Homeland Missile Defense Projects Remain in Limbo

By Jon Harper

Uncertainty surrounds the future of homeland missile defense at a time of budget constraints and technology challenges.

Efforts to protect the United States from ballistic missile attacks are being driven by North Korea’s pursuit of long-range rockets and concerns that Iran is moving in the same direction, U.S. officials have said. Pyongyang has already conducted three atomic bomb tests, and recently claimed that it tested an even more powerful hydrogen bomb. The Pentagon is worried that North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles could potentially be armed with nuclear warheads.

“Those threats continue to put at risk the peace and security … of the United States,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said during a recent trip to South Korea.

The Defense Department is in the process of beefing up its missile shield by adding more ground-based interceptors to the existing site at Fort Greely, Alaska. Additional interceptors are located at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. But the Pentagon has yet to endorse lawmakers’ proposals for the creation of a third missile defense site in the eastern United States.

Under congressional prodding, the department has been conducting environmental impact studies of four potential basing areas: Fort Drum, New York; Fort Custer training center in Michigan; Camp Ravenna joint military training center in Ohio; and the SERE East [survival, evasion, resistance and escape] training area in Maine. That work is expected to wrap up in 2016, and the Missile Defense Agency has been tasked by Congress to select a preferred location in case policymakers decide to move forward with the project.

Having a site in the eastern United States would offer some operational advantages because it would buy time and space for intercepts, experts said.

It “allows for the opportunity of shoot-look-shoot,” said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Kenneth Todorov, former deputy director of the Missile Defense Agency, during a recent panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It gives you a second shot opportunity should you have the means to determine that you … didn’t hit [the incoming missile] on the first try” after using the interceptors in Alaska.

But defense officials have balked at the expected price tag. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the cost would exceed $3 billion, and Pentagon officials have argued that the money could be better spent on other projects.

“It comes at a significant cost,” said retired Lt. Gen. Richard Formica, former commanding general of U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command. “It was my recommendation then and would remain my opinion today that [with] the limited missile defense dollars that we have available to us, priority is on [improving ground-based interceptor] reliability” as well as enhancing sensors and doing more testing.

Missile defense budgets have been relatively flat in recent years, as the Pentagon has grappled with constraints on its topline funding.

Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at CSIS, said it is anyone’s guess as to whether or not a third site will be built.

“The only honest answer there is, ‘I don’t know,’ and if somebody tells you they know, don’t believe them,” he said. “Is the budget there? And what kind of predictions do you have about the future [threat]?”

U.S. officials aren’t just worried about ballistic missiles. Cruise missiles — such as the ones that Russia has developed — are also raising red flags. The Russian military recently launched such weapons from ships stationed in the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas against militants in Syria.

“They were making a point,” said retired Navy Rear Adm. Archer Macy, former director of the joint integrated air and missile defense organization. “I think this was an opportunity for the Russians … to demonstrate a capability that, ‘Hey, you know we’ve had these things, they really work … [and] we’re going to use our stuff’” when it is advantageous.

The joint land attack cruise missile defense elevated netted sensor system, known as JLENS, is viewed by some officials and analysts as a promising tool for countering cruise missiles fired at Washington, D.C.

Built by Raytheon, it features radar and other electronics attached to tethered blimps that have been stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. The system, which was recently going through testing and evaluation, was designed to detect airborne threats and relay that information to military aircraft or other defense assets that could destroy them. The large aerostats — which are nearly as long as a football field — can fly at 10,000 feet and stay aloft for up to 30 days, according to Raytheon.

“It allows us to look over the horizon farther and … is persistent,” Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, said in an interview with National Defense. He envisions JLENS as potentially “a critical piece of the system of systems that we need to defend the National Capital Region against the cruise missile threat [like the weapons] that the Russians shot in Syria.”

But the program was suspended in November after one of the blimps broke loose from its tether and drifted away to Pennsylvania, where it eventually landed after damaging civilian property. The incident inspired mocking Internet memes that went viral on social media. Twitter users referred to it as #Blimpgate and used other unflattering hash tags.

The program will remain on hold until investigators figure out what went wrong. After that, its future is uncertain.

“You look for the root cause of what happened … you look for mitigation measures that you can put in place, and then you make a risk-based decision on whether you want to go flying again,” Gortney said. “That’s where we are.”

“I’m confident we will come up to a solution … [and] un-pause the test to see if this is going to be able to fill a critical capability gap for us,” he added.

The NORTHCOM/NORAD chief did not provide a timeline for when the investigation would be completed.

Raytheon declined an interview request to discuss the program. “The investigation into the Oct. 28 JLENS incident is ongoing and, unfortunately, we won’t be able to comment further until it wraps up,” Keri Connors, a communications manager at Raytheon, said in an email.

Some observers see great value in JLENS’ sensing potential, but question the use of a tethered blimp.

“I love the capability that it brings [but] I don’t really love the platform that it’s brought on,” Todorov said. “What happened to JLENS was unfortunate. … It gets a lot of bad press and people you know yucking it up a little bit over the balloon that flew away. I get it that the platform is not great but … let’s focus on the capabilities that are brought by the platform.”

Karako said the Pentagon should consider other options for deploying the sensors, including long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles. “There’s probably a variety of ways that this kind of elevated sensor looking down can be positioned,” he said. “I think at this point we ought to be agnostic about the platform … and getting back to completing the test of the sensor and looking for various ways to mount it — maybe it’s an aerostat and maybe it’s something else.”

The Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a non-profit group, said JLENS might need to be jettisoned. It called for the development of an alternative cruise missile defense system if that scenario comes to fruition.

“If the JLENS cannot be assured to stay tethered or deflate automatically should the tether break, then it simply should not be deployed or made operational,” the group’s Chairman Riki Ellison said in a written statement after the aerostat came loose. “Abandoning the JLENS program should these efforts to fix the system seem unattainable or perhaps unaffordable would still require the U.S. government to develop, test and eventually deploy another solution for the 360-degree air defense of the National Capital Region.”

The Defense Department has spent about $2.7 billion on JLENS. Despite the recent embarrassment, and lingering questions about the program’s cost and capabilities, some experts believe the system should be given more time to prove its worth.

“I just thank God that we didn’t stop the first time that Orville and Wilbur Wright crashed … an airplane,” Formica said. “I’m not suggesting that JLENS is going to become the next airplane, but I am suggesting that we don’t throw the capability away because it had an unfortunate problem. Let’s fix that problem and then … test that capability, [see] what it provides and then make a decision based on that.”

If JLENS resumes and performs well in testing, moving forward with it could force tradeoffs if missile defense budgets remain relatively flat.

“If at some point we determine that it is a useful system, it just becomes another part of that tension because it means more investment in capability, force structure, manpower — and someone has got to pay that bill,” Formica said.

Macy said the next presidential administration will likely conduct a comprehensive missile defense review to assess threats, consider options for countering them and determine the best path forward.

The CSIS panelists supported the Defense Department’s ongoing efforts to improve the “hit-to-kill” vehicles that are responsible for destroying incoming warheads by colliding with them at high speeds. But they were wary of relying solely on that technology to defend the homeland from ICBMs. The United States needs to be looking at other technologies and operational concepts including taking out enemy missiles “left of launch” before they are fired, they said.

“There will never be enough interceptors” to guarantee that all incoming enemy missiles would be shot down, Formica said. Interceptors are also expensive to build, he noted.

Technologies that could contribute to the mission include non-kinetic tools such as cyber and electronic warfare, the panelists said. “Left of launch is far more than just Scud hunting,” Formica said, referring to U.S. efforts to locate and bomb mobile Iraqi missile launchers during the First Gulf War.

Karako believes there will be new opportunities for industry in the coming years. “The missile threat isn’t going away. Everybody pretty much recognizes that,” he said. “The set of industry solutions to that problem I suspect are not going anywhere either. … The next hill, if you will, is how to do it differently … in addition to staying the course on what we’re doing now.”

Directed energy technologies could have transformative missile defense applications, he said. “Modestly-sized directed energy weapons on the spine of a high flying, persistent UAV … really have the potential to revolutionize our concept of operations and our capacity for dealing with foreign missile threats.” 

It “appears that they’re making some pretty interesting progress” in this field, he added. “In doing so you really begin to move toward a pretty interesting solution set for these problems that have really occupied such a significant amount of our energy over the last several decades.” 

Yasmin Tadjdeh contributed to this story.

Photo: Defense Dept.

Topics: Missile Defense

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