The Missile Defense Agency aims to develop a common kill vehicle (CKV) to address future ballistic threats in 2025 and beyond. A CKV will take many years to develop, but it will boost the capacity of missile defense systems to neutralize complex threats while increasing efficiency and reducing costs.
Kill vehicles have the challenging task of destroying incoming threats in space. The kill vehicle is carried by an interceptor outside the Earth’s atmosphere and then breaks away when in range of its target. Next, the vehicle uses its own propulsion, communication links and guidance system to ram into the target. The kinetic force of high-speed impact completely obliterates the threatening warhead.
The CKV program aims to create one kill vehicle model to equip interceptors in all future ballistic missile defense architectures. An identical kill vehicle used in systems such as the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense and the Ground-based Midcourse Defense means less manpower and maintenance resources would be necessary for upkeep (one version of the kill vehicle is easier to sustain than multiple types). Additionally, specialists would be able to focus on optimizing the effectiveness of one type of kill vehicle instead of having to juggle several different models. Since the CKV will be an essential component to all missile defense systems, costs of future modifications would be minimized due to economies of scale.
Funding for the CKV program was a result of the redirected Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIB interceptor program back in March 2013. At that time former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made clear the reorganization would improve America’s security when he stated, “By shifting resources from [SM-3 Block IIB] to fund … kill vehicle technology that will improve the performance of the Ground Based Interceptor and other versions of the SM-3 interceptor, we will be able to add protection against missiles from Iran sooner, while also providing additional protection against the North Korean threat.”
The question that remains open is what type of kill vehicle the CKV will be. One option is a unitary kill vehicle that would destroy a single incoming missile or decoy at a time, assuming it does not miss its target. A downside is that a unitary model would require more interceptors to account for additional threats or decoys in outer space, or if a kill vehicle were to miss its target. A second and smarter option is to have multiple kill vehicles (MKVs) carried on the same interceptor to eliminate several incoming missiles and penetration aids and to account for possible mistakes in aiming. More interceptors could then be held in reserve because there would not be a one-to-one exchange ratio of interceptors and incoming warheads.
Missile threats are only going to increase with the passage of time. According to U.S. public intelligence, there are about 6,300 ballistic missiles of different ranges not controlled by the U.S., NATO, China or Russia today and that number is expected to grow to 8,300 by 2020 – a 30 percent increase. The best place for America to begin building a sturdier layered missile defense is at home by creating a powerful common kill vehicle to shield its homeland, armed forces, and allies from present and future threats in an efficient and cost-effective manner.
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