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The Military Technology

Why Drones Could Be the Future of Missile Defense 167

An anonymous reader writes "With North Korea's failed missile launch Friday, it is clear many nations around the globe are attempting to acquire missiles that can carry larger payloads and go further. Such moves have made the United States and its allies very nervous. Missile defense has been debated since the 1980's with such debate back once again the headlines. Most missile defense platforms have technical issues and are very expensive. One idea: use drones instead. '... a high-speed (~3.5 to 5.0 km/s), two-stage, hit-to-kill interceptor missile, launched from a Predator-type UAV can defeat many of these ballistic missile threats in their boost phase.' Could a Drone really take down a North Korea missile? 'A physics-based simulator can estimate the capabilities of a high-altitude, long endurance UAV-launched boost-phase interceptor (HALE BPI) launched from an altitude of approximately 60,000 feet. Enabled by the revolution in UAVs, this proposed boost-phase interceptor, based on off-the-shelf technology, can be deployed in operationally feasible stations on the periphery of North Korea.'"
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Why Drones Could Be the Future of Missile Defense

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  • SBX-1 (Score:5, Insightful)

    by daveschroeder ( 516195 ) * on Monday April 16, 2012 @04:30PM (#39703741)

    Not a drone, but the US Navy's Sea-based X-band RADAR (SBX-1) [] — a completely self-propelled (max speed: 8 knots), semi-submersible modified oil platform designed for use in high winds and heavy seas — is also part of the Missile Defense Agency's Ballistic Missile Defense System. It can track an object the size of a baseball from about 3000 miles away. SBX-1 sailed to the region to monitor the North Korean launch: []

    A brief history of SBX-1 — great pictures: []

    • Re:SBX-1 (Score:5, Interesting)

      by PPH ( 736903 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @05:02PM (#39704121)

      It can track an object the size of a baseball from about 3000 miles away.

      How many baseballs can it track at one time? And once it has figured out which are the real baseballs and which are fake*, how quickly interceptors be launched after the real ones?

      *The details of which are highly classified. Because dummys and countermeasures are dirt cheap compared to the discrimination technology. Once you know what the SBX-1 is looking for, ICBM payloads can be updated inexpensively. And they are classified because we have publicly demonstrated how well we can see all this space junk. And how well we can shoot a piece of it down. But funding would be at risk should the public realize that an important piece in the middle is missing.

      • Re:SBX-1 (Score:5, Insightful)

        by daveschroeder ( 516195 ) * on Monday April 16, 2012 @05:06PM (#39704161)

        Quite right.

        And you've also demonstrated, even if not your intent, quite well why secrets are necessary, even in open and democratic societies — not to keep them from our own citizens, but to prevent adversaries from understanding our capabilities, techniques, sources, and methods.

        • Re:SBX-1 (Score:5, Insightful)

          by PPH ( 736903 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @05:40PM (#39704537)

          We can hope that those granted the clearance to perform the necessary oversight are honest enough to tell us the truth: Whether or not this missile defense system actually works. Without telling us how or showing us the evidence. I'd have more faith in them if their political lives didn't depend on repeated cash infusions from the very companies that build the stuff that may or may not work.

          • Anytime drones come up, I usually see a "so I just whip out my Glock19 and have some target practice" response from the peanut gallery. I just found this [], suggesting that you'd better have more than one clip, and a clear field behind the target, if you really want to take a small drone down from any distance.

            Missile defense has been debated since before there were practical missiles. It was a particularly hot topic in the late '60s, with the conclusion at the time very similar to the result demonstrated i

          • And it sounds like you're pretty committed to opposing this platform regardless of whatever the facts may actually be.

            I've heard these exact arguments against *any* sort of missile defense since the mid-1980s, the script is getting a little tired.

            Yes, countermeasures are cheap. Yes, systems can be spoofed. (I will point out that decoy systems in the boost phase are not easy/cheap.)

            But I'll point out too that bulletproof vests are also easily defeated but people still wear them. Why? Because even a margi

        • "One great engine to affect this in America would be a large standing army, maintained out of our own pockets, to be at the devotion of our oppressors. This would be introduced under pretext of defending us, but, in fact, to make our bondage and misery complete."

          --Alexander Hamilton

          • Hey, I appreciate a non sequitur quote from the founding fathers as much as anyone — or should we take this to mean that the United States monitoring an attempted long-range missile test by North Korea is somehow "oppressing" us?

            • by dryeo ( 100693 )

              As long as they follow the first amendment, which I note has no exceptions for national security including enforcing keeping secrets.
              Of course if it was important I'm sure the constitution would be amended so congress could make laws limiting speech.
              It's funny how the people who most go on about following the constitution are often the quickest to break it.

            • and russia? does that sound oppressive? i mean it kind of sounds oppressive to me.

            • by Jeremi ( 14640 )

              Hey, I appreciate a non sequitur quote from the founding fathers as much as anyone â" or should we take this to mean that the United States monitoring an attempted long-range missile test by North Korea is somehow "oppressing" us?

              I think what deanklear was trying to imply was that once the U.S. government has the ability to keep swarms of cheap drones in the air 24/7, it's not too many steps from that point to keeping them in the air 24/7 over the USA and thereby making it practical for a small number of people to keep the rest of the population under permanent surveillance and/or fear of sudden "death from above".


            • If you think the purpose of government is to concentrate power into the hands of unelected military men, then fine, there's no oppression to worry about. If you think the American experiment should be about having the freedom to know what our government is doing with our resources, and changing course if we think they are incorrect, then yes, the million or so people with the security clearances that allow them to know the truth are the oppressors. As we speak they are taking away our right to decide our ow

      • Re:SBX-1 (Score:4, Insightful)

        by hairyfeet ( 841228 ) <bassbeast1968@gm ... minus herbivore> on Monday April 16, 2012 @06:00PM (#39704757) Journal

        Not to mention how long can you feed the thing gas? The wiki says that pig is sucking down on SIX 3.6Mw generators and there are plans to add two more of those hogs on top of those 6. i'm sorry but if there were EVER a case for nuclear power that giant power hog would be it. if we were in an actual war situation how long would we be able to keep feeding that thing with all the other fuel needs of the country and military?

        While i think drones are a good idea that thing is just too much of a piggy on conventional fuel. Instead we need more like that giant flying wing NASA was showing off, something solar powered that can stay up for weeks on end. park those suckers over anyone like NK that you are worried about, but sucking down as much gas as that oil rig radar? i just don't see that as a long term viable system, not with the cost of oil rising.

        • Look at the fuel consumption figures of just about any jet powered aircraft....

          • That's not the gas to move the thing, read the wiki its just the gas to run the fricking radar dome! At least with your jet aircraft once it gets to the area it can use missiles without using more fuel to fire it but with this thing with every single second of use, even when its just parked, its literally blasting through pounds of fuel per minute....and THIS is supposed to be what we use in case of a war with a power that has enough tech to launch multiple MIRVs at us? How are you gonna feed this thing?
      • Re:SBX-1 (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Baloroth ( 2370816 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @06:04PM (#39704801)

        As for how many, the Aegis Radar system can track 100+, and this system is based on that, so at the very least it should be able to track a hundred of so. Realistically, if more than 100 missiles get launched, they would never be able to be shot down in time. An ABM shield is currently only useful against an accidental, terrorist, or rogue launch of under a few dozen missiles: any more and no missile-based defense system is going to be able to stop it.

        As far as interceptors go, it would be launching Patriot missiles, and the US has over 1000 launchers for them in service, so taking out a half-dozen missiles wouldn't really be a challenge. Again, in the case of a major launch by China or Russia, no missile shield even close to being built is going to do anything at all to stop it.

      • North Korea would cause more damage to North Korea by trying to build dummy ICBMs than it would cause damage to any other country with a WORKING ICBM -- which it still hasn't gotten right.

        Cheaply made decoys? More like stationary explosion towers. That's about all their missiles are as it is, and these are the ones they CARE about getting right...

      • How many baseballs can it track at one time? And once it has figured out which are the real baseballs and which are fake*, how quickly interceptors be launched after the real ones?.. Once you know what the SBX-1 is looking for, ICBM payloads can be updated inexpensively.

        You're missing the point of catching the ICBM during the boost phase.

        • by PPH ( 736903 )

          You're missing the point of catching the ICBM during the boost phase.

          Oh, we can see it during boost phase well enough. But with a mid-course interception missile system, we'll also watch one booster separate into dozens of who knows what before we can reach them. And then, what is what? Hence the need for viable boost phase interception. The airborne laser was one approach. Hit it while its still one piece and blindingly obvious what it is (no high tech X band radar needed here to spot the rockets). The airborne laser is (was) expensive. And fragile. 747s are easy to knock d

          • Re:SBX-1 (Score:4, Interesting)

            by jafiwam ( 310805 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @10:58PM (#39707089) Homepage Journal

            The drones are not just tracking during the boost phase, they are killing the target during the boost phase. Which is nice, because it falls right back down near or on the folks that launched it. Your bloviating about other stages of flight are meaningless because you clearly did not understand what the discussion is about.

            Anyway, a boost-phase intercept is tricky because of the need to get the intercept vehicle there fast. That problem could be solved with a beam-weapon or by moving the intercept vehicle to a stand-off position much closer to the launch point. Thus, the drone equipped with it.

            I have the feeling the 747 you think you know about is only the tip of the iceberg, it isn't used anymore because as a proof of concept, it worked poorly. However, it worked. The rest is engineering.

      • That's why the important part is to keep this sucker mobile. The boost phase of any launch is the best time to kill the projectile. It's filled with fuel, easy to see because it's spewing fire, and the countermeasures haven't had a chance to deploy yet. Of course, if you shoot a nuke down, it'll land on populated areas, but fuck them, better them than us, right? I mean, the best minds have thought about this and came to the conclusion that the best answer to countermeasures is to refuse to play the game, an

      • Missile defense has historically been more about economics and less about technology. The interests of the United States would be better served by beefing up retaliatory options, and demonstrating the capability and will to use them, rather than focusing so much on point defense which will always cost more than whatever is being intercepted. A stepwise menu of graduated options, ranging from cruise missile or theater ballistic missile with conventional warheads, all the way up to nuclear tipped Minuteman IC
      • To paraphrase George Carlin, if the new stealth plan has a radar signature of a seabird, how many seabirds fly at Mach 2?

        So in this case, discard any "baseballs" that are traveling under what would be considered the lower limit of the speed threshold of a rocket.

        It is probably a safe bet that any "baseballs" traveling above that speed are A) few in number, and B) probably not Baseballs.

    • that was a fun read - thanks!

    • especially not if they have lasers.

  • As long as it's not defending against a phantom menace it should work ok.

    (linkie) []

  • by Anonymous Coward

    It looks like that will be the new battleground.

    We will be staring at a future where we have crowded areas outside countries where international law allows activities, but those activities are expressly designed to create a defensive blockade around a particular country. As the original poster has said, the cost for a semi-autonomous blockade is becoming lower and lower.

    While I don't have sufficient understanding of international law, nor the science fiction authors that most likely have talked about these

    • a source I considered reliable told me in the 80's that that was already happening, of course then it was on a very small scale.

  • What if I told you (Score:4, Insightful)

    by eap ( 91469 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @04:40PM (#39703861) Journal

    a guided missile is just a disposable drone?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The technical challenges and cost of BMD is mainly in the interceptor and tracking/targeting which has to be there weather launched from the ground or a ship at see or drone. Yes a done can be located near a country like DPRK and therefore hit at boost phase easier than intercepting further down range (Mid Course or Terminal) however this can be achieved by a ship off the coast in the same way using SM-3. Not sure the first stage of SM-3 is the complex or expensive part? ??

    • I would think it would be a huge advantage if they could pull if off. No need to negotiate with foreign countries for rights to maintain a ground launch installation. No need to worry about whether your sub will be surfaced at exactly the right moment. No need for the huge burn to get lifted off from the ground. Just drop into the air and cruise straight to your target.
    • A drone at 50-70K can be looking down when it launches the missile. It is easier to catch the missile when you are well above it, then when you are below it.
  • Gates tabled the ABL for a time. This might be what did it in. Or perhaps he was hoping to improve lasers or even railguns.
  • The alternative bandied about since Star Wars by Lt Gen Abrahamson in Regan admin, was anti missile satellites. This avoids storing ABM assets in orbit. So to that extent it avoids weaponization of space. And since the drones would have limited range, Russia would not feel threatened. (Russia holds all ABM technology as arms race tipping the balance of power). It is moving from having nuclear armed bombers on 24/7 patrol on the northern Canadian border to having drones encircling North Korea/Iran 24/7. Limited area, non nuclear weapon, these are the good things you can say about this technology.

    But, inevitable consequence of this would be to avoid the boost phase of ICBM. One way is cruise missile instead of a ballistic missile. The other way is to move the whole damned payload up into orbit. That would be a very dangerous development. Since countries with large area would not be at a big disadvantage here, this might be half decent solution against rogue regimes of smaller land area.

    • For a boost phase ABM to work, it has to reach the ICBM while the booster is burning. That would be possible for Iran or China or North Korea, but not for Russia since the interceptor would have to travel over too much land to reach the target before it went dark. Since we have successful arms control agreements with the Russians, sticking with this type of anti-missile defense might be best. The return-to-sender aspects of boost phase ABMs also seems attractive. Of course, the interceptor is also under
  • How effective are drones if no one is guiding them? Do your drones still work when you satalites are shot out of orbit? Do they still work when an EMP blast from a nuclear explossion takes out terrestrial communications?
  • We already have drones that take no fuel and never leave the sky. That's a satellite. By tracking missiles with radar and using a satellite based or local-to-that-continent weapons system to shoot them down, we get the same benefit as constantly buzzing drones without the need to pay for drones hovering around scouting. To use this type of system, all we need is to keep our eyes open using our best imaging tools (radar) and then get the imaging to talk to anti-missile weapons. Then we can use lasers, KE pen

  • We have airborne laser based systems capable of taking down ballistic missiles. Who's to say we didn't already use such a system to make sure the N Korean test failed? Would be a great test for the system. Plausible deniability.

  • by Guppy06 ( 410832 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @05:16PM (#39704271)

    can defeat many of these ballistic missile threats in their boost phase

    "Boost phase" means "shortly after launch," which means being close to where it was launched from, which often means violating their airspace. So your anti-missile technology relies on giving your enemy legal justification to fire to begin with.

  • just a big expensive boondogle to help the sheep sleep through their sheerings. While there may be several nuclear powers willing to nuke the U.S., they wouldn't do it in a manner so traceable as a missile launch. Even North Korea isn't that crazy, I'm sure their modified fishing vessels work just fine.

  • And all this for the cheap price of .....

  • Personally, I do not think so. because, no matter how lunatic they are, they are not lunatic enough to engage the US in a war.

    But I guess the war industry should keep it going, eh folks?

  • by Nethead ( 1563 ) <> on Monday April 16, 2012 @06:07PM (#39704863) Homepage Journal

    Could a drone really take down a North Korea missile before it self destructs.

  • So, how well will this drone system work against countermeasures? Like, for example, simply shipping the nuke to the target location?


  • There's no reason to send people under the sea when a nuclear powered robot can do the same thing, cheaper and safer. You'll lose a few, and a few nuclear payloads too - but then, that's already happened, eh? The trick will be making a decent self-destruct mechanism so that they can't be stolen and re-purposed. The cost advantages and inherent stealth of submersible drones make this a no-brainer for the military.

  • by Required Snark ( 1702878 ) on Tuesday April 17, 2012 @03:06AM (#39708057)
    The international powder keg that is N. Korea is a political problem. No technical fix will "solve" it.

    The regime exists because of draconian internal control. It is not self sustaining, and gets the extra resources it needs (mostly food) by blackmailing the international community. The blackmail is not solely based on their nuclear capabilities.

    For S. Korea and the US, conventional warfare is a meaningful threat. At a minimum the north could take Seoul, and it would be very bloody and costly to push them back to the DMZ. This could cause the collapse of the N. Korean state, so the leadership knows it is likely a suicidal act.

    For China, a collapse of the N. Korea regime would be a nightmare, because of the wave of refugees that would pour over the border. They are currently dealing with a low level refugee problem with defectors, and it is a destabilizing force in their border area with N. Korea. This is how the regime blackmails China.

    China also wants to avoid having a land border with a modern Western capitalist style state. A takeover by the south is the certain outcome of the end of the northern state, just like east and west Germany. Even with the Chinese embrace of capitalist economics, the Communist Party is still the sole source of political power, and they want to keep it that way. A functioning modern Democracy on a land border would be a direct challenge to their political legitimacy. China needs a functioning N. Korea.

    None of this is directly caused by N. Korea nuclear weapons. The elite leadership knows that they would be personally doomed by the use of nuclear weapons. Even if they escape alive from the conflict that would follow, there is literally no place in the world they could hide.

    Nuclear weapons in N. Korea are an bargaining chip for their game of blackmail. Without them the world world would not pay them nearly as much attention, so their ability to manipulate events would be seriously diminished.

    Ballistic missile defense is a US political issue first and foremost. This has been true ever since Regan's Star Wars program. Despite all the money spent and all the claims, the chances that the system works is virtually zero. The "tests"that have been done are exercises in organized lying.

    Remember the first Gulf War and the Scuds? After all the claims of success, the truth finally came out, and the Patriot system was a failure. The current versions are just as broken. How do we know this? Because the number of tests needed to prove a system like this is in the hundreds, or thousands. The number of tests they actually run is in the tens. And they are all rigged to succeed. Just think of how much testing they do on jets or other missiles. And if they did real meaningful testing, then potential adversaries could observe the results and have all the information they would need to defeat it.

    So this done system is ultimately more DOD pork. Therefore, we'll end up building it despite the fact that it will be completely unreliable. A non-working solution to the wrong problem.

Can anyone remember when the times were not hard, and money not scarce?