Current missile defense systems can fight ballistic missiles with parabolic trajectories. Nonetheless, hypersonic missiles are capable of breaching conventional missile defense systems. As a result, developing new missile defense methods is one of the top priorities.
On Feb. 7, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank, published “Complex Air Defense: Countering the Hypersonic Missile Threat.” According to the authors, the U.S. can defeat hypersonic missiles by exploiting the advantages and disadvantages of their speed.
While ballistic missiles typically fall from above the sky in predictable arcs, hypersonic boost-glide vehicles fly at significantly lower altitudes.
They are capable of doing quick movements in flight to shift course. However, because this rocket travels on lower, flatter trajectories within the atmosphere, they are invisible to many ballistic missile warning systems’ radars. Without advanced space-based sensors, they would be challenging to detect.
The report envisions a concept known as “twenty-first-century flak,” which takes advantage of the vulnerability of hypersonic weapons in high-speed flight to fill the hypersonic missile defense gap.
Tom Karako and Masao Dahlgren, authors of this project, wrote in the report, “At hypersonic velocities, missile impacts against atmospheric dust, rain, and other particles can deposit bullet-like kinetic energies, triggering unpredictable aerodynamic, thermal, and structural disruptions.”
This research discusses numerous area-wide kill techniques for hypersonic weapons. For example, dispersing microscopic metal particles or high-power microwaves (HPM) in the air ahead of the hypersonic weapon’s flight path can reduce its performance or even cause a failed strike.
In addition, the report mentions two common types of directed energy weapons—radium and high-powered microwaves. Although the beam power of current radium systems is increasing, it may not be sufficient to penetrate the thermal shield of hypersonic missiles, even at hundreds of kilowatts or even megawatts of power.
High-power microwaves have greater penetration and show potential in broader applications. They produce intense microwave energy that disrupts or destroys the missile’s internal electronics, such as radar and guidance systems, and disrupts the flight path.
High-power microwave systems are needed in conjunction with kinetic energy to kill so that once microwaves disrupt the missile’s guidance or control circuitry, the interceptor missile can destroy the target. In addition, microwave systems do not require sophisticated targeting devices like radar and are largely unaffected by weather conditions.
The report argues that high-powered microwave weapons are like a sort of “electromagnetic anti-aircraft gun” that can target the vast area where hypersonic weapons pass and “blow up the sky” before they arrive.
A layered system of these modular payloads would not necessarily destroy hypersonic missiles at every layer, but the combined effect would disrupt their kill chain.
One of these dust wall warheads could thwart an adversary’s efforts to develop countermeasures. This defense could become operational briefly, imposing high costs on adversaries.
In particular, engineering hypersonic weapons to be immune to particle clouds would face enormous technical hurdles.
In contrast, dust wall warheads do not require the same precision interception as bullet-to-bullet, which allows missile defense systems to increase the hit rate of intercepting hypersonic missiles for the first time at a lower cost.