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This whole episode doesn't make sense to me. Earth spotted Mars' stealth ballistic platforms, knocked down 4 of them, but a 5th launched a missile at Earth before it got destroyed. Earth let the lone missile burn all its way towards itself while doing nothing, and then only started shooting down the MIRVed warheads after they are deployed, missed 1 out of 20, and South America got nuked big time.

If Earth can intercept individual MIRVed warheads, why not do it earlier when it is still one big missile? And why not do it even further out by sending one or dozens of its own missile and intercept the Mars missile Patriot-vs-Scud style? The Mars missile is clearly hostile, accelerating towards Earth fast. Earth has a right to defend itself, so even if Earth shoots then Mars can not do anything about it.

With the above reasoning, does this whole first-strike capability even make sense when you are dealing with Earth (or Mars)? Earth can easily deploy thousands of missiles around LEO in the way it deployed its Planetary Defense Railgun.

A possible reasoning supporting the scenario depicted in the episode is that the lone missile shuts down its engine on most of its way towards Earth and is stealthy. If you try to enter the atmosphere the way the episode showed the warheads would burn up like meteors. But if interpreted this way the terminal velocity of the little warheads is actually pretty low and even easier to intercept.

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  • As it is currently, we only have about a 50% successful test rate for our missile shield. And that is when dealing with ranges of only a few hundred miles. The distance from Mars to Earth, the size of the missile, the ability of the missile to change course if needed, even only slightly would be enough, they have to wait until it is closer to hit the missile.
    – Daishozen
    Nov 16, 2020 at 21:18
  • Thank you for posting this question. As somebody who read the books and has considered watching the show, the fact that this occurs convinced me not to watch it :P Nov 18, 2020 at 23:48

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There are probably two main reasons:

  1. Technical

It is very, very hard to shoot something relatively small moving very, very fast, using state of the art stealth technology. To make things even more difficult, the Mars has put the missiles in a close proximity to Earth, so there is a very little time to guide the counter-missile against the attacker before the missile splits into separate warheads.And, last but not least, effects of the counter-missiles explosions is very diminished in void - even with a nuclear warhead, you have to hit pretty close to target (you can read NASA whitepaper about it).

Please also note, that Mars has a significant technological advantage over Earth, which Earth only manages to balance by the number of the raw resources - in the "Epstein" short story in the universe, someone compares Mars and Earth to the situation with Germany and USSR during WW II: German tanks were much better, but Russians have much more of them, Mars has better nukes, ships and marines but Earth has so much more of them. This is the reason that the tentative balance is being held in check.

It was like a nuclear attack from a submarine off the coast - created exactly to give the opponent as little warning as possible. Shooting multiple counter-missiles could help... probably, if we assume that they won't start interfering with one another. But that leads to another issue:

  1. Politics

If you start stockpiling missiles, your opponents might get nervous and do the same, creating this way an arms race which no one really wants (besides its obvious danger it is also very costly). You could argue that you are putting a defensive counter-missiles just for "your own protection", but that looks like a blatant lie, because history has displayed many, many times that increasing your protective armament was often a prelude to an offensive campaign and because your opponent might start thinking that you are stockpiling an offensive weapons too.

So what is the best solution? Mutually Assured Destruction - yes, the best protection against enemy's nuclear missiles are your own nukes pointed at them. If both sides know that they will be completely obliterated in case of war they won't want to go to war. You don't have to develop expensive (and dubiously effective) counter-weapons and you don't need to rush into an open arms race.


In the comment, the OP mentioned that:

we see ships can shoot down incoming torpedoes -- torpedoes that have often burned hundreds of thousands of kilometers thus accruing incredible speed -- with guns. This is much harder than detonating a nuke next to the incoming missile

I need to point the difference between "torpedoes" and ballistic missiles and between space ships and planet Earth:

  • Even very advanced torpedo will be much simpler devices that hyper-advanced first strike nuclear missile, with the former being not much more than self-guiding "bullet", the latter would be more akin to an autonomous space ship with its own countermeasures against incoming fire. The reason for that is the cost of failing to hit: if a torpedo fails to connect, you can send another one and at the worst case, the attacking ship is destroyed by the returned fire. If the first strike nuclear missile fails to destroy your opponent's ability to return fire, you might lose a whole planet in the returning nuclear strike.
  • While we don't know the exact size of the space ships in the show, we can roughly guess that Rocinante is probably much less than 100 m long and the biggest combat ships would have maybe a few kilometres in length. You can easily cover such area with defensive, anti-torpedoes weaponry so your whole ship is protected. In contrast, you can't really do it with the whole planet that has so much bigger surface to protect leaving much bigger gaps through which your enemy can slip.

TL;dr

it is much harder to destroy an advanced ballistic missile that has been designed to slip through your defenses than a simple ship-to-ship torpedo, especially when you can't build as much defensive structures that you'd like.

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  • But in the TV show we see ships can shoot down incoming torpedoes -- torpedoes that have often burned hundreds of thousands of kilometers thus accruing incredible speed -- with guns. This is much harder than detonating a nuke next to the incoming missile. Nov 17, 2020 at 5:09
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    @MeatballPrincess not necessary - torpedoes are (relatively) cheap and mass-produced. Such first-strike weapons as those Marsian ballistic missiles would be state-of-the-art weapons that need to pass through a very tight defensive line, probably with their own countermeasures (or counter-countermeasures?) against the incoming defence fire. Since their role is to disable the chance to return the fire, they NEED to be resistant to the anti-missiles. And Mars has a technological advantage over Earth.
    – Yasskier
    Nov 17, 2020 at 5:40
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    @MeatballPrincess also please note the relative size of a space ship and the planet Earth: nothing stops you to put a few dozen anti-torpedo weapons on your hull every few meters, but you can't do that with such huge object as a planet - there gaps between the countermeasures will be much bigger, hence the chance for a missile to pass through are much greater.
    – Yasskier
    Nov 18, 2020 at 5:16

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