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Commentary: Maintain Perspective on Missile Defense

Apr. 28, 2014 - 02:56PM   |  
By FRANCIS MAHON   |   Comments
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As North Korea continues to surprise us with missile developments and launches, and as we ponder just when an Iranian missile threat to the homeland will become a reality, it is appropriate to make changes to the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system.

This is the direction the US Missile Defense Agency is taking in its recent budget request that contains $1.9 billion for redesigning the current exo-atmospheric kill vehicle, a new radar and improved discrimination software, and initiating a new common kill vehicle program. All are sound changes that require Congress and the public to appreciate the path that brought us here, and not overreact to recent test failures or budgetary diversions.

Today’s missile defense system is a product of a fast-track development process that pushed the technology envelope and went from the birth of the program to fielded capability in only eight years. By any measure, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system’s unique operating and testing environments are extreme and its achievements to date are remarkable, as other major programs normally spend 15 or more years in development.

Consider that the National Missile Defense Joint Program Office was established in 1997, and the driving threat at the time was North Korea’s long-range Taepo Dong missile, which first flew in 1998. In response, Congress passed the Missile Defense Act of 1999 and directed the development of a missile defense capability for the US homeland.

Subsequently, the events of Sept. 11 and our adversaries’ advances in ballistic missile capabilities spurred the presidential directive to develop a layered set of missile defenses for deployment in 2004.

To make the demanding timeline, the Ballistic Missile Defense Office optimized available sensors, technology and designs. The lessons from Operation Desert Storm in 1991 showed the current warheads weren’t good enough to kill a short-range missile warhead, let alone an intercontinental ballistic missile’s re-entry vehicle. Many called for a hit-to-kill technology, just as others claimed it wasn’t achievable.

The Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) system’s hit-to-kill interceptor got off to a rocky start, then eventually had a successful intercept in 2000. The PAC-3 would later prove the technology in combat during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Today’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), also a fast-track hit-to-kill system, had six consecutive flight test failures and was facing termination when it was restructured. Its development schedule slipped to the right and underwent a redesign. THAAD missed the 2004 deployment date, but subsequently, it had 13 consecutive successful intercept tests and is fielded and deployed today in Guam.

Navy Area Defense, Navy Theater Wide and the Airborne Laser also were missile defense programs in the 1990s; however, two of them didn’t pan out and were terminated. The Navy Theater Wide was a little late, but it became today’s successful Aegis missile defense program with the Standard Missile-3 as its hit-to-kill interceptor.

Hit-to-Kill — “hitting a bullet with a bullet” — is probably the greatest technological leap in recent missile defense advances. But in the late 1990s, it was extremely nascent and challenging. Consequently, our missile defense developers plowed new ground in the most challenging operational environment with little technology to harvest and little time to field the urgently needed capability.

In fact, their concept of an evolutionary approach, based on available 1990s technology, was the only course of action.

Today’s missile defense challenge will be to prioritize focus and funding to refine, upgrade and evolve the kill vehicle and supporting sensor suite. The current budget’s $1.9 billion for these efforts is impressive, but so are the technical challenges and distractions that could divert funding. If sequestration doesn’t go away, or the program receives other decrements, how will they prioritize these investments?

A short-term kill vehicle redesign must be the first priority, followed by the radar and discrimination software. The common kill vehicle concept should be pursued, but it must not dilute the focus on the kill vehicle redesign, as it postures us to outpace the threat of 2020.

With the threat evolving, the Congress and public must appreciate the imperfect but swift fielding of our initial missile defense capabilities. Evolving and refining our Ground-based Mid-course Defense system is consistent with the initial strategy and urgency of action so that the homeland has a more robust missile defense shield. ■

Retired US Army Maj. Gen. Francis Mahon is a former head of the Army’s Air and Missile Defense Command and former director of test at the US Missile Defense Agency.

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