North Korea, Iran’s Advances Fuel Demand for Regional Missile Defense

By Jon Harper

Advances in ballistic and cruise missile capabilities among potential adversaries are putting U.S. forces and allies at greater risk. The Pentagon is looking to industry to provide solutions to the growing problem, as it beefs up its theater missile defense shields and invests in new technologies.

One asset the Defense Department is buying is the terminal high altitude area defense system, or THAAD, which is produced by Lockheed Martin. THAAD is intended to shoot down incoming missiles both inside and outside the atmosphere with “hit-to-kill” interceptors.

The Army currently has five batteries, but the Pentagon is increasing that number. Seven are fully funded, and the sixth and seventh batteries are slated to be delivered to the Army by 2018, said Vice Adm. James Syring, commander of the Missile Defense Agency.

In its fiscal year 2017 budget request, the Defense Department is asking for $370 million to procure THAAD equipment, and an additional $270 million for research, development, test and evaluation. The Pentagon plans to continue interceptor procurement over the next five years, for a total of more than 400, Syring said.

In December MDA awarded Lockheed Martin a $528 million contract for production and delivery of additional interceptors.

While seven THAAD batteries have been funded, the Army has set the requirement at nine. “We continue to discuss with the Army that requirement and when it would need to be fulfilled and … what the budgeting year would be for that,” Syring said. “It’s not off the table in any respect, but [it is] not included in this year’s budget.”

The system is designed to shoot down short- and medium-range missiles, but the Pentagon is planning to test it against an intermediate range ballistic missile in the 2017 to 2018 timeframe. “That would be similar to what we would expect from either North Korea or Iran,” Syring said.

The Defense Department is considering permanently basing a THAAD battery in Guam, Gen. Vincent Brooks, commanding general of U.S. Army Pacific, told reporters at a breakfast in Washington, D.C. in December. “It’s first about making sure we have a continuous presence” for readiness and deterrence purposes, he said.

Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, recently told lawmakers that he expects the rotational THAAD battery currently in Guam to achieve permanent status later this year.

The United States is also interested in potentially stationing THAAD in South Korea in the wake of recent North Korean missile and nuclear tests. Washington and Seoul have agreed to hold formal consultations on the issue. “The goal … is to bilaterally explore the feasibility of THAAD deploying to and operating on the Korean Peninsula at the earliest possible date,” U.S. Forces Korea said in a news release in February.

Another key tool in the U.S. arsenal is the Patriot Air and Missile Defense System, developed by Raytheon, which gained fame during Operation Desert Storm for shooting down Iraqi Scud missiles.

The Defense Department requested $423 million in fiscal year 2017 to procure 85 Patriot missile segment enhancements, which are expected to improve the range and capability of Lockheed-built Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptors.

Raytheon is developing a gallium nitride-based active electronically scanned array radar as a potential upgrade to the Patriot system. The new technology would give the Patriot 360-degree capability to defend against missiles, manned aircraft and drones, according to a company press release. Raytheon expects to have a full-scale main array prototype operational this year.

The Aegis Combat System, manufactured by Lockheed, is also making advances. Baseline 9.C1 — the first integrated air and missile defense version — was recently certified and has already been deployed on several Navy destroyers. It is also at the Aegis Ashore site in Romania, said Jim Sheridan, director of Aegis U.S. Navy programs at Lockheed.

“We’ll continue to field that until 9.C2 in the 2018 timeframe is available for fielding,” he told reporters.

The Aegis Ashore system is part of the European phased adaptive approach initiative, a U.S.-led ballistic missile defense project designed to protect Europe from potential Iranian attacks. The site in Romania achieved technical capability declaration in December. The Defense Department has requested $630 million for phase 3 of EPAA, which will include an Aegis Ashore site in Poland. Construction of that site is slated to begin this year, with a technical capability declaration expected by the end of 2018.

The Defense Department is also considering making the Aegis Ashore test site in Hawaii an operational system. Syring recently held talks with Pacific Command’s Harris about the possibility.

“This facility was built as a test facility and nothing more,” Syring noted. “But the question … [is] a logical one in terms of what could be done? And what could it provide in terms of either sensor or engagement capability? … We’ve not made any movement or decision on this … [but] we’re discussing and considering options.”

The Standard Missile-3 interceptor is a key component of the Aegis Ashore system.

It is designed to shoot down incoming missiles outside the atmosphere. An intercept test of the upgraded SM-3 Block 1B in December against a medium-range ballistic missile was “very successful,” said Amy Cohen, director of the SM-3 missile program at Raytheon.  The first Block 2A intercept is slated for the second half of 2016, with additional tests to follow.

“That will lead us into having the 2A missile present in Poland to support the EPAA phase 3 Aegis Ashore in the 2018 timeframe,” she said.

The Pentagon plans to procure 35 additional Aegis SM-3 Block 1B interceptors in fiscal year 2017. It has also requested $106 million for Block 2A development.

Last year Raytheon was awarded a $543 million contract to produce the Block 2A. “By the time we get to … the 2018 timeframe we will have rounds from this first lot of production missiles ready to support the [European phased adaptive approach] or to support the fleet — whatever the government decides to do with these missiles,” Cohen said.

The company is also developing the Standard Missile-6, which is designed to shoot down enemy warheads inside the atmosphere in their terminal phase.

“If you have both of those [SM-3 and SM-6] … on a ship, you have the ability to have a layered defense,” said Thad Smith, manager of SM-6 business development at Raytheon. “If you have multiple raids coming down against a defended asset and they get by the SM-3s … the SM-6 will be able to get that in the terminal phase.”

The Defense Department plans to buy 125 SM-6s per year over the next five years. The total program of record is 1,800 missiles, Smith said. Full operational capability is expected in late 2016 or 2017 depending on additional test and evaluation, he added.

Hit-to-kill interceptors are not the only capabilities that the Pentagon is looking at to counter enemy missile threats. The Missile Defense Agency wants to mount a laser weapon on an unmanned aerial vehicle for “boost phase” intercept.

“The investments that we’re making are in the early stages of [determining] how do you get there?” Syring said during recent remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. There is “important work going on at the laboratories and universities and industry down this path, and we have significantly ramped up our program in terms of investment and talking about ... what else needs to be done to mature this capability.”

A viable system must be able to direct a laser beam at “much longer ranges and much higher power” than any military laser capability that exists today, he said. “It obviously needs stand-off range because this platform theoretically would not be protected” from enemy air defenses.

The directed energy weapon needs to fit on a small aircraft such as a UAV that could fly at 65,000 feet and stay aloft for days at a time. It also needs a deep magazine, a rapid retargeting capability and a power density of 5 kilograms per kilowatt or less, he said.

“To be able to field a package at those power levels and at a low size, weight and power form — the technical challenge is significant,” he noted. “What I’m trying to do is competitively drive towards a decision in 2019 with all these efforts progressing  … [to determine] is it feasible to scale this up to a platform? And I think we’ll know a lot by the 2019 timeframe.”

The missile defense chief hopes to have a laser demonstrator by 2021.

The Pentagon is also pursuing rapid-fire, ground- and sea-based lasers, electromagnetic rail guns and hypervelocity projectiles to protect ships and other assets from saturation attacks.

It would be challenging to build a sufficient number of elaborate interceptors to shoot down waves of incoming missiles, said Michael O’Hanlon, co-director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution. “For protecting airfields in Okinawa or some place, it’s going to be pretty hard to do that against a peer adversary [such as China] unless we have some kind of a game-changer technology.”

Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Defense Department needs less expensive methods of thwarting enemy attacks.

“In this missile defense space, we actually have gone for … the most elegant interceptors that exist to go after individual warheads,” he said during remarks at the Brookings Institution in January. “That is the absolute wrong end of the cost and position curve. We are doing a $10 solution for the 10-cent problem. We need a 10-cent solution for the $10 problem.”

A laser shot could cost less than $1, according to defense officials, whereas traditional interceptors can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars or more per unit. In December, the Office of Naval Research awarded Northrop Grumman a $53 million initial contract to develop a 150-kilowatt solid state laser for ship defense.

“When you think about directed energy weapons, potentially powdered cannons with hypervelocity rounds and a variety of others, where you can mass a defense against an incoming threat, whether it is [a] cruise missile or ballistic missile … your opponent is actually having to build more and more elegant weapons to try to defeat a relatively inexpensive and relatively certain defense,” Selva said. “I think we need to get into that space.”

The Pentagon also wants more advanced sensors for tracking, targeting and discrimination. In addition to seeking improvements for Aegis, Patriot, THAAD and other systems, the Defense Department is pursuing space-based kill assessment, or SKA.

The SKA project aims to put a network of sensors on commercial satellites to help detect whether an interceptor successfully hit its intended target. The increased detection capability could make missile defenses more efficient.

An MDA fact sheet on space-based kill assessment said: “The faster we can determine a threatening missile has been eliminated, the fewer the number of interceptors are needed in the fight.”

The SKA sensors, built by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, are expected to be placed into orbit in 2017. The Pentagon has requested $20 million for the effort.

That experiment “is going to help a lot in terms of informing that mission — the kill assessment information that we need,” Syring said. “That will inform what is the long-term end state” of this effort.

Photo: Defense Dept.

Topics: Homeland Security, Missile Defense

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