WASHINGTON — The Missile Defense Agency’s plan to field an interceptor against incoming hypersonic weapons has hit a funding snag, the agency’s director said Wednesday.
MDA in November selected three companies to design a Glide Phase Interceptor that would hit enemy hypersonic missiles during the glide phase, or the flat path they take while en route to their targets. MDA awarded Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon Missiles and Defense other transactional agreements for an “accelerated concept design” phase of the program, Defense News reported at the time.
Asked about the path forward for the three companies developing their solutions, MDA Director Vice Adm. Jon Hill told Defense News on Wednesday he had little news.
“The best answer I can give you in this environment today: … We live in a world right now where we don’t have current year appropriations, and we also don’t have insight into the following year’s topline. So unfortunately, that throttles this program,” he said after speaking at an American Society of Naval Engineers conference.
“It’s not a technology issue,” he added. “It is purely a financial problem. And so I can’t say much more other than the fact that we’ve got three great proposals on the table that we’re evaluating now, and that’s going to inform us as we move forward to the next step.”
MDA in 2020 paused its efforts to develop a counter-hypersonics missile, with Hill saying at the time that the organization needed to refocus and seek a near-term solution that could feed into a more “elegant” solution down the road.
What MDA came up with builds off its current infrastructure for ballistic missile defense. Hill said in his Feb. 2 Combat Systems Symposium speech those existing sensors and communications systems could see hypersonic missiles, but not well enough to create a proper fire solution.
“We’re not at zero” today, he said. So MDA and the U.S. Navy took a close look at what the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system could and couldn’t do against hypersonics. An analysis of alternatives outlined what was still needed for sensing, command and control and weapons, Hill said.
A video Hill played at the conference outlined a potential engagement: Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensors would detect a missile launch, as well as the first-, second- and third-stage separation. The HBTSS system continuously feeds data to the Ballistic Missile Defense System Overhead Persistent Infrared Architecture, or BOA, which uses the real-time data to create a track of the hypersonic missile. The Aegis BMD system on a Navy destroyer receives the track, plans a solution and fires the glide phase interceptor, which Hill said would need even greater speed and agility than the hypersonic missiles it would knock down. That glide phase interceptor would be connected to HBTSS for updated tracking data once it left the ship, and the interceptor would kill the threat before it got too close to its intended target.
Hill said some of the key pieces are already in place, but MDA and its joint force partners are trying to build and field what’s left.
A slide in his presentation noted MDA and the U.S. Space Force plan to launch HBTSS into orbit in fiscal 2023 for a demonstration.
The biggest gap, then, remains the interceptor.
Today, targets such as aircraft carriers aren’t totally unprotected. The destroyers that sail with them and protect the capital asset are equipped with the Standard Missile-6, which can act as a terminal interceptor — meaning they stop the missile on its final approach to the target, rather than farther away during the glide phase. The ships would retain this SM-6 terminal intercept capability going forward, but Hill said adding the glide phase interceptor to the ships’ magazine would push the missile defense shield farther away from high-value assets like aircraft carriers.
Jen Judson contributed to this report.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.