Missile Vs. Missile: The Evolution of Mobile Air and Missile Defense Systems

Missile Vs. Missile: The Evolution of Mobile Air and Missile Defense Systems
October 01, 2020

It turned In-coming into Not Coming

The Evolution of Mobile Air and Missile Defense Systems

On Aug. 5, 1990, just three days after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, Richard Howell, the director of Martin Marietta’s Patriot program, received a phone call informing him that the time for deployment had finally come. After a complex but successful development phase, the Phased Array Track Intercept of Target, or Patriot missile defense system was needed immediately in the Middle East.

During tests in New Mexico, Howell had watched as the system’s radar scanned the skies for incoming targets, calculating their incoming speed and trajectory before launching defensive missiles to intercept them. The problem? In order to intercept Iraqi Scud missiles, the Patriot required Martin Marietta’s specialized PAC-2 missiles, of which there were only three in existence.

Martin Marietta engineers, who were responsible for assembling the PAC-2s and manufacturing Patriot’s missile containers and launcher vehicles, answered the Army’s call. They immediately ramped up production, alternating between two 12-hour shifts a day. By the advent of Operation Desert Storm, the Orlando facility had manufactured more than 400 missiles for combat.

Shortly thereafter, television cameras and U.S. soldiers alike watched as PAC-2 missiles, gleaming like green lasers in the night sky, protected allied positions from Tel Aviv in Israel to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.

It was the first wartime exchange between ballistic and defensive missiles in history, setting in motion a continuing U.S. initiative to develop the world’s first multilayered air missile defense shield.

The Jet Setters

The development of missile defense systems took root during the early decades of the Cold War. Both the United States and the Soviet Union experimented with a variety of measures, including the detonation of nuclear warheads in the atmosphere to jam incoming guidance systems and the creation of radar-guided defensive missiles launched from underground silos.

But in 1968, Martin Marietta was part of the team tasked with developing a mobile system called the Surface-to-Air Missile Development program (SAM-D). Later renamed PATRIOT, the system loaded large missile canisters onto the backs of truck transports, firing highly maneuverable missiles that could match the evasive maneuvers made by nimble Soviet jets.


Taking the High Ground

In 1984, during a series of Homing Overlay Experiments (HOE) over the Pacific Ocean, Lockheed perfected “hit to kill” defensive missiles, which destroyed enemy projectiles through sheer force of impact, striking them head-on, nose to nose, instead of detonating near their target.

The merger of Lockheed and Martin Marietta in 1994 changed the discussion. By updating Martin Marietta’s PAC-2 missiles with Lockheed’s new “kinetic kill” updates, the next-generation PAC-3 missile was born, giving Patriot the ability to counter new missile-launched chemical and biological weapon threats.

The partnership also rekindled an interest in creating a tiered missile defense system capable of intercepting enemy targets at multiple points during their descent.

First manufactured in 2000, Lockheed Martin’s Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system was designed to intercept incoming missiles in the upper atmosphere, at a greater distance from the ground, where the fallout from collisions wouldn’t affect targeted areas.

The initial infrastructure of Lockheed Martin’s dual-tiered missile-defense shield was beginning to take shape when Operation Iraqi Freedom sent Patriot, equipped with its new PAC-3 missiles, back to the Middle East.


The Best Offense is a Good Defense

On March 20, 2003, the wail of warning sirens at a key command operations center in Kuwait announced the approach of an incoming enemy missile. The effects of a direct hit would be catastrophic, crippling the command center responsible for coordinating the offensive.

Inside the command center, team members put on their protective masks – and waited anxiously. The walls rumbled. The roof shook. Then came the shriek of two nearby missiles — a pair of Lockheed Martin PAC-3s — ascending to their rapidly approaching target. A loud explosion erupted overhead, marking the first successful PAC-3 engagement ever recorded.

But for all the PAC-3’s successes, after-action reports revealed that the Patriot system itself was showing its age. It was having difficulty maneuvering over the rugged desert terrain, and its radar system, which was only capable of scanning 90 degrees in any one direction, was proving to be a liability. 

What military officials needed was a next-generation missile defense system, one versatile enough to become a mobile component in a fully integrated defensive shield.


Shields in the Sky

Enter the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), a versatile and mobile missile shield built for next-generation threats. Developed at the behest of a coalition including the United States, Italy and Germany, the fully armored yet lightweight vehicle at the heart of MEADS is capable of moving swiftly alongside military units, protecting soldiers on cross-country marches through rugged terrain.

Built by Lockheed Martin, MEADS offers 360-degree radar protection, launching its new defensive missiles — an advanced PAC-3 MSE — from a near vertical position, greatly improving coverage and intercept range. Equally critical, MEADS offers “plug and fight” capabilities — the ability to instantly interconnect with key U.S. and allied sensors, radars and communications systems in a given area. 

In November 2011, during a key test in New Mexico, MEADS engaged an enemy attack from behind, firing a missile that performed an “over-the-shoulder” turn toward its incoming target, validating the system’s unprecedented 360-degree detection and intercept capabilities.

The timing of the MEADS test proved fortuitous. It came on the heels of a similar milestone in Hawaii, when Lockheed Martin’s THAAD system successfully intercepted two separate short-range ballistic missiles, one fired from land and one from sea, simultaneously.

When fully operational, the combination of THAAD and MEADS will provide a highly accurate two-tiered defense, a mobile shield in the sky designed to protect American interests near home and across the globe.

Sources and Additional Reading