WASHINGTON — The Missile Defense Agency’s fiscal year 2017 budget request of $7.5 billion preserves priorities it set last year but also continues to tee up several science and technology experiments to get after more complex and evolving threats.
The agency is seeking $72 million in weapons technology development to build "the technological foundation" for a next-generation laser system that can defeat both advanced threats and raids, according to an MDA budget document. A Directed Energy program will continue to develop two types of lasers that are powerful but compact.
Another initiative would spend $90 million to put an advanced sensor into a multispectral targeting system and the MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft combination. The agency would also award contracts to design a laser that could fit on a UAV to be used in boost-phase missile defense, according to the budget document.
"Really, our focus on lasers continues down the path of scaling up in power, scaling down in size for both the discrimination ... and the potential scale-up to a high-power laser someday," Vice Adm. James Syring, the MDA director, said during a Pentagon budget briefing this week.
The agency is focused on several different laser technologies in the laser realm and has brought industry in to ask them for help to develop concepts and potential applications, Syring added.
"The testing that we're doing with the Reapers and the unmanned aircraft in particular is not just lasers, but it's sensing capability, which you need to go with a laser to provide the initial cue," he said.
MDA is also requesting $20 million for the Space-based Kill Assessment (SKA) experiment that takes a commercially hosted sensor network that will provide "kill assessment data" for the Ballistic Missile Defense System. The commercial host is expected to launch the SKA network in fiscal 2017, according to the agency.
Another $72 million would go toward developing the Multi-Object Kill Vehicle program that addresses a gap in the current Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) System designed to protect the homeland from possible intercontinental ballistic missile threats from North Korea and Iran.
The MOKV would enable the ground-based interceptors within the GMD system that are buried in Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, to engage numerous and complex threats earlier in the flight trajectory.
Before the agency gets to an MOKV, it is investing in a redesigned kill vehicle for the GMD system that will increase the performance of the current system, Syring said. MDA is asking for $274 million to continue its development and expects to deploy the new kill vehicle in the 2020 time frame.
The agency is seeking $1 billion for the current GMD system in order to increase the number of ground-based interceptors from 30 to 44. By the end of fiscal 2017 all 44 GBIs will be in place.
The MDA is also reaching key milestones in fiscal 2017 for the European Phased Adaptive Approach, which is the US contribution to NATO's ballistic missile defense meant to counter threats emanating from the Middle East. The first phase was deployed in 2011 — an AN/TPY-2 radar placed in Turkey.
The second phase, setting up an Aegis Ashore system in Romania, reached a "technical capability declaration" in December 2015 and is expected to reach operational capability this summer.
The third phase, building another Aegis Ashore in Poland, will need $630 million in fiscal 2017 in order to reach a similar technical capability declaration in fiscal 2018.
One area of the MDA budget where the agency took risk was in interceptor procurement, Syring said, particularly with the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and Aegis.
One THAAD battery has been deployed to Guam since 2013 in response to the North Korean threat in the Pacific. MDA continues procuring THAAD equipment and wants to buy 24 interceptors for a total of $370 million in fiscal 2017, Syring said. By the end of fiscal 2017, the agency will have delivered 61 additional interceptors to the Army for a total of 205.
But while North Korea continues to ramp up possible nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities — most recently alarming the US and allies in the Asia Pacific by successfully launching a satellite into orbit over the weekend — the agency does not yet have plans to build out the rest of the Army's THAAD requirement of nine batteries.
So far, the agency has only funded the building of seven batteries and will have delivered them all to the Army by 2018. Interceptor procurement will run through 2021 with over 400 interceptors total, Syring said.
But while the possibility of deploying a THAAD battery in South Korea is moving beyond rumor mongering to serious talk, the MDA and the Army continue to assess the requirement, when it might be fulfilled, and what the budget would need to be to meet it, according to Syring.
Building more batteries, he said, is "not off the table in any respect, but not included in this year's budget."
According to Tom Karako, a missile defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: "Demand continues to outstrip supply for all the regional missile defenses, and the latest about a potential THAAD battery for South Korea raises the question of how we will actually meet Army and Navy requirements for THAAD, Aegis [standard missile] and Patriot."
The MDA also continues to look at extending THAAD’s range capability but is not speeding up the process, Syring said.
"We started last year with concept developments, not only for that system but other systems as well that are important for that region and other threats we're concerned about," he said.