The US Missile Defence Agency has assigned a further $442m for work on "multiple kill vehicles", designed to let a single American interceptor rocket destroy several orbital targets. The multi-kill capability is seen as vital if the nascent US missile shield is ever to become a credible defence.
Friday's contract award was to Raytheon, to work on their MKV-R concept. Rival US aerospace'n'weapons behemoth Lockheed are also developing a suborbital kill-swarm package, MKV-L. Both schemes would use an interceptor rocket stack to lob a package of "exo-atmospheric kill vehicles" up into the path of objects on suborbital or low-orbital trajectories. The kill vehicles would then separate out, each getting in the way of a different target and so destroying it as much by its own kinetic energy as by that of the interceptor.
Here's a nifty concept vid courtesy of the missile defence people and YouTube:
As the vid explains, Raytheon favour a distributed command system where any of the smartkill modules can be in charge. Lockheed prefer a more conventional setup with a "carrier" command vehicle using a telescope detector directing its accompanying swarm of space kamikaze droids. The idea is that if one plan doesn't work, the other still might.
The objects destroyed would normally be warheads, decoys and so forth - a "threat cluster" - launched by the ICBMs of sinister enemy powers. However, as was shown this summer, a working exo-atmospheric kill vehicle can also quite easily knock out a satellite in low orbit.
The idea of the MKVs is to deal with one of the great weaknesses of the current US missile-defence arsenal, which deploys only single kill vehicles. An ICBM can launch multiple warheads and multiple decoys, meaning that the US might need scores of interceptor rocket stacks to deal with a single enemy missile launch. That's a game not even America can afford to play. But working MKVs could ease the numbers somewhat, letting the defence forces cope with a small enemy missile fleet - if not a major one like that of Russia, able to fill the skies with "threat clusters" tens of thousands strong.
However, the MKV is far from reality yet; and while the Standard naval interceptor seems to work quite well, the heavier and higher-flying landbased mid-course jobs have a shadier reputation. There are many in America who doubt the value of the entire missile defence concept.
With a new Democratic president soon to enter the White House, more Democrats in Washington and a financial crisis gathering steam, the missile shield may find its cash flow a bit tighter quite soon. ®