At the Defense Department, an average weapons program will be overseen
by four different program managers, eight different acquisition
executives and seven secretaries of defense during 11 annual budget
It is difficult to shepherd any development program through this
much turbulence, and it has proven to be even more difficult to
sustain emerging technology programs through the long period required
to bring them to fruition.
A significant case in point is the U.S. government's effort to
develop missile defense systems.
One major difficulty in turning ballistic missile defense technologies
into usable systems is the long period required to develop and demonstrate
them. For example, Henry Swift, of the Santa Barbara Research Laboratories,
published a landmark paper on long wavelength infrared detectors
in 1961-but their application in a ballistic missile defense interceptor
was not demonstrated until June 1984.
Since 1991, the year the House of Representatives passed the "theater
missile defense initiative," the U.S. ballistic missile defense
program has shifted its focus from technology to acquisition. This
is not meant as criticism, because the program needed to adopt a
sense of urgency in order to field defenses for U.S. troops. Allied
casualties from Scud missile attacks during Desert Storm drove that
message home with dramatic effect. However, the emphasis on fielding
defense systems using today's technology has severely eroded resources
needed to cultivate the technology needed for the future.
Recent reviews of technology programs that have worked in the past
have pointed to practices aimed at defending technology budgets,
using available dollars efficiently and smoothing the transition
to weapons applications.
One such practice is the reliance on ad hoc studies that correlate
ballistic missile defense mission objectives, the threat, system
architecture and enabling technologies. These studies typically
are short and involve government and industry participants, who
construct a rationale for what technologies should be pursued, quantify
their potential payoff and lay out a roadmap for their application.
Another practice is technology demonstrations. Past ballistic missile
defense demonstration programs include the homing overlay experiment
and the extended range interceptor (ERINT). These demonstrated the
feasibility of killing non-nuclear missiles within and outside the
atmosphere. These experiments-conducted out of the media glare-provided
a bridge for the technology to enter product development without
the painful consequences of prematurely entering full-scale development.
A recent General Accounting Office (GAO) report provided a revealing
analysis of the problem of introducing technologies into major defense
programs before they have reached the necessary level of maturity.
GAO presented convincing evidence that technologies that are rushed
into major defense programs result in cost overruns and schedule
delays. A more successful industry practice involves maturing technologies
in a laboratory environment before injecting them into product development
programs. The GAO said that defense programs often adopt technologies
prematurely in order to keep a funding stream.
Evolution of Technology
The National Missile Defense exo-atmospheric kill vehicle (EKV),
now in development by the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Organization
(BMDO), is the product of a long period of evolution that began
in the 1970s. It is a descendent of the homing overlay experiment
and the exo-atmospheric reentry intercept system (ERIS), both of
which demonstrated successful intercepts in experimental tests at
the Kwajalein Missile Range, in the Pacific Ocean.
The EKV is the centerpiece of the National Missile Defense system
currently being considered for limited deployment to protect the
United States against enemy ballistic missiles. It belongs to a
class of interceptors called hit-to-kill, a daunting defense strategy
to achieve zero-miss distance, to obliterate the target by direct
It is a sophisticated kill vehicle, featuring a sensitive infrared
seeker to acquire and track the target, smart onboard computer hardware
and software to perform discrimination and homing guidance, and
a divert-and-attitude control system to maneuver the vehicle into
a collision path with the target.
The technologies embodied in the EKV represent the cutting edge
of U.S. competence in electro-optical systems, computer hardware
and software, communications, propulsion and materials.
The EKV has undergone two intercept flight tests. The first hit
the target, and the second missed because of a cryogen plumbing
problem. It was scheduled to undergo a third intercept flight test
in early July. It should be noted that 27 hit-to-kill intercept
tests have been conducted during the past 16 years. Some of these
tests involved theater missile defense systems such as the Army's
THAAD, and 11 of those tests were successful. That amounts to a
38 percent success rate.
However, for those tests where the interceptor reached the end
game homing basket, the picture is much brighter.
When the system worked well enough-the interceptor got close to
the target, opened its eyes and locked on to the target-11 of 13
tests were successful. The message is that when quality control
and other non-technological problems do not hamper the system, the
test results are encouraging.
It should also be noted that other technologies that are relevant
to missile defense-such as radar and battle management command and
control-are equally advanced. Today's solid state radar technology
provides powerful sensors for ballistic missile defense systems,
offering unprecedented sensitivity, bandwidth and reliability. The
battle management, command and control systems manage the complex
battle between the enemy missiles and the interceptors, in a stressing
time domain that limits the intervention of a human in the loop.
As impressive as today's ballistic missile defense technology is,
represented here by the EKV, the past pace of technology and the
growth of the threat demand continual upgrades. There is no shortage
of opportunities to improve the quality of ballistic missile defense
systems by systematically planning upgrades. There are credible
threats that lend urgency to the need to exploit those opportunities.
Recently, an exo-atmospheric intercept technology study was conducted
to identify technology growth paths for the National Missile Defense
and for theater systems. One objective of the study was to analyze
approaches to improved discrimination-distinguishing between debris
and decoys and the real target-which is the most challenging function
for exo-atmospheric systems.
The study quantified the payoffs of some advanced technologies.
The following examples of technologies for potential upgrades to
the EKV were identified:
Cooled Optics-By cooling the optics of the EKV seeker, similar
to the current practice of cooling the seeker focal plane array,
the acquisition range can be increased by about a factor of four.
This means that the time available to conduct discrimination and
other functions also increases proportionally.
Onboard Ladar (laser radar)-It is feasible to incorporate a ladar
on the EKV to complement the passive optical homing sensor. The
ladar could improve the onboard discrimination capability of the
EKV against responsive countermeasures, such as replica decoys (decoys
that mimic the shape of the reentry vehicle).
Lethality Enhancers-It is possible to incorporate a lethality
enhancer on the EKV in order to improve its performance in those
situations where perturbing influences draw the EKV away from a
One recent technology initiative is Project Hercules, a BMDO program
under the direction of Lt. Col. James Myers. This program seeks
to develop robust algorithms to counter evolving threats. The program
has the objective of developing algorithms that can be handed off
to other programs, such as THAAD and National Missile Defense, to
improve their capability to discriminate and perform other functions.
Another program that offers growth opportunities for future ballistic
missile defense systems is the atmospheric interceptor technology
(AIT) program, which is tri-service. AIT aims to improve the capability
of ballistic missile defense systems that operate within the earth's
atmosphere, such as THAAD and the Navy area defense system. AIT
also seeks to double average velocities, resulting in increases
of defended areas by about a factor of three. These performance
improvements are relevant to cruise missile defense as well as ballistic
The AIT program is composed of four critical technology areas:
a strapdown seeker design, a cooled window, a solid divert-and-attitude
control system and a composite material airframe.
Directed Energy Weapons
Much of the discussion has centered on kinetic energy weapons, specifically
those that have a legacy of development and experimentation to achieve
But a new class of missile defense weapons is now emerging-directed
energy weapons. Popular during the era of the Strategic Defense
Initiative, this class of weapon has been quietly in development
for the past several years, and now appears poised to enter the
stage of experiments and demonstrations.
Various types of directed energy weapons are being investigated:
space-based lasers, airborne lasers and a ground-based concept called
the theater high energy laser program. The dominant type of laser
being applied in these concepts is the chemical laser. Additionally,
there are promising developments in solid state lasers.
It is reasonable to project that directed energy weapons will,
in the future, become effective elements of U.S. missile defense
Jess F. Granone is director of the space and missile defense technical
center at the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command. William
A. Davis Jr. is a consultant with more than 46 years of experience
in missile research and development.