based interceptor platforms have all been proposed, but either the interceptor platform has to be so close to the threat launch point as to be vulnerable to attack itself, or the velocity of the intercepting projectile has to be very great. The latter is one reason for the interest in using directed-energy (speed of light) weapons for boost-phase interecept.
Today’s proposed boost-phase systems originated in the Strategic Defense Initiative era’s research programs. In more recent years, considerable effort has been expended in the development of an in-flight directed-energy platform—a heavily modified Boeing 747-400F airplane. Another option is destroying missiles on their launch pads prior to a suspected launch; this could have grave political consequences should an “innocent” missile be destroyed on the pad.
While boost-phase defense has been advocated as the most efficient way to deal with fractionated payloads and exoatmospheric (midcourse) penetration aids, it is extremely sensitive to assumptions about threat booster characteristics. Over time, boost-phase defense tends to be renamed ascent-phase defense when the kinematic realities set in. In fact, ascent-phase defense is code for engagement in the postboost or early midcourse phases of flight.
The limitations and complications of a surface-based boost-phase defense lie primarily in the concepts of operations (CONOPS), policy, time, and geography. Since the timelines for engagement in the boost-phase are extremely short, the on-site commander must have authorization from the National Command Authority to launch an interceptor immediately after a threat missile has been detected.1 Also, access must be gained to countries adjacent to the threat country in order to position a boost-phase system close enough, and at the correct geometries, to successfully engage the threat missile. Finally, boost-phase systems are only effective against countries that do not have large enough landmasses to allow them to launch missiles from deep within their territory.
The airborne laser is designed to deliver energy at the speed of light to perform the boost-phase intercept mission. Space-based lasers were also pursued in the past. Virtually no fly-out time is involved, and the beam agility is a function only of how fast the pointing optics can be repositioned. While laser weapons sound like the obvious answer, the energy that a laser can deliver on a target is limited by the power available and the aperture of the device. Atmospheric effects disturb the beam. Much has been accomplished in advancing the pointing and tracking capabilities and the adaptive optics to maintain beam quality, but some fundamental limitations remain.
1Even if the weapons release delay is assumed to be zero, the range limits make boost-phase defense infeasible.