The Kinzhal hypersonic missile launched by a MiG-31K interceptor.

The A1 Interceptor — The Worst Enemy of ICBMs and Hypersonic Missiles Is Now Their Speed — Part I

Dumitru Popescu
Commercial ECOROCKET
5 min readJan 10, 2024

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As I write these lines I’m reading that Russia attacked Ukraine using a massive wave of missiles including the Kinzhal hypersonic ones.

The hypersonic missiles seem to be the next big thing in the modern warfare.

Their terminal speed above Mach 5 makes them difficult to intercept by the current anti-missile systems. They sit next to the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) in terms of capability to penetrate the missile defences. There are however differences between the two types of missiles.

Firstly, the ICBMs are designed for strategic strikes, while the hypersonic missiles, significantly lighter and more flexible in terms of deployment, are designed for sub-strategic strikes.

The mobile RS-24 Yars ICBM.

While the Multiple Independently-targeted Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) deployed by the ICBM also fly hypersonically but on a ballistic trajectory, the hypersonic missiles exhibit a guided flight path. This makes them even more difficult to engage with the current missile defence systems. Furthermore the hypersonic missiles are using additional methods of guidance not only the inertial guidance, as in the case of ICBMs, which makes the hypersonic missiles more precise.

A MIRV is mounted on a Minuteman III ICBM.

However, the ICBM holds significantly substantial advantage in regard to their strike range, and the number of warheads per missile.

While a hypersonic missile has a single warhead, an ICBM can deliver to target a multiple number of warheads mounted in a MIRV. And almost always the MIRVs are nuclear.

Once a MIRV is deployed from its bus, even a single ICBM could overwhelm an anti-ballistic system through their share number, let alone their hypersonic speed, as in the case of the Russian RS-28 Sarmat capable of deploying 15 MIRV. And the Sarmat is far from being the only MIRV capable ICBM. China, France, Great Britain, India, Israel, North Korea, US, all have MIRV-capable missiles.

So, both the hypersonic missiles as well as the ICBM through their MIRV, although different in terms of deployment capabilities and strike strength, pose extremely serious threats to any missile defence system.

LGM-118 Peacekeeper MIRV test.

In order to combat these threats a very small number of countries like Israel, Russia, US implemented anti-missile systems able to engage ICBM and hypersonic missiles.

In the case of ICBM threats the defence systems are able to intercept the missiles during their mid-course and terminal phase and less realistically in their boost phase.

One problem with these anti-ballistic systems is that they are extremely expensive. The financial aspect is the main barrier to put into service a sufficient number of anti-ballistic interceptors to cover for the complete number of ICBMs that could be launched against the country that is deploying the interceptors.

Even the countries that hugely invest into their military are not able to afford this.

This is the reason why even in the case of the US, the number of their land-based mid-course interceptors is significantly lower than the number of ICBM and SLBM (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles) that Russia can launch against the US in the case of an all-out nuclear war.

If the available number of mid-course interceptors is insufficient, in the case of the interceptors designed for terminal phase the situation is even worse.

As we’ve discussed previously, once an ICBM deploys its MIRV, and suddenly a single target “splits” into 10–15 targets, then the anti-missile systems will have an even more difficult problem to tackle.

Technically, the two main challenges for the anti-missile systems are related to the fact that the ICBM and hypersonic missiles are flying at extremely high speeds during their mid-course and terminal phase, while the MIRV is also releasing decoys.

Although during mid-course the ICBMs are flying at speeds in excess of 7km/s, their impact speed is in the range of 2.3 km/s. This hypersonic terminal speed makes it difficult for any anti-missile system to intercept.

The defence system needs to track the target, and the interceptor needs to intersect its path to kinetically hit or detonate into the target’s proximity, a target that is half a meter in diameter, less than 2m in length, it flies with 12.000–24.000km/h at interception altitudes. It’s challenging to say the least.

This is the reason why only a handful of countries with sufficient technological capability were able to develop ballistic and hypersonic missile interceptors, as all of them are “fighting” to defeat the ICBM’s and hypersonic missile’s main defence, which is their speed.

So, what we can conclude so far is that the anti-ballistic and hypersonic interceptors are:

  • extremely expensive;
  • not available in sufficient numbers;
  • the firing solutions are difficult to acquire taking into account the interceptor’s initial ground position in relation to the incoming target, the interceptor’s mechanical limitations, and the fact that the targets fly at extremely high speeds and the room for error in the interceptor’s flight path is extremely low.

So, obviously, here at ARCA we saw that there are some shortcomings related to these interceptors and we’ve asked ourself if we can put on the market an interceptor able to tackle these shortcomings.

Firstly when we’ve decided to build a ballistic and hypersonic missile interceptor we’ve realised that we should take a different approach compared to what everyone else’s doing, for three main reasons:

  • the current anti-ballistic interceptors are already covering high altitudes;
  • the sell price of a conventional track to kill interceptor is going to be high and limiting for most countries due to the involvement of state of the art technology;
  • there are some test and combat-proven high altitude interceptors on the market and the time to adoption of a new product that is doing similar things is going to be long.

So, with all these in mind we’ve concluded that ARCA’s and General Astronautics interceptor should:

  • have a low development cost by using the already available hardware developed at ARCA, leading to a low sale cost;
  • cover a low altitude where no other current interceptor operates;
  • use a different approach to the track to kill method.

So what resulted is an A1 interceptor that:

  • is using the EcoRocket Universal Propulsion Module (UPM) already existing at ARCA;
  • is equipped with the heaviest warhead ever mounted on a ground to air interceptor;
  • operates at low altitude;
  • let the target come to the interceptor and not the way around;
  • use the ICBM’s and hypersonic missile’s extremely high speed into its advantage.

So, when everyone else is saying that the ICBM’s and hypersonic missile’s main defence is their high speed, we are saying that the ICBM’s and hypersonic missile’s high speed is their worst enemy.

Wait, what?

Stay tuned as I’m going to explain this in the next article.

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