The birthplace of U.S. missile defense, which also gave birth to the intercontinental ballistic missile and the Atlas rockets that put men on the moon is located in the heart of Alabama, in a humble town called Huntsville. It was here that the nation’s missile defense community came together this week to bring forward the current and future capabilities and concepts that are making our nation and world safer. Leading this effort, out front and in person were the two current four-star Combatant Commanders of the United States’ Strategic and Northern Commands (STRATCOM / NORTHCOM), along with one of our leading civilian executives, the honorable Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology Heidi Shyu, who oversees the DOD’s investment budget into missile defense. This significant representation of our nation’s top leadership exemplifies the priority the U.S. Government places on missile defense as part of our national security today. Following them were the leaders directly responsible for the development of these systems; the Director of the Missile Defense Agency, Vice Admiral James Syring , and the Commander of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, Lieutenant General David Mann.
For the first time in the modern era, missile defense has become politically acceptable, and is being strategically thought out, priority funded in R&D, directed and technically considered to defeat complex threats from a mass number of missiles from multiple nations. This is a significant paradigm shift from the past decade of policies that produced a limited missile defense system designed and deployed to defeat a very small number of simplistic threats of a single warhead on a single missile from specifically the rogue states of North Korea and Iran. This shift is driven by the combination of the escalating proliferation of the missile threat worldwide and the economic cost required of the current defense systems to defeat this threat in both volume and complexity.
Missile Defense is in the process of moving from singular, stove pipe thinking and missions against simplistic specific threats on a high cost per kill curve towards a much lower cost-per-kill curve, with full integration with our nation’s strategic offensive forces and pre-emptive “left of launch” technologies and applications for deterrence and defense. Like all major technological shifts, this is going to take time and resources. As our Combatant Commanders in their role are looking five years forward, our nation in the near term remains dependent on our current system for the defense of the United States against North Korea. Admiral Gortney, our Combat Commander for North America, clearly stated that we still require rocket on rocket missile defense should deterrence and “left of launch” fail. As testified to Congress on March 12th, 2015 Admiral Gortney further stated “We have high confidence in the ability of this system to defeat an ICBM strike against the United States from an enemy with limited ICBM capabilities… the GBI fleet requires continued vigilance and investment to ensure reliability and mitigate obsolescence, and we believe we are on a prudent, viable course of action to do just that.” But Admiral Gortney this week in Alabama on Tuesday also stated that with the complexity and mass numbers of the upcoming future threat that we are going to lose this fight with our current strategy if we remain dependent on our current missile defense capabilities.
As we transition from old to new technologies, the overarching goal is to reduce the number interceptors fired at an incoming threat missile. This can be done through incremental investments to make each GBI as reliable as it can be, which ultimately increases warfighter confidence. Such incremental steps include the addition of the redesigned kill vehicle (RKV), while making early investments in an eventual Multi-Object Kill Vehicle (MOKV) capable of carrying multiple kill vehicles on a single GBI. This path of investment and development also includes at its conclusion, the development of unmanned air based platforms with directed energy lasers for intercepting multiple threat missiles in boost phase as well as capability in the other phases of flight with the additional capability against cruise and non-ballistic missiles. Steps to improve our system’s sensor architecture for better discrimination and persistence from our space, sea and ground based sensor platforms are significant aspects of this evolution. Taken together, these incremental enhancements to our system will not only reduce its shot doctrine and increase warfighter confidence, but also provide capability against complex threats from a multitude of adversaries, while at the same time reducing the system’s cost-per-kill.
In conjunction to the direction of the Combatant Commanders and Secretary Shyu’s recommendations to lower requirements to bring in industry competition and reduce the costs, the two major technology directives placed upon the missile defense community this week was the non-chemical directed energy laser and the Multiple Object Kill Vehicle (MOKV).
Lasers provide speed of light capability with deep magazines and rapid re-targeting at the cost of a cup of diesel fuel per engagement. The chemical laser, proven by the 747-mounted Airborne Laser in its shoot downs of ballistic missiles in 2010, did so from a from standoff range in the tens of kilometers, and had a weight/power ratio of 55 kg per kilowatt of lasing power it produced. A practical directed energy system mounted on a high altitude UAV would need to be non-chemical, and be able to produce a high quality beam of 1 megawatt at a ratio of 2 kg per kilowatt, while maintaining a standoff range in the hundreds of kilometers.
Today, two options are being explored for this non chemical laser – a Diode Pumped Alkali Laser (DPALS) or a Fiber Combined Laser (FCL). Today, the DPALS is around 35 kg per kilowatt, and FCL is around 40 kg per kilowatt in laboratory settings, and there is confidence that these ratios can be further reduced significantly. At lower weights and megawatt power, lasers would also be enabled to go on sea and land based platforms to do non-ballistic cruise missile defense and defense against hypersonic glide vehicle.
The Multi-Object Kill Vehicle is another key technology directive laid out this week. The MOKV would enable multiple kill vehicles onboard a single interceptor. This technology, first and foremost, would reduce the burden on discrimination sensors by allowing a single interceptor to target several credible objects within the cluster of warheads, decoys and debris of an incoming missile in its midcourse of flight. The MOKV will also significantly reduce shot doctrine, dramatically reducing the current cost-per-kill of our homeland missile defense system. Such a capability would also make the system much more capable of defeating ballistic missiles armed with multiple independent reentry vehicles.
Missile Defense is now being forced to evolve to stay ahead of the threats and to bend the cost curve it is upon, thus creating a much more powerful strategic and regional tool as well as a defensive weapon system that will provide generational leaps from current and future threats to the United States. We were honored to join the community this week in Huntsville and to listen to the future.