In the early hours of April 14, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran executed an aerial missile strike on Israeli soil. Initial reports suggest that the attack involved approximately 300 drones and several dozen ballistic missiles. Israeli air defense systems were promptly activated, resulting in the successful interception of the majority of the incoming threats. However, despite these efforts, some Iranian missiles and drones reached their intended targets, including the Ramon airbase in the Negev desert. Additional reports indicate that a small number of ballistic missiles and drones evaded interception measures.

Of particular interest is a video circulating on social media capturing what appears to be the exoatmospheric interception of an Iranian ballistic missile. Exoatmospheric interception entails the interception of a ballistic missile outside Earth’s atmosphere, typically during its midcourse phase. This phase occurs after the missile is launched and before it reenters the atmosphere. The interception aims to neutralize the missile before it releases its payload.

The process of exoatmospheric interception is complex and involves multiple stages. Initially, the incoming missile must be detected, often through radar or satellite surveillance. Subsequently, an interceptor missile is launched, guided by data from ground-based radar and potentially onboard sensors. The interceptor must then accurately locate and collide with the target missile in space, akin to hitting one moving bullet with another.

Achieving successful exoatmospheric interception demands precise calculations and timing. The interceptor must match the speed, trajectory, and altitude of the incoming missile to ensure a collision. Given the rapid velocities involved, this task presents considerable challenges.

If confirmed, the April 14th event could potentially mark the first instance of a real conflict involving exoatmospheric interception, which is significant given that such interceptions have historically been confined to theoretical scenarios or exercises.

Let’s examine the specifics. Both Israel and the United States possess systems capable of conducting exoatmospheric interceptions. Analysts and observers suggest that the primary contenders for this interception could be either the Hertz 3, also known as Strela 3, from Israel, or the SM-3 interceptor utilized by the U.S. Navy.

The Arrow 3, developed jointly by Israel Aerospace Industries and Boeing, is a key component of Israel’s missile defense arsenal. It is specifically engineered to intercept and neutralize long-range ballistic missiles while they are still outside the Earth’s atmosphere, with a focus on countering intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Employing a ‘hit-to-kill’ strategy, the Arrow 3 intercepts targets by direct collision, utilizing advanced radar systems and a kinetic kill vehicle. Its interoperability with the U.S. radar network enhances its detection and tracking capabilities, contributing to a broader global missile defense framework.

On the other hand, the U.S. Navy’s SM-3 interceptor, also known as the Standard Missile 3, is deployed on naval vessels and is designed to intercept short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Operating in three stages, the SM-3 maneuvers through space utilizing onboard sensors and ground-based radars to adjust its trajectory. In the terminal phase, the missile’s ‘kill vehicle’ separates to engage and destroy the incoming threat upon impact.

The SM-3 Interceptor: A Strategic Defense Asset

The SM-3 interceptor, a formidable component of the U.S. Navy’s arsenal, is purpose-built to neutralize short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Unlike conventional warheads, the SM-3 relies on sheer kinetic force to eliminate its targets. Imagine intercepting a bullet with another bullet—the SM-3’s “kill vehicle” achieves precisely that, striking threats with the force equivalent to a 10-ton truck hurtling at 600 mph1.

Operational Scenario: Intercepting Ballistic Missiles

When a ballistic missile enters the exoatmosphere, the SM-3’s kill vehicle detonates upon impact. This detonation disintegrates the missile, creating a cloud of debris. This debris comprises remnants from both the missile and the interceptor. Despite following the original missile trajectory, the absence of atmospheric drag and the explosive forces cause it to disperse widely.

The missile’s warhead, if not obliterated during the initial collision, may continue along its original path. However, the explosion’s force could alter its course. Even if the warhead remains partially intact, the likelihood of successful detonation is significantly reduced. In essence, the SM-3 system minimizes the threat posed by ballistic missiles, safeguarding critical assets and regions.

The interception of a nuclear warhead in the exoatmosphere offers significant advantages, particularly in mitigating the risk of nuclear fallout. By detonating the warhead in space, far from Earth’s surface, the dispersal of radioactive material occurs in space rather than the atmosphere, reducing potential harm to the planet. However, intercepting such a warhead generates debris that could threaten satellites and other orbiting objects, potentially leading to the accumulation of space debris encircling the Earth, posing risks to space assets.

Regarding the recent interception of the Iranian threat in the exoatmosphere, it’s crucial to highlight that this operation wouldn’t be the first combat mission for the Israeli interceptor system. While it could mark the Arrow 3’s inaugural exoatmospheric interception, it has previous experience in intercepting ballistic missiles. In November 2023, Israel confirmed that the Arrow 3 successfully intercepted a ballistic missile over the Red Sea, although this interception didn’t occur in the exoatmosphere. According to Israeli reports, the missile was launched from Yemen by the Houthis, likely as a gesture of solidarity with Hamas and an attempt to divert Israeli attention from military operations in Gaza.