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Forget THAAD, check out this 1945 article talking about missile defense

Forget THAAD, check out this 1945 article talking about missile defense

This is interesting. It’s an illustration from a 1945 Life magazine article all about what a nuclear war would look like (though it wasn’t the cover story — that space was reserved for a piece about women with "big belts"). This particular drawing shows that the U.S. has been thinking about how to shoot down missiles with radar-guided missiles for nearly 70 years now.

"The only defense now conceivable against a rocket, once it is in flight, is illustrated above," reads the article. "It is another rocket fired like an antiaircraft shell at a point where it will meet its enemy. Once it had been launched, such a rocket might detect the attacking machine with radar and make its own corrections."

Sound familiar? The U.S. just announced that it’s positioning Aegis-radar-equipped, missile defense destroyers off the in the waters off the Korean Peninsula. Those ships are armed with SM-3 missiles that once airborne, receive constant data about the location of their target, an enemy missile (or satellite) from the ships’ radars until they slam into their target with 30 megajoules of kinetic energy, or the "equivalent of a 10-ton truck travelling at 600 mph," as SM-3-maker Raytheon says.

The U.S. Army meanwhile is deploying Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles to Guam. Again, these are radar-guided missiles designed to take out ballistic missiles just as they are set to reenter the atmosphere on the final leg of their voyage.

Interestingly, the Life illustration shows just such a scene.

"The enemy rocket, coasting through space with its fuel exhausted, is beginning to fall toward the U.S. The defensive rocket, racing upward under full power, is incandescent from the friction of its short passage through the Earth’s atmosphere. When the two projectiles collide, the atomic explosion will appear to observers on Earth as a bright new star."

(It’s important to note that modern ballistic missile defenses wouldn’t actually set off celestial nuclear explosions, pretty as they sound. Instead, the warhead would just break apart.)

Keep in mind that hitting a missile with another missile is extremely difficult, and as FP’s Kevin Baron points out in Killer Apps sister blog, The E-Ring, THAAD has seen its share of teething problems.

Then-Army Air Force chief Gen. Hap Arnold, a man who would go on to become the first ever five-star general of the Air Force, told Life just how difficult shooting missiles down would be. 

"Although there now seem to be insurmountable difficulties in an active defense against future atomic projectiles similar to the German V-2 but armed with atomic explosives, this condition should only intensify our efforts to discover an effective means of defense," said the general.

Seventy years later and we’re still trying to perfect such a defense.

Hat tip to Alex Wellerstein for posting the article over at Restricted Data.