Financial Windfall Expected for Missile Defense Programs

By Jon Harper
Aegis weapon system

Photo: Defense Dept.

The Pentagon’s missile defense programs are expected to receive a major infusion of cash in the coming years as North Korea and others engage in nuclear saber rattling.

In recent months, the Trump administration and lawmakers have signaled their desire to boost spending in this area in the wake of intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear tests by Pyongyang.

The results of the Defense Department’s latest ballistic missile defense review, which is expected to help shape spending priorities, is slated to be released sometime in February. But officials have already hinted at what it will include.

“What you will see … in the [review] is emphasis on the capabilities that we have and how we’re making that robust, and then where you will see investments,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan told reporters at the Pentagon in December.

Additional funding is needed across the board, he suggested. “You’ve got homeland, you’ve got regional, theater and strategic [defenses]. So it will be … more depth around those categories and what we’re doing to expand our capability.”

President Donald Trump’s new national security strategy, released in December, listed missile defense as a top priority.

“As missiles grow in numbers, types and effectiveness, to include those with greater ranges, they are the most likely means for states like North Korea to use a nuclear weapon against the United States,” it said.

In November, the White House took the unusual step of issuing a budget request amendment calling for approximately $4 billion in additional spending on missile defense and related efforts in fiscal year 2018. It requested more funding for a variety of missile interceptors, sensors and command-and-control capabilities for protecting overseas personnel as well as the United States.

Investing in interceptors isn’t enough because they can’t work without the other components of a missile defense system, Deputy Director of the Missile Defense Agency Rear Adm. Jon Hill said during remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Enemy missiles must be detected and tracked before they can be destroyed. “You can’t shoot it unless you can see it,” he said while emphasizing the importance of improving sensors.

Having a robust command-and-control and battle management capability is also critical. “That’s everything from tasking the sensors to initializing the weapon and launching” the interceptor, he said.

“If you’re going to increase your capacity you need to … worry about all of those pieces because a missile doesn’t launch itself,” he said. “A sensor doesn’t do you a lot of good if you don’t have a missile that’s paired with it, and if you’re not controlling it … then you have a problem,” Hill said. The agency is looking to increase capability across all those major areas, he added.

Lawmakers are also calling for more funding. The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act authorized a $12.3 billion topline for the Missile Defense Agency, $4.4 billion more than the Trump administration initially requested last spring before the latest North Korean ICBM tests, and $3.8 billion more than was ultimately appropriated and reprogrammed for fiscal year 2017. That would be about a 45 percent bump.

“Spending on missile defense steadily declined in the Obama years, but this topline budget [proposal] exceeds the previous high-water mark of $11 billion under then-U.S. President George W. Bush in 2007,” Matthew Kroenig, a senior fellow with the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, said in a recent policy paper.

As of press time, Congress had yet to pass an annual appropriations bill for fiscal year 2018, but analysts said the signals coming from lawmakers and the White House bode well for ballistic missile defense in the coming years.

“There is no guarantee that Congress will appropriate all of the money that it authorizes in the NDAA, but both Congress and the Trump administration seem intent on throwing more money at BMD,” Eric Gomez, a defense analyst with the Cato Institute, said in a recent policy paper.

The new national security strategy said the United States will boost regional missile defense capabilities by working with Japan and South Korea to move toward a more robust area defense capability in the Asia-Pacific. The United States will also help Middle East partners procure interoperable missile defense systems and other capabilities to thwart Iran, it added.

The United States deployed a terminal high altitude area defense battery, or THAAD, to South Korea last year amid much controversy. It also reached a deal to sell $15 billion in THAAD equipment to Saudi Arabia.

The Aegis weapon system is another technology that could see a boost. The U.S. Navy and close allies like Japan have the system deployed on their ships to help track aerial threats and enable interceptors like the Standard Missile-3 to shoot them down. In addition to protecting regional assets and deployed troops, it can also contribute to homeland defense, Hill noted.

A forward-deployed Aegis system can achieve an early detection of an enemy missile launch and cue systems based in the United States, he said. “A ship in the Sea of Japan that’s looking in the right area can pass that track data to the ground-based missile defense system [in the continental United States] to expand the battlespace of that system. It allows them to detect a lot earlier and to shoot earlier.”

A ground-based version, known as Aegis Ashore, is operational in Romania and another is slated to become operational in Poland later this year. The forward-deployed systems are currently intended to shoot down intermediate-range ballistic missiles launched by Iran that could threaten European allies.

However, the number of sites could increase further in the coming years. The United States is in talks with a number of nations, including Japan, about potentially installing an Aegis Ashore in their countries, Hill said.

While the Trump administration is looking to boost regional missile defense capabilities, defending the United States appears to be the top priority.

“Our fundamental responsibility is to protect the American people, the homeland and the American way of life,” the national security strategy said. “A layered missile defense system will defend our homeland.”

"It is estimated that North Korea may have up to 60 nuclear warheads and that number will likely increase."

The ground-based midcourse defense system is currently the primary means of defending the nation from ICBM attacks. It is designed to shoot down incoming enemy missiles during their midcourse phase as they fly through space. As interceptors approach their target, they are designed to launch a kill vehicle that would collide with the enemy warhead and destroy it kinetically. The method is known as hit-to-kill.

Officials want the Missile Defense Agency to expand the quantity and quality of its ground-based interceptors. The Pentagon has been increasing the number of GBIs deployed at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, from 30 to 44. The sites have a total capacity of 104 GBIs, and policymakers are calling for an additional 20 to be deployed in the coming years. Congress has directed Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to select a location on the East Coast or in the Midwest where a third site could be built, Kroenig noted. That could require even more interceptors to be deployed.

“It is estimated that North Korea may have up to 60 nuclear warheads and that number will likely increase,” Kroenig said. “When considering that the United States may need to expend multiple interceptors for each incoming warhead, the math is not currently in our favor.”

But interceptors come with a high price tag — about $100 million each — Kroenig noted. Officials are seeking to make the GMD system more cost-effective.

“When you look at where we’re going in terms of technology innovation, where we’re going with maturing technology, it is about getting on the right side of the cost curve,” Hill said.

That’s why one of the top priorities is improving the system’s reliability with the redesigned kill vehicle, or RKV. If the military can shoot down an enemy ICBM with the first shot, it won’t waste precious interceptors and money by having to fire additional ones, Hill noted.

The program is currently in the design/development phase, to include parts qualification, software development and ground testing activities. The preliminary design review was completed last year and the critical design review is scheduled for late 2018. The first flight test is scheduled for fiscal year 2020, MDA Director Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves said in an email to National Defense.

The RKV “will be built in modules with considerably fewer parts, making it more reliable, producible and maintainable than any previous kill vehicle,” he said. “It will also have a number of additional capabilities that will make it significantly more effective in countering emerging missile threats.”

An industry team led by Boeing that includes Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are working on the development effort.

The acquisition timeline could potentially be shortened, Hill said.

“The intent would be if we increase the numbers of ground-based interceptors … that those would be all-up rounds that include a reliable [redesigned] kill vehicle,” he said. “The timeline of when we’re going to deliver those would have to be accelerated faster than the original plan.”

That is doable but the MDA still wants to take a fly-before-you-buy approach, he said.

“We’re looking at those accelerated timelines to make sure that we do it right, that we get the requisite number of ground tests and flight tests in so that we can deliver with confidence a kill vehicle … that the warfighter can trust,” he said.

Another project in the works is the multi-object kill vehicle, or MOKV.

“At present, each GBI can intercept a single incoming warhead, but an MOKV … would place multiple kill vehicles on a single interceptor missile, enabling it to destroy multiple incoming warheads,” Kroenig explained.

The program is currently in the technology risk reduction phase which is scheduled to run through fiscal year 2021. The development and production phases will occur once the critical technology risk reductions are complete, Greaves said.

The MOKV could potentially be inserted into other types of interceptors besides GBIs such as the SM-3, Hill said.

Boeing, Lockheed and Raytheon each have contracts for technology risk reduction work.

Another area of interest is using airborne lasers for boost-phase intercept.

“That’s coming downstream,” Hill said. “In parallel with our kinetic interceptors we’re making lots of investment in directed energy so that we … [can] put a beam on a boosting object and take it out.”

The fiscal year 2019 defense budget request is expected to be delivered in February. Harrison expects a windfall for missile defense.

“It’s almost a near certainty that missile defense is going to get more and more money, and more for everything” including GMD, Aegis, SM-3, THAAD and Patriot, he said. “And more for probably new systems too,” he added.

CSIS missile defense analysts Tom Karako and Wes Rumbaugh don’t see interest in these types of technologies waning anytime soon.

“Missile defense funds are likely to grow — a lot,” they said in a recent policy paper.

“Much remains to be done before paper budgets are converted into actual appropriations. But the missile threat from North Korea and others are not going anywhere, so prospects for increased attention in the near term seems high,” they said.

Topics: Missile Defense, Strategic Weapons

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