If you visit the Blue & Gray Museum in Decatur, Alabama, you’ll see a remarkable curiosity – two bullets that collided in midair during a battle in the American Civil War. What does this have to do with ballistic missile defense in the 21st century? Everything, because that's exactly what the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) being developed as part of the American Ground Based Interceptor (GBI) missile defense system is intended to do – destroy high-speed ballistic missile warheads in flight by hitting them head on.
The EKV is a sophisticated suborbital payload filled with sensors and rocket motors that is intended to detect and intercept an intercontinental ballistic missile at the edge of space at hypersonic speeds. It’s a tricky proposition, but one advantage of the EKV is that the very velocities that make hitting one missile with another so difficult also means that, if the EKV manages it, the speed of impact is so great (22,000 mph/10 km/s) that no warhead is needed to destroy the target.
The Raytheon EKV isn’t very large. It weighs only 140 lb (64 kg), is 55 inches (1.4 m) tall and has a diameter of 24 inches (0.6 m). However, it does pack quite a bit into a small package. It has advanced multi-color sensors to detect warheads, ground communications systems and a sophisticated onboard computer for target selection and calculating intercept courses. It even has its own rocket motors, though these are used only for steering as the EKV is launched by the Ground Based Interceptor missile.
Though it’s still under development, the EKV has already been deployed and in testing has carried out eight successful intercepts. U.S. defense contractor Raytheon has now been awarded a US$636 million development and sustainment contract by the U.S. government to further development and testing of systems, manufacturing and deployment of the EKV, and operational costs. Raytheon is contracted to supply the EKV to Boeing, the primary contractor on the program.