Building defense in depth

The Missile Defense Agency promises the reality of global missile defense will be greater than the sum of its parts – but the parts have a long way to go before they fit together

Shooting down a failed satellite Feb. 20 — at a reported cost of around $60 million — might have gotten the world’s attention and eroded the lingering incredulity about some U.S. plans for Star Wars missile-defense technology. But in the $9 billion budget proposal the Missile Defense Agency submitted for fiscal 2009, the Aegis cruiser-based satellite killer is only one of two systems with any practical, immediate value, according to experts tracing the development and integration of the systems.

The sea-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System (Aegis BMD) — the integrated radar and targeting systems of one or more guided-missile cruisers equipped with Lockheed Martin’s Aegis Weapon System and the RIM-161 Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) from Raytheon Systems — had successful tests even before it was tailored for a one-time shot at a failed satellite, said Victoria Samson, research analyst at the Center for Defense Information (CDI), a division of the nonpartisan World Security Institute.

Defense analysts have raised questions about whether the Feb. 20 Aegis strike was an explosive success, as a video released by the MDA seemed to show, or whether the explosion was simply the SM-3’s self-destruction. However, a Defense Department announcement Feb. 25 said traces of hydrazine had been detected that indicated the missile had at least punctured the satellite’s tank, if not entirely destroyed the orbiter.

However, the real-world applicability of the tests, aside from the satellite shoot-down, is so far unclear, as is the road map for what would qualify it for deployment, Samson said. “MDA has made some progress, but they don’t have their milestones spelled out, and their 2009 budget [proposal] makes their plans and progress a lot less clear,” he said.

Even knowing the current stage of development and whether each phase is on schedule or not is difficult, according to a March 2007 Government Accountability Office report, “Missile Defense Acquisition Strategy Generates Results but Delivers Less at a Higher Cost.”

MDA, whose budget had been set in two-year blocks in which specific goals were funded, shifted some phases of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) development from the 2005-2006 block to 2007-2008, making it more complicated to assign costs to specific functions, the GAO report states.

MDA’s fiscal 2009 budget plan abandons the time-block approach and breaks Global Missile Defense Systems (GMDS)development into blocks of capabilities.

Each set of capabilities will be delivered by parts of a system so integrated that it is hard to separate one part from another, said Rick Lenor, an MDA public affairs officer. Defending the continental United States from a North Korean ballistic missile could involve space-based sensors, ground-based radar, command- and-control systems based in Greenland, Colorado or elsewhere, and kill vehicles or lasers developed during different stages of an evolutionary process, he said.

Existing weapons and command- and-control systems are divided according to the function MDA expects them to perform, but only three systems are mentioned in its 2009 proposal: the theater-based THAAD; global GMD system, which has 24 missiles in Fort Greeley, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.; and Aegis BMD.

Block 1 capabilities will be delivered by GMD, but so will Block 3 capabilities, with the addition of more kill vehicles and indeterminate improvements in radar systems and command-and-control, according to MDA’s budget projection. Why developments that are part of the same system should be divided into different blocks, different budget areas, and different physical locations – including plans to base some missiles in Europe – is unclear, according to the GAO report.

Overall, the capability of U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Systems (BMDS) “remain very basic,” according to a late-2007 evaluation from the Operational Test and Evaluation Directorate (DOT&E) — the division within the Office of the Secretary of Defense that evaluates the efficacy of defense programs.

The Aegis BMD, the DOT&E report states, has demonstrated “limited capability against a simple threat” but has not been tested enough to demonstrate a statistical level of confidence high enough for even limited deployment. Extensive testing and development will be necessary before it’s ready for any realworld applications.

As for the command, control and battle management command, DOT&E concludes that while it “continues to add new functionality,” it still “is not mature enough to provide an integrated, layered defensive capability against any range of threat missile.”

Aegis BMD is the closest to being classified as fully deployable, but MDA still classifies it as being in the early capability delivery phase — the earliest of three developmental phases that include partial capability delivery and full capability delivery. Full capability is the point at which the system is turned over to the military services for deployment and operation.

DOT&E mentioned deficiencies in performance of the Patriot PAC-3 — the only missile defense system so far fully released by the MDA to the military services.

The PAC-3 system uses a completely new missile compared to the Patriot PAC-2, according to reports from defense think-tank Eight interceptors occupy each firing unit, rather than four, and the interceptor is designed as a hit-to-kill vehicle with a small explosive warhead, rather than a warhead with a proximity fuse, as was the case with earlier versions. It has had problems, however.

Deployed with great publicity during the 2003 Gulf War — famous partly because of the Patriot’s high-profile role in the 1991 conflict — PAC-3 recorded nine inconclusive engagements with enemy missiles. The PAC-3 also was responsible for three friendly fire incidents that took down two fighter aircraft, killing three people.

DOD investigations blamed at least one of the incidents — the downing of a British Tornado and the death of its two-man crew — on conflicting signals resulting from the overlap of the radar patterns of multiple PAC-3 batteries that caused the Patriot’s artificial intelligence systems to identify discrepant signals as incoming missiles. The Tornado was descending in an approved safe corridor when a Patriot battery reportedly identified a “ghost” missile 10 miles away from the Tornado, on course to intercept it. After launch, the missile detected no other incoming threat, so it identified and attacked the Tornado instead.

A U.S. Strategic Command spokesman said details of progress on specific systems and integration among them was classified or unavailable.

Lenor said the agency has no information on improvements or work on the PAC-3 because that system is now the province of the military services. MDA has been making continual progress on all fronts, and the schedule for and results of tests would continue to be posted.

About the Author

Kevin Fogarty is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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