Washington: An air-to-air missile, fired by a US F-16 fighter, destroyed a sounding rocket in its boost phase for the first time this week and in the process tested a new missile defence concept, according to US spokesmen.
The Net-Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE), used by the F-16 fighter, seeks to arm fighter aircraft or drones with missiles fast enough to intercept a ballistic missile as it lifts into space. As per the requirements of this system, the aircraft would have to get to within a 100 miles of the launch site to catch the ascending missile in the first two to three minutes after launch.
Even as this is beginning to sound like a hit and miss affair, spokesmen for the US Missile Defense Agency said the system could prove very useful in a short-range combat situation against short and medium range missiles.
Though the Pentagon has two other boost phase intercept systems, the Airborne Laser and the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, under development, these are still years away from being ready. Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the US Missile Defense Agency said, "So it does give us an initial boost phase capability even though it is a much shorter range missile, and you have to be in the area of the missile launch to be effective," Lehner said.
The test Monday at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico involved an F-16 fighter that fired two modified AIM-9X missile at an Orion sounding or research rocket. While the first destroyed the rocket, the second recorded the interception, the missile defense agency said.
"A second AIM-9X launched during the test observed through its seeker the intercept of the target by the first and was also on a trajectory to intercept the target," the agency said.
Besides special seekers, AIM-9X and AIM-20 AAMRAM are fitted with a new liquid propellant second stage to give it the burst of speed needed to catch a ballistic missile in its boost phase.
Raytheon Missile Systems, which developed the NCADE, said it "provides a revolutionary, low-cost approach to interceptor development and acquisition."