Interceptor Test May Push Missile Defense Forward
The Missile Defense Agency in its long-time quest to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles scored a success May 30 when the ground-based mid-course defense system’s kill vehicle directly collided with its intended target.
As the first major demonstration of the system in more than three years, and the first to be declared a success since 2008, experts interviewed now say the agency appears on course to meet its acquisition targets for interceptors and ground infrastructure.
In the long term, this may also mean additional budget increases for interceptors, sensors and ground facilities, they added.
This includes a budget request to expand the current ground-based interceptor fleet from 32 to 44 by the end of 2017. The Trump administration has also requested $7.9 billion for missile defense in fiscal year 2018, slightly higher than the agency’s $7.5 billion request.
Missile Defense Agency Director Vice Adm. James Syring testified before Congress in June prior to his retirement that the agency will also deliver a total of 36 Standard Missile (SM)-3 Block IBs to the Navy in 2018 for use aboard ships and at the Aegis shore-based site in Romania. The agency also plans to deliver an additional 52 Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors to the Army. While the Aegis-guided standard missile and THAAD systems have been expanding, they are designed to hit short- and medium-range missiles rather than intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The mid-course system is intended to intercept incoming warheads in earlier phases as they travel in space, which presents the most flexible option to counter a limited attack.
The May test demonstrated the capabilities of the new CE-II Block I Exo-Atmospheric Kill Vehicle and a new three-stage booster rocket. The agency has been steadily increasing its ground-based interceptor fleet, with 16 delivered to Northern Command between 2015 and 2016, Syring told Congress.
The agency will begin deliveries of nine of these new kill vehicles with new thrusters and three-stage boosters in 2017, he said. Funds were also spent to refurbish and expand the missile field at Fort Greely, Alaska, with six additional silos.
One of the system’s key challenges has been the development of the kill vehicles, which have gone through several iterations since the interceptors were initially deployed. While the agency is building its fleet up to its initial operating levels, it has several different versions of the kill vehicle, each with varying degrees of technological upgrades and advances.
In May, the agency awarded the Boeing Co. a $1 billion modification to a previous contract to deliver four “redesigned kill vehicles,” which is an upgrade to the exo-atmospheric kill vehicle.
One of the agency’s goals is to use as few interceptors as possible to stop incoming missiles. Interceptors are usually fired in salvos of two to three missiles to destroy a target.
Besides improving overall reliability, Syring said the redesigned kill vehicle will “help address the evolving threat, enhance kill vehicle reliability, improve in-flight communications to better utilize off-board sensor data, and enhance combatant commanders’ situational awareness via hit/kill assessment messages.”
The first test flight for the new kill vehicle is set for 2020 and the first intercept is planned for 2021, followed by a second intercept flight in 2022, Syring said.
The intercept test’s success also means that the agency will finish upgrading its ground systems. These include fire control equipment, command and launch equipment, the communications network, and the in-flight interceptor communications system data terminal. Funds will also expand and improve sensor systems such as the in-development long-range discrimination radar, upgrades to the Cobra Dane upgraded early warning radars, and AN/TPY-2 mobile radars.
While the success of the intercept test has given missile defense supporters a boost, those same advocates note that 44 interceptors will not be enough.
Tom Karako, senior fellow with the international security program and the director of the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said current homeland missile defenses are too limited. Every test reduces fleet levels by one or two interceptors, which affects overall mission capability. This is compounded by a lack of spare parts and backup vehicles, he said.
In the last year, the agency has achieved a production rate of one interceptor per month. Karako said one way to reach sustainable levels of interceptors would be to add them gradually to the fleet, building up numbers to about 68 missiles by 2019 and 80 by 2020. Fort Greely was designed to support five missile fields housing 20 interceptors, he noted.
The other major challenge is the exo-atmospheric kill vehicle. Any upcoming calls for expanding the interceptor fleet will also have to cover the development, testing and deployment of more sophisticated kill vehicles, experts said.
There are currently several types in the fleet — and while they are slated to be replaced with the redesigned kill vehicle — this will take several years and present a variety of challenges, said Philip Coyle, senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
Terminal high altitude area defense system (Defense Dept.)
Another system that is in its early development is the multi-object kill vehicle, which would house several kill vehicles in one missile to maximize the success of hitting an incoming missile, especially one that has deployed decoys. However, achieving such a fully deployable system will require solving a variety of challenging engineering and science problems, Coyle said.
Unifying the redesigned kill vehicles and developing and deploying the multi-object version into the missile defense system may mean the program will be in a state of flux for years to come, Coyle added.
Along with the technical challenges, another factor that may limit any potential major expansion of the ground-based mid-course missile defense and other related systems is geopolitics. While the system is designed to counter the relatively limited number of missiles nations like North Korea and Iran can launch, there is a line where additional interceptors might be seen as a threat to the nuclear capabilities of nations such as China and Russia.
Of the two nations, China has perhaps the most to worry about, due to its smaller fleet of ballistic missiles, said Bruce Bennett, a senior international/defense researcher at the RAND Corp. A missile defense system has great utility because even a Hiroshima-scale nuclear strike on a major U.S. city would have an enormous economic impact on the nation, he said.
Up to now, Congress and various administrations have invested relatively modest amounts of money into missile defense. With the successful intercept test, this could very well change, Bennett said.
“Now that we can see that we’ve got a technology — which has at least the initial appearances of working — there could easily be a change in the decision in what you invest because of the utility of even one successful intercept, let alone many successful intercepts,” he said.
However, building and deploying additional interceptors could antagonize China. While a few dozen interceptors could address the United States’ immediate needs, once those numbers expand to a certain — and as yet undetermined threshold — other nuclear powers may view it as a threat.
This goes beyond ground-based missile defense to deployable systems such as THAAD. Bennett notes that China has put economic pressure on South Korea for hosting THAAD batteries. But it is actually the over-the-horizon radar supporting those missiles that upsets China because it can see into its territory, he said.
While he supports the deployment of the mid-course and other missile defense systems, Bennett noted that the U.S. government will have to tread carefully in how it adds and deploys not just missiles, but their sensors and support systems so as not to antagonize near-peer nations.
Although the successful test is providing impetus for missile defense supporters to call for expanding the system in the future, adding more defenses creates the potential for an arms race, said Laura Grego, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The current fleet’s technology is only at the earliest stages of credible deterrence, she said. Near-peer nations like Russia and China could easily overwhelm the missile defense system, and it would not be that difficult for nations like North Korea or Iran to do so, either, she added.
“If you’re talking about overwhelming the system, you may not even need to build extra missiles. You want to get yourself some credible decoys — something that your defense is going to have a hard time distinguishing from the real warhead,” she said.
Coyle said decoys create a problem because there are only so many interceptors that can be fired in a salvo against an incoming missile before they begin to interfere with each other. Responding with multi-warhead interceptors like the multi-object kill vehicle could lead nations to deploy multiple reentry vehicles, which have major arms control implications, he added.
The United States and Russia do not use multiple reentry vehicles by treaty because they present a major escalation of offensive capability that could overwhelm any defense, Coyle said.
While it is tempting to expand the missile defense infrastructure beyond its current settings, it is these challenges that should make its proponents halt and consider other options, Grego said.
“I think it would be irresponsible not to really understand the limits of this system as it exists. If your response to the successful test is ‘build lots more,’ then I think you’re not being clear-eyed about what it can do for you,” she said.