WASHINGTON — The U.S. Missile Defense Agency aims to get its first Next-Generation Interceptors to replace the Ground-Based Interceptors, which make up the United States’ homeland ballistic missile defense system, by 2028. But the agency’s director thinks it can happen sooner.

Two teams — a Northrop Grumman and Raytheon team, and Lockheed Martin with Aerojet Rocketdyne — will go head-to-head to develop the NGI after each were awarded a development contract to mature technology and reduce risk.

“If you look at the timeline to get to the first emplacement in 2028,” which is the government’s schedule, “through competition, we know that date is going to come to the left,” Vice Adm. Jon Hill said at the McAleese & Associates conference on May 12.

With the abrupt cancellation of the Redesigned Kill Vehicle in 2019, which would have upgraded the warhead of the GBIs, the pressure is on to ensure the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System has interceptors capable of destroying ever-evolving intercontinental ballistic missile threats from North Korea and Iran.

Because of fielding concerns, Congress went as far as directing the Pentagon build an interim interceptor and field 20 of them by 2026 through the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act; that is, unless the technology is determined not to be feasible and if an interim system can not be fielded at least two years earlier than NGI would be fielded.

Hill was confident with how the NGI’s flight test regime is coming together. MDA is running a separate targeting program in parallel and is preparing for a flight test that will happen before the agency makes a low-rate production decision.

One of the problems with the GBI program is that the MDA was experiencing repeated test failures with the interceptors while simultaneously burying them in the ground in silos at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

Hill has advocated for conducting an intercept flight test before going into production to drive down risk. He previously said that will happen in the 2025 or 2026 time frame.

Additionally, the MDA wants to conduct a salvo test before moving into full production, Hill said.

What has yet to be determined, he added, is when to end the competitive phase of the program. “We’ve got a really strong strategy,” he said, “and the [Defense] Department’s going to have options as it goes.”

With two teams “you have options,” Hill said. “You want to have a double production line? You want to have a single production line? Where we do the downselect will depend on the state of development.”