The red buttons been pushed and a nuclear warhead is rocketing towards us. What are our chances of blasting it out of the atmosphere? Is it really all over once that button is pushed or is there one last chance of destroying the missile before it destroys us? Can a third party destroy a missile mid-flight?

Today we take a look at the US ground-based defense system and see what would happen in the advent of a ballistic missile strike from a hostile nation. Is the US set up to defend itself against such an attack? That’s what we’ll find out, in this episode of The Infographics Show – Could you stop a nuclear missile.

Firstly our nuclear defense strategy depends largely on what type of nuclear missile we are dealing with. We have two types – ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, and each present their own set of problems. Let’s look at the ballistic nuclear missile first. A ballistic missile follows a chiefly unguided trajectory to deliver one or more nuclear warheads to an arranged target.

They are guided for a brief period of flight before gravity and air resistance take over. There are several types of ballistic missiles including Tactical missiles, Theatre ballistic missiles, Intermediate range, (between 3,000 and 5,500km) and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ranges greater than 5,500km). Nuclear ballistic missiles can be launched from air, land, or sea. The sequence of a Minuteman-III launch is as follows.

1) The missile is launched from its 1st stage boost motor.

2) Following a minute, the 1st stage drops off and the stage 2 motor ignites. The missile shroud is ejected.

3) Two more minutes, and the stage 3 motor replaces the stage 2.

4) Post-Boost Vehicle separates from the rocket.

5) RVs are deployed and

6) nuclear warheads detonate.  To knock out one of these bad boys post launch presents a tough technical challenge, as the time to hit one of these is during the boost phase before the warhead separates after exiting the atmosphere. During this phase, a high-speed anti-missile is possible, but the main problem is the 5 minute time window we have to intercept it, which when you factor in the speed of acceleration the missile is moving at, is no piece of cake.

So for any realistic anti-ballistic-missile, you only have about 2 minutes to get it from the launch platform to the target before the nuclear missile is traveling too fast to catch. Surveillance would need to be such that you know the second the enemy has launched a nuclear missile and you would also need a launch platform for your anti-nuclear missile weapon no more than 100 miles from the target. To intercept a nuclear missile after the separation from the boost rocket, or during re-entry presents tough technical challenges.

Cruise missiles are a different kettle of fish and while interception is proportionately more possible than with the ballistic, detecting the launch of a nuclear cruise missile and tracking them is trickier. Being small enough to evade detection by most radar defenses, these missiles can be destroyed by a modern fighter aircraft, if detected.

A cruise missile is a guided missile used against terrestrial targets. This missile remains in the atmosphere and flies the major portion of its flight at constant speed. They are designed to deliver a large warhead over long distances with a high accuracy rate. Countries who we know have nuclear cruise missiles include China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States.

In the United States, a constellation of sensors and 36 interceptor missiles act as a GMD (or ground-based midcourse defense system.) The idea is that as soon as a ballistic missile is launched, radar systems detect it, and sensors track the device and interceptor missiles fired, once the nuclear missile leaves the atmosphere. But due to the problems mentioned about the difficulty hitting a nuclear missile in the early stages of deployment, we don’t really know if this would work. Since 1999, the ground missile defense has been tested 18 times, but has never, thankfully, been tested under real life conditions where the timing and location was not known in advance.

Let’s take a look at a potentially real scenario of North Korea launching a ballistic missile heading for the States. The device would be picked up by infrared satellite sensors that would detect the missile’s path by following the heat signature as it launches from earth. Once the rocket burns out, powerful radar will track the missile from below. If the target appears to be aimed at the US, the aforementioned GMD (ground-based midcourse defense system) is activated. The missile launched from North Korea would take about 30 minutes to reach the US mainland, and much of that period is spent outside the atmosphere. It is in this midcourse phase that the GMD would try and intercept. Up in space, the burned out boosters detach and dismount, releasing the warhead. There could also be a cloud of debris and decoy devices implanted to confuse the interceptors.

The military would launch 3 or 4 interceptors for each incoming threat to have a better chance of hitting the warhead among any decoys. Booster rockets burn out to reveal the Kill Vehicle. This is a new piece of technology designed to hunt down the warhead in space. The Kill Vehicle uses its sensors along with satellite guidance and an ultrasensitive ground radar to distinguish the warhead from other decoys and space junk, and closes in on the missile’s path and hopefully tracks it down before blasting it. Whether this is realistic defense strategy will hopefully not be tested, as most sane people can end international disputes diplomatically.          

And perhaps the best defense against nuclear Armageddon is the prospect of the devastating effect an all-out nuclear war will have on the world. This is perhaps the real reason no real attempt has been made, post WWII,  to initiate a nuclear attack campaign between nations so far in history.

So, what do you think are the chances of a nuclear missile being fired at us? Would we be able to intercept such an attack? Let us know in the comments! Also, be sure to check out our other video called Russia vs the United States – Who Would Win?! Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!

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