Strategic Weapons: Testing Sea Based Anti-Missile Systems


December10, 2006: The latest American missile defense test may be spun as a failure, but the failure is not the end of the world. In fact, this failure will help the United States make its missile defense system more reliable in the future. How is this so? It helps if one remembers that the system is still in development - and to remember the purpose of the development phase. In this case, an incorrect setting on the USS Lake Erie, a Ticonderoga-class cruiser, caused the test to fail.

The purpose of the development phase is to work out all the bugs. In the case of a new missile like the SM-3s, the Navy's contribution to missile defense, some test launches will be used for different purposes. One might have been geared towards perfecting the guidance systems. Others might be making sure that the engines work. Others may be used to see how well ground radars track the targets and the missiles sent to intercept it. Still others will make sure that crews know the procedures.

Finding the problems in the development phase is important, particularly in an era where nuclear missiles are in the mix. In the 1960s, Polaris missiles had some problems with their W47 warheads, that were not discovered until they were deployed. The problems were bad enough that they rendered most of the warheads useless, until they were fixed.. Prior to World War II, the prototypes and development of the B-17 and P-38 also encountered problems that had to be overcome before those planes were ready to help win World War II.

Still even though these tests have been meant to find bugs, seven out of nine tests have resulted in the missiles hitting their targets. That is a 78 percent success rate. These test, however, only involve firing one missile at the incoming target. Usually, more than one missile is aimed at a target. One procedure is known as shoot-shoot-look, in which two missiles are targeted at an incoming threat. This will increase the chances of a hit.

By the end of 2009, the United States will have at least 55 SM-3 missiles operating on three Ticonderoga-class cruisers and fifteen destroyers. The tests will ensure that when the real attack comes in, that there will be a very good chance that the missile will be intercepted before it can cause harm to anyone on the ground. - Harold C. Hutchison (


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