a predictable path and there was plenty of time to prepare and to position the Aegis ship. This was technically very impressive but not relevant to the current situation.

Other than in the launch phase, fighters would not be of much use. An incontinental ballistic missle follows an arc thousands of miles high, and then drops more or less straight down on the target at 18,000 mph or so; no fighter can deal with this in any meaningful way.

Regardless, this is all about politics and fear. If the best NK can do is to run a missile test every couple of years, it will take them multiple decades to develop a workable weapon. If they want to nuke us, they would be "better off" delivering the weapon using a simpler conveyance such as a cargo container, or a semi-submersible boat like the drug runners use with much success, or a small aircraft.
posted by Kevin S at 4:56 AM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

IANA air force geek, but surely a few interceptor jets could do the job, and I'd expect that to be more reliable than any barely-working star wars stuff.

A ballistic missile is much, much faster than any jet aircraft. Trying to catch a missile with a jet would be like trying to catch a race car with a push scooter.
posted by CRM114 at 6:32 AM on March 30, 2009

Japan has deployed a battery of patriot missile interceptors, in case the "satellite" encroaches on / falls into Japanese airspace.
To prepare for any dangers caused by a failed launch, batteries of PAC-3 land-to-air missile interceptors were sent to Akita and Iwate, the two prefectures that the rocket is expected to fly over, the Defense Ministry official said, adding that preparations to defend the area around Tokyo from falling debris are already complete.
Best guess is that nobody will attack the missile while it's on the ground or in early boost- that would violate NK's territory and probably lead to an escalation. If it appears to threaten Japan, then the patriots will hopefully be able to protect the folks who live up north from any missile parts.
posted by jenkinsEar at 7:06 AM on March 30, 2009

Probably not. I have no proof other than commentary from people in the field quoted in the articles about this launch. SM3 and Patriot missiles are basic anti-missile tech. Its better than nothing I supposed, but they are a crap shoot. The anti-missile tech the US has been working on for the past 10 years or so is really in its infancy, thus all the fear a missile launch from a hostile country brings.

Also: Japanese Foreign minister says its unlikely they can blow up the missile.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:12 AM on March 30, 2009

There are three phases of flight in which you can try to intercept an ICBM:

the boost phase, when it has just launched and is burning off its fuel as fast as possible to accelerate up out of the atmosphere. Current US/Japan ship-based Aegis BMD anti-missile systems are not designed for boost-phase intercept; the current generation of 13"-diameter SM-3 missiles burn out around 3 km/s which is not fast enough to get to even a relatively slow liquid-propellant ICBM rising from inland North Korea during the 5 or so minutes it is burning, even if you assume immediate acquisition, identification, decision, and solution. (We're working on a faster 21" SM-3 but it is not yet deployed.)

mid-flight, when it is has shed its boosters and is just a giant nuclear lawn dart arcing through the vacuum of space. Japan successfully intercepted a test missile at 100+ miles high with an Aegis+SM-3 system a year or so ago, so this is theoretically possible — but they knew pretty well where that missile would be. (And get your hopes way up for strategic missile defense — this didn't test any anti-countermeasure features, just a "simple" single-vehicle kinetic intercept. A real MIRV with decoys is still going to be economically impractical to intercept.)

re-entry, when the warhead is falling back through the atmosphere over its target. Basically, shoot it down with Patriot missiles. Possible for protection of valuable military targets, but you've still got the debris falling on or around the target so not ideal if a rogue state is targeting a population center, but Japan is positioning PAC-3s around Tokyo and moving two to Hokkaidō to shoot down the incoming missile or debris from a mid-flight intercept.
posted by nicwolff at 2:37 PM on March 30, 2009

Ha! I meant "don't get your hopes up" &c.
posted by nicwolff at 9:14 PM on March 30, 2009

Does a covert ops sniper on the ground with one of those Barrett .50 cal rifles count as a "shoot down"? I'd think putting a hole in the main or 2nd booster liquid fuel tank right at launch or hitting the guidance package would ensure a failed launch. I mean we know where it is going to be launched from, it takes 3 days to fuel it on the pad...

Assuming you could get your guy in/out easily ( cause you do it often? ) then that would be a good plan.
posted by clanger at 8:25 PM on March 31, 2009

Hm, apparently the launch area for this rocket was on the coast. Which makes sense seeing as how their crappy rockets are aimed east and they want the debris from failed launches to land in the water, but is weird and stupid from a tactical perspective and reinforces the idea that the North Korean missile program is largely just a provocation.

But I'l have to revise my opinion: I don't see any reason we or the Japanese couldn't have shot this down in early boost phase from an Aegis destroyer - hell, the South Koreans could probably have hit it with a RIM-116 surface-to-air missile from their new destroyer Sejong the Great.
posted by nicwolff at 3:49 PM on April 8, 2009

I will 100% Guarantee you [without claiming to have access to classified information] that there was a submarine right there within shouting distance of the lauch site, recording everything - video, communications, telemetry, etc. - during the whole thing. That's exactly what submarines are for, these days.

Maybe we wanted the test data for our own purposes, so we let it happen. Hard to say.
posted by ctmf at 4:15 PM on April 8, 2009

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