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In a hypothetical scenario, a missile launches from an unnamed aggressor. Sensors in space pick up the activity and alert a network of other detectors, on land, in the sky and on the oceans that determine exactly what it is. If it is confirmed to be a missile, interceptor missiles launch and attempt to knock it out. If high-altitude interceptors fail to hit the target, lower altitude missiles will alight and shoot toward the ballistic missile, during the few minutes it plunges to earth.

Illustration by Cate Meyers / S&S

A guide to missile defenseAttack missile launches fall into three phases and the missile defense system has defenses for each:

Up, up and away

The boost phase is when an attack missile is launched and rockets toward the sky. It lasts about 3 minutes, until it stops accelerating on its own. This is where defense officials would like to stop the missile, at the earliest chance.The defense in this phase would be an airborne laser, one attached to a plane, or kinetic energy interceptors that shoot up from the ground or sea. Neither is currently developed.Across the heavens

The midcourse phase is when a missile stops thrusting and sails on a trajectory. It can last up to 20 minutes. The missile can shoot out decoys to throw off defensive missiles.At this phase, early warning sensors including X-Band radars would be tracking and analyzing the missile, passing information to a command center and to interceptor missiles, which would deploy, find, track and destroy the hostile missile outside the earth’s atmosphere.Free falling

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