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Pentagon Seeks Common Missile ‘Kill Vehicle’

by Kris Osborn on July 9, 2013


The U.S. Missile Defense Agency is exploring the possibility of developing a universal kill vehicle for its missile-defense arsenal, including the Ground-Based Interceptors and various versions of the Standard Missile-3.

The agency recently released a “sources sought” notification to industry for concepts for a so-called common kill vehicle, the portion of the missile that separates from the main body to “intercept” or knock an incoming projectile out of the sky.

“This research will support identification of applicable technology and concepts as well as qualified parties capable of developing and producing modular and scalable kill vehicles and component or subsystem technology applicable to the Ground Based Interceptor and current or future versions of the Standard Missile-3 missile,” the notice states.

The objective is to develop a shared technological foundation for the functions now performed by the two missile or interceptor systems, officials said.

“The overall goal is to consolidate future kill vehicle technology development efforts,” agency spokesman Rick Lehner said. “This could balance our BMD [ballistic missile defense] system and allow us to achieve results at a lower cost while improving performance. An objective would be for industry to come up with ideas. We’re looking for sources that have the capability to embark upon such a program.”

The agency may issue a formal request for proposal in the future, Lehner said.

Both the land-based GBIs and SM-3 missiles are engineered to destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles during the mid-course phase of flight – the period of trajectory when the projectile is above the earth’s atmosphere; thus the term “mid-course” phase, as opposed the initial “boost” phase or final “terminal” phase. The mid-course phase is the longest period of time during which an ICBM could be intercepted.

One analyst said the MDA’s market research makes sense.

“It is definitely worth exploring the feasibility of a common kill vehicle,” said Daniel Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a Va.-based think tank. “The GBIs and SM-3 have similar technological components, meaning the kill vehicle for either would rely upon similar subsystems such as sensors and divert motors and attitude controls.”

Goure also said a common kill vehicle would need to be able to fit both missile-defense systems, given the difference in size between the much larger GBIs and their smaller SM-3 interceptor counterparts.

The Ground-Based Interceptors are engineered for land-based delivery and housed at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The SM-3 missiles, meanwhile, are launched from Navy ships using the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System.

However, the Pentagon is pursuing a program called Aegis Ashore to configure SM-3 interceptor missiles to fire from fixed, land-based locations in Romania and Poland. The idea is to improve the protective envelope for the U.S. and its allies by combining land-based interceptor sites with Aegis ships patrolling the oceans.

At the same time, the Pentagon earlier this year announced that 14 more Ground-Based Interceptors will be added to the arsenal in Fort Greely, Alaska. The $1 billion effort, to be completed by 2017, will bring the total number of GBIs at Fort Greely and Vandenberg Air Force Base from 30 to 44.

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{ 60 comments… read them below or add one }

blight_ July 9, 2013 at 12:26 pm

Makes sense, but it sounds like nobody has that kill-vehicle thing nailed down.

El Reg found this tidbit earlier about a missile test July 5: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/07/08/star_wars

Referencing this statement: http://www.defense.gov/releases/release.aspx?rele

Edit: LEAP is the kill vehicle in SM's, and GBI uses the "EKV". The KBI is RIP.

Love them acronyms, they look good in ppt


Lance July 9, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Tough call since all the Missile Killer vehicles fail 60-40% of the time. In nuclear defense takes one failure to fail the whole nation. Need more time for R&D not just throw money at something not perfected yet.


hibeam July 9, 2013 at 1:29 pm

We don't have the guts to confront the lunatics who are building nuclear weapons right in front of our noses, so now we are working frantically on how to shoot down missiles. They will walk one in across the Southern border or sail one into a harbor. Why can't we transplant a backbone into the Commander in Golf and enforce the no nukes for lunatics rule?


JJ6000 July 9, 2013 at 4:47 pm

Where exactly is the "Golf"??


blight_ July 9, 2013 at 5:11 pm

He's trying to disparage the POTUS by comparing it to that terribly boring sport of golf. Played by job-making winners everywhere.


bmq215 July 9, 2013 at 5:38 pm

Y'know, golf. The sport played by the President and a handful of other spineless fools. Like industry leaders. And the Scots.


blight_ July 9, 2013 at 1:40 pm

The LEAP is small to fit into an SM. GMD is larger to give it the legs to strike targets from Alaska. I suppose a lighter warhead would give GMD the range to go a little farther. It would be pointless to carry multiple smaller LEAP in a GMD missile…with KE, you need to be accurate or go home, and carrying multiple KE interceptors won't help you that much; the miss-distance of the interceptors is usually high enough that simply packing a HE warhead makes little difference. The serious alternative is nuclear weapons. Detonate below 250 miles to avoid a Starfish Prime event, and don't use a 1.5 Mt warhead if you don't want to EMP cities thousands of miles away.

Unless chemical explosives can catch up, if you're off by a mile you're out of luck. And even if you can bring the kill vehicle that much closer; an RV hardened for atmospheric re-entry is pretty hard to kill.

I'm curious if it's that much easier to guide a missile to target if launcher is incident to the target, either head on or from behind. Of course, intercepting from behind is unlikely unless you can overtake or know with great certainty where the missile will be and can put an interceptor into that point of space.


USS ENTERPRISE July 9, 2013 at 2:36 pm

Just asking, but would a railgun, or ground based laser, be feasible for this task? I mean, I know that railguns are a bit far into the future, but a high powered laser, such as the one fitted on that Boeing 747, could knock a missile out, or at least deviate it. Or, maybe a laser system on an orbital weapons platform?


Dr. Horrible July 9, 2013 at 3:22 pm



Belesari July 9, 2013 at 4:19 pm

Actually for something like fleet defense or for a base it wouldn't be impossible for a railgun to be used. LOS and all.


blight_ July 9, 2013 at 5:12 pm

It'll probably be an adequate terminal defense, but you are competing against Arrow and THAAD.


Belesari July 9, 2013 at 8:47 pm

True but what is the price of a THAAD or Arrow missile.

blight_ July 9, 2013 at 4:12 pm

Railgun: Lacks meaningful range
Laser: Lacks the range
ABL: Lacks the range, Need lots of them hovering around launch site to engage in boost phase, not practical
Orbital Weapon: None exist, so costs and efficacy unknown. Would be least ineffective in midcourse. Efficacy dependent on choice of orbit, orbits are known, tracking and enemy attack windows known.


USS ENTERPRISE July 9, 2013 at 7:52 pm

Orbital weapons don't yet exist. Maybe an orbital spacecraft of some sort, or geo-synchronise with Earth. It could hover over "prime" American targets, and knock down missiles near the terminal phase. As for the people that down voted, I, have nothing to say.


tmb2 July 9, 2013 at 6:37 pm

Right now the lasers we have that can be used as weapons measure their range in yards. You're describing a laser that would have to reach out hundreds of miles.


USS ENTERPRISE July 9, 2013 at 7:50 pm

Hmm, okay. What was the range on that 747 laser test? I mean, fitted on satellite, it might work.


hibeam July 10, 2013 at 3:40 pm

Yards. The 747 would sit on the runway and a crane would dangle a missile in front of it. Later the 747 would take off for the press photos.


STemplar July 10, 2013 at 1:06 am

These weapons are mid course when you have 20ish minutes to engage. Boost phaser is problematic against even the Norks without extremely robust ROE. It's impossible as it stand in regards to the Chinese and Russians. Terminal is also a very short window but no ROE issue to be sure.


rty July 9, 2013 at 6:16 pm

While it's nice to see some kind of streamlining going on in procurement, couldn't it be on a system that actual does works?


hibeam July 9, 2013 at 6:55 pm

Why do we even need a missile defense? The Commander in Golf drew a red line in the stratosphere. We are all completely safe now.


USS ENTERPRISE July 9, 2013 at 7:53 pm

Okay, the "Golf" thing is quite old. Besides, Obama is more of a basketball person.


Dr. Horrible July 9, 2013 at 11:30 pm

Switch it up a little, man. You're getting predictable.


Rob C. July 9, 2013 at 9:27 pm

Needing the Common Kill vehicle is fine, but there going be problems with that.

Unless they redesign shipboard Vertical Missile Launcher, the designers needs to keep a common vehicle size fit those launchers. SM-3 so far been more successful than most of the US launch vehicles, but it has limitations. All-in-one missile limited by size of the launcher, maybe create some folly in a future design.

Hopefully they'll be able adapt flexable kill vehicle and be able have different launchers. Some for Sea and some for ground base. Trick is getting developers make it work and underbudget.


Blue July 9, 2013 at 9:59 pm

I'm a layman – why exactly is hit-to-kill being used instead of an interceptor that detonates a warhead near enough to the enemy warhead in proximity? Wouldn't that be much easier than the concept of hitting a bullet with a bullet?

Unless explosives somehow don't work well in space?


Tom Billings July 10, 2013 at 3:30 am

Hit-to-kill is being used because the interceptor, *without* any explosives attached, has so much velocity relative to the ballistic missile re-entry vehicle, that its kinetic energy is several times what is needed to destroy any warhead. As long as you have a hit-to-kill interceptor placed within striking distance of the re-entry vehicle by its booster, its guidance systems have tested out as accurate enough to put it right in the path of the re-entry vehicle. The last failed test may have been the booster itself again, or several other possibilities, like the radar not guiding the booster missile on a correct trajectory to get the interceptor into position. The GBI system concept was constrained during the Clinton administration by trying not to build something that would worry the Russian "Great Russia" faction about whether Russia's warheads could penetrate a GBI defense, so it's always had far more troubles than the Aegis/Standard system.

Explosives work well in Space, as long as they have something to push towards their target, like shrapnel. Alone, a hundred pounds of TNT would simply expand quickly to the extent that its shockwave would no longer harm the re-entry vehicle, which is built tough. Add enough shrapnel to the explosive that it gets a better kill probability than hit-to-kill, and you have a huge warhead, on a huge unfundable missile and BMD system.

People proposing nuclear warheads for interceptors are not serious in the last 40 years political climate. The Spartan/Sprint system had those, and that is what most helped opponents of BMD kill the system after a few months on deployment.


blight_ July 10, 2013 at 11:34 am

Agreed. I jokingly proposed nukes because chemical explosives can't give enough bang to take out a missile within closest-passing-distance…yet.

Some tests look promising, but it isn't a slam dunk yet. Some people mention boosters, but you'd think that a history of designing missiles and rockets for a half-century would result in relatively robust designs. The tight integration of high-precision-tracking /and/ accurate means of predicting trajectory /and/ the means of reliable delivery of an interceptor to where you think the missile will be remain tricky, let alone the art of getting the three legs of the tripod to where you want them to be. Sufficient uncertainty in tracking position and vector (which includes velocity) introduces uncertainty that is difficult to overcome when you need to predict where it will be to put an interceptor on target, and once the interceptor is there, it needs to guide itself to the target quickly and easily.

In short; knowing the position of the target well but sufficient uncertainty in where-it-will-be means the missile has to get there and be able to respond to changed circumstances on the fly. The Russians have promised us maneuverable RV's, which means we cannot ignore that our ability to predict with certainty where anything will be.

And finally, the performance of the boosters and KV. Going back to promised maneuverable RV's, the interceptor has to make up for the uncertainty in tracking the target and prediction of its location, and the target using decoys and maneuverable RV's.

Of course, we are assuming that our enemies won't use maneuverable RV's and decoys…on paper the NMD is pointed west and not north where the Russian nukes would rain down from.


Tom Billings July 12, 2013 at 2:00 am

"Going back to promised maneuverable RV's, the interceptor has to make up for the uncertainty in tracking the target and prediction of its location, and the target using decoys and maneuverable RV's"

This is what the multi-interceptor program was for, …until the Administration wanted to "reset" our relations with Russia, and killed the program. Having 10+ interceptors miniaturized to be the same total mass as the older single interceptor available on each missile makes it *far* more difficult for a warhead to maneuver far enough to get past, or to have enough decoys to get past. Perhaps that program can be restarted on January 20th, 2017?


blight_ July 12, 2013 at 9:42 am

I thought the LEAP was the smallest one they dared use for stopping power reasons: are GKI et al that much bigger such that you can have a GBI carry multiple LEAPs?

I'm also wondering if they could get around it by varying their ICBM systems: for instance, shedding a mixture of decoys and real RV's earlier, instead of dispersing all RV's at the exact same time. It is may be easier to design an intercept of RV's from an ICBM that achieve separation from the same point in space, but I suppose with modern computing power it isn't a big deal.

If the Russians develop hypersonic weapons or something like PGS and put a nuke in it, we are pants-down.

Thomas L. Nielsen July 10, 2013 at 3:41 am

Part I:
Explosive don't work well in space. They detonate just fine, but the effect is limited by the fact that there's no atmosphere (or, at best, an extremely thin one), so you won't get a blast wave. The only "effective effect" is from shrapnel.

I stress that the following is just an edumacated guess, but the reason for a hit-to-kill interceptor (as opposed to an explosive proximity-detonated warhead) could be as follows:

The need for a common kill vehicle limits the maximum size and mass of the vehicle, and of any warhead. The space and mass that would go into a proximity fuze places further limits.



Thomas L. Nielsen July 10, 2013 at 3:42 am


Taken in combination with the reduced effect of explosive warheads in a thin atmosphere, and the problems of detonating the warhead at the correct moment, when target and interceptor are moving in opposite directions at hypersonic speeds, it might be that an explosive warhead is just not considered worth the bother.

Also, if you're trying to intercept a ballistic missile potentially carrying a CBRN warhead, you don't just want to kill it, you want to KILL! it. Simply peppering the warhead with fragments, and even disabling the incoming warhead might not be considered good enough (you don't want a sarin-loaded warhead dropping on you, even if it fails to detonate).

Regards & all,

Thomas L. Nielsen


Tri-ring July 9, 2013 at 10:49 pm

I wonder how this effects Japan since the next generation KV to be fitted on to the SM-3 2A is being developed by Japan through the joint development project.


roland July 10, 2013 at 1:24 am

I taught we already have the Patriot for that. Just add more gas flight mileage range and more efficiency to it.


hibeam July 10, 2013 at 2:56 pm

I taught high school.


USS ENTERPRISE July 12, 2013 at 11:02 am

……..America's education……..


Thomas L. Nielsen July 10, 2013 at 3:44 am

"Just add more gas flight mileage range and more efficiency to it".

"Just" add…..? You do realize we're talking actual rocket science, right?

Regards & all,

Thomas L. Nielsen


Thomas L. Nielsen July 10, 2013 at 3:52 am

Oops….my bad – this was in reply to Roland above. (Note to self: No posting until the first morning coffee has taken effect).

Regards & all,

Thomas L. Nielsen


NotARocketScientist July 10, 2013 at 4:51 am

not an expert in any way but sounds like there would be some serious limitations in retrofitting anything which is not SM3 onto current boats.

What I did not understand though is why GBIs are used at all? Why can't SM3s be used on land as well? Is it a range issue? In which case can the SM3 not be fitted with an extra "booster stage" to provide it with longer range so that land based versions sit on top of another can?


Tri-ring July 10, 2013 at 5:04 am

I believe there is a difference in the interception stage. SM-3 is designed to shoot down missile during the boost and intermediate stage while GBI is targeting the reentry/terminal stage which is probably a smaller target since there is only the reentry vehicle but will be in-cased in a very hard shell to withstand reentry heat.


blight_ July 10, 2013 at 8:26 pm

I imagine there's a diminishing return to increased range from simply slapping on another stage. The space constraints of fitting into a Mk 41 VLS cell are moot on land.

That said, maybe some day we will move to the next gen of VLS and go with *wider* tubes. Maybe a wider tube that can support two or three cells of a Mk41, or 4 perhaps, with the option of using a stupidly large missile as required. However, I can't envision such a beast on anything but a relatively large surface vessel.


ColSkipADA July 10, 2013 at 10:27 am

We seem to have lost sight of the prime objective, which should be a "Weapons" kill, be it nuclear or chemical. The only true answer to this is a nuclear burst, this will ensure a weapons and carrier kill. The inhabinates affected need to realize this is for the common good. EMP is the main concern, fallout would amount to burn out on re-entry. We are talking MT not MT for the weapon, 30MT would be sufficient, now if we could give it a GREEN glow.


blight_ July 10, 2013 at 8:02 pm

Being blase about EMP will leave the civilian industries powered down and out of the fight. Need the shipyards in SD and Newport News? Out of luck. Need trains to move stuff out of Sierra Army Depot? Out of luck. Power to run oil refineries to produce jet fuel for the jets and tanks, and diesel for generators and Humvees? Out of luck. Agricultural production to feed the warfighters? Out of luck. Food rotting in the warehouses? Out of luck. Cows starving because the trucks that move hay are fuel-injected, and not carburated? Out of luck.

EMPing ourselves to stave off nuclear attack leaves us distressingly vulnerable to conventional attack. At best, all we would have left is a very limited timetable before the civilians, then the military, starve to death. Great nations and armies have been crushed by internal crises before outsiders, sensing opportunity, came a'-knockin.

I feel that kiloton nukes might do the trick. Nothing biiig, and certainly to be used with great caution above a certain altitude, which rules out their use in midcourse. Once the target is in the atmosphere, it's all-or-nothing time and nukes will probably come into play. Starfish required a multi-megaton nuke detonated at very high altitudes to do the damage it did; and ideally avoiding both conditions should reduce the overall risk. That said, when the nukes come in, you should've had your iodine tablets already…more for the nukes that land than a nuke used in an ABM system.


Stratege July 11, 2013 at 4:20 pm

There is theory that the Soviets had 25MT warheads (as an some SS-18's mod ICBM payload) for EMP offensive capabilities.


blight_ July 12, 2013 at 9:44 am

Good point, but EMP nukes are nukes not available for hitting hard targets: probably why they (and us) required so many nukes.


Robert Rangel July 10, 2013 at 1:20 pm

I know we have most of that technology in our industrial base, however once you get the Raytheons, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and the other big metal benders in place it will not happen as they will never share technology. Hit to kill is technology is a proven, as in Patriot PAC-3, and THAAD. By the way these are not new concepts or thoughts as has been kicked around for many years with no positive results. And yes this is "Rocket Science"


blight_ July 10, 2013 at 7:56 pm

"I know we have most of that technology in our industrial base"

Replace with "We have the capability to develop it, at significant cost because the demand for such capability is not commercially ubiquitous and thus leveragable at low cost"


blight_ July 10, 2013 at 1:41 pm

What would be fun is designing TEL's to carry SM-3's. They'd be much more mobile than static VLS-Ashore, but would require remote telemetry from afar. That said, we plan for this by using X-Band radar at sea and other surveillance sites to feed the missiles information on launch, and perhaps anticipate that the missiles will have the communications ability to talk to tracking systems directly to improve position fixes, without relying on a central facility elsewhere to execute sensor fusion and relay to the missile.


hibeam July 10, 2013 at 3:34 pm

If you want to protect a city build laser cannon towers on top of power sub stations. Power is not an issue. City off. Cannon on. Missile gone. Cannon off. City on.


hibeam July 10, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Hit to kill only works if you launch. We would never be allowed to launch due to the potential for harm to innocent civilians in Pakistan.


Desert Fox 1A July 10, 2013 at 4:41 pm

I do not know a lot about rocket science and how the intercepts work. How would a intercept system that acts as a "shotgun" When the target missile is in range the interceptor launches several smaller war heads in the missile's flight path which would then detonate when the missile is in range, setting up a cloud of HE bomblets that detonate on contact or close proximity to the war head Causing the entire load to detonate around the incoming warhead. These would be some what like CBU bomblets except smarter. It could work, It is just a thought.

A Proud American (since 1868) and Veteran (1969-1994)
Et secundum diversitatem unitatis pro scientiam / Unity through diversity and knowledge.
LPN/ret, HM2c(FMF)/USN, Sgt/USAR, ACM/olc, CWVet, VNeVet, GWVet, DAV/VFW Life Member


Stan July 10, 2013 at 5:08 pm

Since the intercept takes place in space at high speed the explosives are pointless and unnecessary. But a cloud of hard pellets released on an intercept course could to the job very nicely indeed in a true shotgun style. Or several smaller guided interceptors in a single GBI missile to increased the chance of success. If that latter option is feasible the government should demand it, the damn rockets are pricey.


blight_ July 10, 2013 at 7:55 pm

We've not really seen the minimum size/KE of a projectile to kill an RV. Going smaller may simply create a circumstance where submunitions hit a target, but fail to stop it.

In principle, turning old ICBM's into interceptors MIRV'ed to carry LEAP's would be a pretty interesting idea, but the Russians would freak out.


Stan July 12, 2013 at 12:59 am

The corrupt scumwad who owns Russian is easily freaked out. I can totally understand him.


Stan July 12, 2013 at 12:59 am



hibeam July 10, 2013 at 7:21 pm

I don't know why they don't talk about that approach anymore. I guess the terminal guidance problem has been largely solved. They prefer to use their payload volume and weight for better guidance circuitry and not pebbles.


roland July 11, 2013 at 1:23 am

I taught we (USA) already invested on THAAD interceptors. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zm4cfgN84XM


CJH_Fl July 11, 2013 at 7:14 pm

I can understand the Common Missile ‘Kill Vehicle from a fiscal view but as a one type kill all system it seems akin to putting all your eggs in one basket. If an adversary finds a way to defeat it there is no second option. Thinking China here and their capabilities to hack into our systems either at the design or use point.


blight_ July 12, 2013 at 9:45 am

Regarding EMP; anyone know if it's possible to put a nuclear device into a satellite package, put it into orbit, move it over a country and detonate for EMP effects?


Brian B Mulholland July 14, 2013 at 7:32 pm

It might be prudent to see if the KV being developed for Arrow-3 proves significantly better than what otherwise is available for the GBI. Arrow-3 appears closer in size and intended use to GBI than to SM-3; and GBI has so many needs that simply saving the cost of a new KV would be worth doing, to provide additional cash for other problems.


SJE July 15, 2013 at 2:39 pm

I seem to recall that the entire rationale of the F35 program was streamlining and common platform…..


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