WASHINGTON — Both teams competing to develop the Missile Defense Agency’s Next-Generation Interceptor are planting deeper roots in Huntsville, Alabama, as part of an effort to try to speed NGI’s fielding as intercontinental ballistic missile threats from North Korea and Iran grow.

Last year, MDA chose two teams Northrop Grumman working with Raytheon Technologies and Lockheed Martin with Aerojet Rocketdyne — to design a replacement for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system’s Ground-Based Interceptors.

There are 44 GBIs in the ground with the majority in silos at Fort Greely, Alaska, and the rest at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California.

The current interceptors aren’t equipped to counter a missile that could contain multiple kill vehicles or decoys that make the defeat process more complicated.

“We are like light speed, working very closely with [U.S. Northern Command commander] General [Glen] VanHerck and his team to ensure that the two contractors that we put in place last year about this time, March of 2021, are tracking to get the first emplacement around the 2028 time frame,” Vice Adm. Jon Hill, MDA’s director, told the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee last month.

“Right now, both are performing so well that they are anticipating, and our team believes, that we’re tracking towards 2027,” Hill said. “That means flight testing earlier. That means ground testing earlier. That means we have a better sense of where we are as we move forward to upgrade the numbers of interceptors and the capability that we’ll bring forward.”

Both of the competing teams are setting up shop within close proximity to MDA’s Huntsville headquarters.

Lockheed Martin broke ground on a new Missile System Integration Lab in Huntsville exclusively for the development of NGI and will be co-located with the company’s engineering team. The company is spending $16.5 million to build the new 25,000-square-foot facility, which will open in 2023.

The facility will house early development and integration work, testing of the all-up round and communications systems as well as ground testing “that will allow us to really examine the performance of the interceptor before we fly it,” Sarah Reeves, vice president of the NGI program at Lockheed Martin, told Defense News in an interview just ahead of the June 27 groundbreaking.

“This is really necessary to help us meet and, where possible, accelerate on our schedule for delivery of this critical capability to the warfighter,” she said.

The facility will allow high-fidelity hardware and software in-the-loop integration to verify system requirements, Reeves explained, in a process not unlike what the company undertook for its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system development.

But what’s new with this facility, Reeves said, is “there’s going to be a digital data environment that’s included,” using technology like augmented and virtual reality.

“One of the things that is unique about our NGI program is really this program was born digital,” Reeves said. “That is going to really help us deliver this capability to the warfighting on an accelerated schedule.”

Northrop began building two large facilities in Huntsville to house the core NGI team, Lisa Brown, vice president of the company’s NGI program, told Defense News in a June 27 interview.

Systems engineering and “the guts of the combined software factory between Northrop and Raytheon,” will be moved into the facilities along with the program office in December, Brown said. MDA will have full access to the software factory and other aspects of the program, she noted.

“Another key attribute of our program is that we’re not PowerPoint deep. We’ve started manufacture of hardware and major components,” Brown said.

Northrop announced on June 16 it had begun fabrication of a key part — the “throat nozzle” for the NGI solid rocket motors.

Both teams have reported they successfully completed initial baseline reviews at the prime and subcontractor levels and completed system requirements reviews toward the end of last year.

Both Lockheed and Northrop are moving toward a preliminary design review in late 2023. The contracts for both teams — worth $1.6 billion in total — last through the critical design review phase of the program.

MDA has yet to lay out when it expects the program to reach the critical design review.

NGI is the result of the Pentagon canceling in August 2019 its Redesigned Kill Vehicle program — which would have upgraded the GBI to be able to more reliably pursue more complex threats. RKV struggled with insurmountable technical issues resulting in delayed schedules and cost increases.

Raytheon, as a subcontractor Boeing, was the developer for the RKV program.

Roughly eight months after the cancellation of the RKV program, MDA launched the NGI effort.

In the FY22 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress increased its oversight of the program and is requiring more transparency when it comes to MDA flight and ground testing.

An independent cost estimate from the Defense Department’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office determined last year the total price tag to develop NGI could come to roughly $13 billion, while procurement, operation and sustainment could total to a little more than $2 billion.

According to the MDA’s FY23 budget documents, $1.8 billion has already been spent on the program through FY22. The initiative is estimated to cost $10.4 billion through FY27, the documents indicate.

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts from Kenyon College.

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