Ariel Center for Policy Research (ACPR)


ACPR Research – Summary


Options and Issues

David R. Vaughan, Jeffrey A. Isaacson,
Joel S. Kvitky

Policy Paper No. 44, From the books:

Ballistic Missiles –
The Threat and
the Response

Arieh Stav (ed.),
ACPR Publishers and
Yediot Aharonot (Hebrew), 1998
ACPR Publishers and
Brassey's (UK) Ltd. (English),
The Threat of Ballistic Missiles in the
Middle East:
Active Defense and

Arieh Stav (ed.),
Sussex Academic Press and
ACPR Publishers, 2004

This report documents an analysis of countering theater ballistic missiles (TBMs) by using manned aircraft with onboard radar sensors in an airborne intercept role. Although current defense planning does not anticipate such a role for manned aircraft, more-advanced airborne intercept options harbor significant uncertainties with respect to development, and it remains to be demonstrated that they will prove practicable in the decade ahead. Thus, the approaches we analyzed and similar ones may be revisited as nearer-term options in the future.

Moreover, although recent discussions have focused almost exclusively on boost-phase intercept (BPI), ascent-phase intercept (API) has significant operational merits that should not be dismissed wholesale. Indeed, our analysis suggests that the development of a dual BPI-API capability should be strongly considered for the reasons cited in this report.

Our approach consists of first describing the factors that bear on the decision to develop airborne interceptors, then assessing three nominal development paths, illustrated in Table S.1. Each path is characterized by the sequence of boosters used for development and for the final (objective) operational system. The paths differ in test and development, early contingency, and final objective capabilities. The first two paths, which start with exoatmospheric API early contingency options and end with endoatmospheric BPI systems, are sometimes called "grow down" paths, implying that lower-altitude BPI may be pursued later through follow-on development. The final path, which starts with an early BPI capability, is called "direct."

Table S.1

Airborne Intercept Development Paths


Test and

Early Contingency Capability

Final Objective

Path 1:
(grow down)

Test and develop KKVs on SRAM-



Path 2:
SRAM-ASAS/ Peregrine (grow down)

Test and develop KKVs on SRAM-


BPI/API on Peregrine

Path 3: AMRAAM-Hellfire/Peregrine (Direct)

Test and develop KKVs on AMRAAM-Hellfire


BPI/API on Peregrine

NOTE: Short-Range Attack Missile (SRAM); Advanced Solid Axial Stage (ASAS); Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM).

The problem, simply stated, is to decide which capabilities to enable and to choose the most desirable development path. In what follows, the results of our analysis to inform this decision process are summarized briefly.

If the BPI requirement is limited to TBMs with ranges of 600 km or more, the desired capability can be most quickly and cheaply developed with a SRAM-ASAS system (Path 1, Table S.1). If desired, an API capability with an exoatmospheric kinetic kill vehicle (KKV) could be developed first as an early contingency capability. The endoatmospheric KKV for the BPI system would be designed for dual-mode operation, unless this is prohibited by technical barriers (e.g., size, weight, lethality). The SRAM-ASAS booster would be used for all developments and operational systems. Because of its weight and size, this booster could not be operated from carrier-based aircraft.

If the BPI requirement is to include intercepts of TBMs with ranges as short as 300 km, a more capable endoatmospheric KKV and a shorter-burn (i.e., high-acceleration) booster are required. Two distinct paths differing primarily in their early contingency capabilities are attractive:

  • In the first approach, the more capable endoatmospheric KKV would be developed on SRAM-ASAS. Assuming satisfactory progress, a shorter-burn, smaller Peregrine-type booster would be developed to be ready for the operational system. This booster would be compatible with joint (Air Force, Navy) operation, and an early contingency API capability with an exoatmospheric KKV could be developed first.

  • In the second approach, the more capable endoatmospheric KKV would be developed on AMRAAM-Hellfire, a much shorter-burn, smaller, and somewhat lower-velocity booster than SRAM-ASAS. An early contingency capability for BPI of TBMs down to 300 km range would be possible with this booster coupled with an interim endoatmospheric KKV matched to AMRAAM-Hellfire’s lower velocity. As in the first approach, this booster would be compatible with joint (Air Force, Navy) operation, and assuming satisfactory progress, the higher velocity, somewhat larger Peregrine-type booster would be developed to ensure a full-capability operational system.

In conclusion, several operational considerations deserve some attention in sorting through development options for BPI/API. For example, a long-range API system carried in bombers could contribute in a standoff mode in the early phases of a conflict before air superiority has been achieved. Operating a BPI system with a small footprint could require a large number of aircraft to maintain combat air patrol, and puts a premium on positioning the interceptor platform properly. Finally, several potential synergies between API/BPI and ground-attack operations may be exploited, including post-launch ground attack of launchers and other assets fleeing to hide and resupply sites.

A detailed examination of these issues is clearly beyond the scope of the present work. Nonetheless, highlighting them underscores the need for a broader analytical context within which the operational viability of airborne intercept may be understood properly.