The Ultimate Missile Defense: Drones?
Image Credit: Wikicommons

The Ultimate Missile Defense: Drones?


When back in April North Korea launched what the international community claimed was a ballistic missile, the country that had the most to fear from the launch — Japan — failed to track it, raising anxiety in Tokyo that its defenses against a missile attack by Pyongyang were insufficient.

Ironically, the reason why Japan’s ground radars and Aegis destroyers, backed by U.S. early-warning surveillance satellites, were unable to track the launch is because the launch was a failure: the object, which Pyongyang all along maintained was an orbiter, never reached high enough an altitude to allow for its detection.

What came as an embarrassing failure for the North Korean regime served as a reminder to Tokyo that more was needed to ensure it had the ability to detect low-altitude objects as well as missile launches in their early phase. To address this shortcoming, the Japanese Defense Ministry has reportedly embarked on a multibillion-Yen program to develop unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with ultrasensitive infrared sensors to track ballistic (and possibly cruise) missiles as well as other low-altitude objects.

According to anonymous sources in the Japanese government, a prototype of the UAV, which would be able to operate at an altitude of about 13,500 meters, will be unveiled by the next fiscal year and enter service in 2020. By detecting launches earlier than ground-based radar are capable of, the new UAV would give Japan the ability to intercept ballistic missiles at an earlier stage, or at a minimum add to the series of points in the “kill chain” at which a ballistic missile can be shot down.

Whether the Japanese drone will have enough endurance and be equipped with air-to-air missiles, such as, say, a recast AIM-120 Amraam with a second-stage liquid propulsion system, to act as an air-launched missile interceptor remains to be seen, though that would be the next logical step to having networked conventional aircraft, flying in or near North Korean airspace, do the job.

There are several advantages to targeting an object during its boost, from the fact that the missile does not maneuver and presents a very high infrared signature. As it ascends, the missile is also slower than during the re-entry phase, which theoretically makes kinetic interception easier to achieve. Furthermore, an airborne surveillance aircraft close enough to the launch site would obviate the time and high-energy requirements of mid-course interceptor rockets used on current ground- or sea-based interceptors, thus allowing for cheaper and faster interception.

Lastly, but by no means insignificant, destroying a ballistic missile during that phase means that its destruction will occur on enemy territory rather than over one’s skies.

While destroying a ballistic missile during its launch phase makes good sense, doing so is easier said than done given its location in enemy territory, a feat that is made all the more formidable if that enemy’s airspace is covered by strong defense systems. The cost of boost-phase intercept using traditional manned aircraft — such as that envisioned in Raytheon Corp’s Network Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE) — is dauntingly high, from the number of sorties required to the risks of losing pilots and aircraft. However, low-signature drones could allow their user to penetrate enemy territory undetected and to linger longer near a launch site than conventional aircraft, thus increasing the chances of intercepting a ballistic missile using an NCADE or its equivalent. (Provided the drone had enough endurance, a future role in countering Chinese missile launches is also not impossible.)

Given the potential and relatively low cost of this endeavor, other countries that live under the constant shadow of a ballistic missile attack, such as Taiwan and South Korea, will look on with interest and could even decide to follow suit, technological capacity allowing. Japan’s efforts aren’t particularly new, as Raytheon’s program makes it clear. But they highlight the new possibilities unmanned platforms are creating in modern warfare.

P Sudhakar George
November 16, 2012 at 19:59

What if a drone countered a drone ? Need for detecting a  missile launch and countering it with star wars defence system

Leonard R.
November 7, 2012 at 10:51

The ultimate missile defense might be the ability to utterly destroy any nation that attacks you with missiles. Drones have a place in detecting and intercepting missiles. But that leaves open the question of what to do after you've intercepted them.  A lethal offensive missile force might be a better deterrent. 

Ian Robertson
November 5, 2012 at 22:57

The reason is clear enough: the missle never made it to a height or speed at which this missle tracking system was meant to track ICBMS. It was designed to track nuclear bombs developed by countries like Russia. Ya know, countries with *real* nuclear missle programs?
C'mon diplomat. At least check with a few experts before writing these….

November 5, 2012 at 19:58

as the aritcle mentions the biggest problem for boost phase interception is that you have to be in enemy airspace, maybe they could pull it off in north korea, but it will be a risk if the launch site is close to chinese boarders. taiwan basically has no hope of boost phase interception because its extreme unlikely to be able to achieve any kind of air dominace vis-a-vis PRC. a stealth drone isnt impossible to down as Iran shows and if japan was operating drones in china and one was downed and indentified, it would lead to huge international repercussions, it would not be like iran were reverse engineering is the biggest concern, it would rather open the door to allow china legitamicy to do what it wants over japanese airspace and this does not even take in to concern the ecnonomic war that is definently gonna happen. 

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