On Wednesday, we were honored to have a great open and educating discussion on new layers of missile defense on Capitol Hill, with three key renown experts and leaders on our nation’s missile defense, to discuss the acquisition and development, the physics and science, and the policy and legislative challenges of the evolution of our nation’s missile defense. Our experts were Rear Admiral Jon Hill, Deputy Director of the Missile Defense Agency, Dr. Dean Wilkening, Senior Staff Scientist in the Precision Strike Mission Area at John Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, and Rear Admiral (Ret.) Mark Montgomery, Policy Director at the Senate Armed Services Committee. The new layers for missile defense discussed in these perspectives and questions/answers that followed, included the fusing of sensors for a “meshed” network of Command and Control, the “Underlay” below the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD), the cross domain applications of the F-35, space-based sensors and interceptor layer, kinetic and directed energy boost phase intercept, and defense against the future hypersonic threat. However ahead of these technologies and adaptations of current capabilities was heavy discussions on the challenges to the development and operationalization of these layers, including testing culture and increasing the speed of decisions of acquisition within the Department of Defense.
Here are some of the key thoughts from the discussion on the new layers.
SM-3 Block IIA
RADM Hill – “We are wrapping up development and tests now, so that we can then go to production and part of that path is doing a test against an ICBM. And I hate making things easy on our adversaries, so I’m not going to tell you when we’re going to do it or how we are going to do it, but we’re going to do it. It has been legislated and we have a plan, it is in our test plan and then we are going to execute.”
Mr. Ellison – “Jon, is that IIA going to do an ICBM as the language says or is that…”
RADM Hill – “That test that I am referring to is an ICBM test, yes. And by the way, I think I have mentioned it already, but our analysis shows that we do have that capability, we call it residual capability, we believe it is there , but we have got to go test it to prove it to ourselves and prove it to the country.”
Extended Range THAAD
Riki: “Does THAAD have an ICBM capability?”
Hill: “So, it wasn’t designed for that. So, I would say it was outside the design space. So the Block IIA was designed for intermediate range, so it’s not that far of a push to get to an ICBM. THAAD was really designed against those medium range, so can it go out against an IRBM? We’ve proven that, but that is outside its original design space. So, to go to the next stage of an ICBM is really a bit of a stretch at this point. I can’t tell you that we are ready to go do that yet.”
Boost Phase Intercept
Dr. Wilkening – “But the boost phase, is the one where we don’t really have any [capability] and here I might take a little issue, the technologies that have been offered up are directed energy, its lasers, and as the Admiral correctly pointed out, you’ve got to have megawatt lasers, typically you put them on airborne platforms because the atmosphere distorts laser propagation, it attenuates it and it distorts the wave front. You want to get very high in altitude, so you get minimal distortion of that laser beam so you get as much intensity on the target as possible. That means you need a light weight system, size weight and power, so getting a megawatt laser with a small enough mass, footprint, that you can put it on an airborne platform and put it at high altitude, is a challenge. I think MDA is working very hard on that and from my perspective, the jury is out on whether we will be able to design an effective system. We tried with the ABL, the Airborne Laser, 747, big aircraft, that was a test, prototype system, it was a test platform, it was really not an operational system, and of course when it was offered up as an operational system, people realized pretty quickly it wasn’t going to be very useful, you can’t hover over even North Korean airspace for very long with a 747 before you get shot down. Much less over Iran, much less over China, and never mind Russia. So whether we can design a laser with sufficient power, get it up to high altitude to get sufficient lethal range, so that we can stand-off is going to be a challenge. The one country where it will work first is North Korea and that happens to be where we have one of our most serious threats, especially if they stick to liquid propellant ballistic missiles because the boost time is so long, lets say 300 seconds, five minutes, so you have a lot more time to dwell on it with your laser, get multiple shot opportunities, etc. Larger countries like Iran, it gets kind of tough, it is hard if they put their missiles in the middle of Iran, going to be hard to fly into that airspace, and then China and Russia, you can pretty much forget about it, you’re never going to have a laser with sufficient range, airborne laser of sufficient lethal range to hover over Russian and/or Chinese airspace. So we don’t have boost phase options against those two states. There are some kinetic kill options, rockets that can home in on boosters, that is also very tough. The main challenge of course with boost phase as you probably know, is that boost phase is very short. It is five minutes for liquid propellant ICBMs, it is about three minutes for solid propellant ICBMs, it is about one minute for short-range Scud type missiles, so you don’t have a lot of time between when they launch it and when detect it, track it, and fire your weapon, be it kinetic or laser, and dwell on the target long enough to kill it. And that is the fundamental challenge, which is one reason why you have to be close.”
Space-Based Sensors and Interceptors
RADM Hill – “Space, absolutely. So we incorporate space today. I mentioned indications and warning as the left end of setting up the fire control for that, talked about how we have to get to the full sensor layers support from the Department and the Hill to prototype in that area. The doctor mentioned already that there are sensors today that can do that, the technology is available, we have just got to get it up and continue to work with the Combatant Commanders and the Services to fully populate that kind of constellation. I mentioned the need for a kind of discrimination layer and then I mentioned the fact that we are going to finish deploying our Space-Based Kill Assessment later this year. So it is a major part of the overall battle, particularly driven by more complex threats.”
Dr. Wilkening – “Space is a great place for sensors, it’s a lousy place for weapons. So if you are thinking of space-based lasers and all the stuff that was talked about in the mid-80s, that is going to be hugely expensive.”
Mr. Ellison – “Dean, just on that point. If we did space, DE up in space, is a chemical-based laser a lot easier to handle than a solid state laser because of the weight ratio to power ratio? Or is that different…”
Dr. Wilkening – “I don’t actually know. Both could be options up there. But the problem is first of all, the countries we are worried about are developing anti-satellite weapons. Now, supposedly a space-based laser could defend itself, unless your coming in from multiple azimuths. And so you have to worry about the survivability of that platform, you have to worry about the cost of getting up, launch costs are huge. We hope that our friend Mr. Tesla [Elon Musk] is reversing that cost exchange, that cost ratio for lift into orbit. But today, getting all that mass up in orbit and having it survive and having it be viable for a decade or so is a very expensive proposition. Sensors, totally different story. We are using space for sensor architectures, it is a great place for sensors.”
Defense Against Hypersonic Threats
RADM Hill – “So you can go Google, if you are not familiar with the hypersonic threat and see what it looks like right. So in generic terms, its ballistic, its going to look ballistic and then it is going to go into a glide phase and then its going to come back into the atmosphere and it’s going to maneuver and sometimes come back around the other side. So that’s generically what it does. So our systems as we have them today, will detect that ballistic phase, which is why it could be confusing to the systems when it goes into a glide because now it is doing something different. In that glide phase, most of those systems are fairly vulnerable because they are bleeding off heat, they are doing other things. So that’s a great place to intercept. So we are looking heavily at the ballistic phase, so if you have a boost phase capability or if you have a left of launch capability, even better, so that is one way to go after it. The vulnerability within the glide phase is a good place to do it. We can do things in that high maneuver space, we have proven that with the sea-based terminal and we talked about THAAD maybe having that capability in that regime, but again that is the point defense that Dean talked about, that’s where you don’t want to do it. But that is a great layer, you want that layer for sure, but there is probably better places to take on that threat along the trajectory space.”
Fusing Sensors with the Command and Control, Battle Management, and Communications (C2BMC)
RADM Hill – “So how does that all tie together, we talk about C2BMC, the Command, Control, Battle Management, this is where it all ties together. We had a long discussion this morning about the multi-domain aspects of C2BMC, in fact we have a warfighter desire to bring in water depth, and wow, we’re the ballistic Missile Defense Agency, why would we do that? Well, because it is about ship stationing, we should be worried about that for a strategic level planner. And so we are doing lots of things with C2BMC, probably the most significant thing coming over the next few years, is the Ballistic Missile Systems Track, we call it BST, and what that is the fusing of all sensor data. We’re fusing together the overhead data today, the radar data, and we start pulling that all together with the new radar in Alaska, the new radar in Hawaii, bringing in the ships, bringing in the other batteries, you have the ability to put together a track that if it is applicable for a shooter that is deployed forward, then they can use that track. So that is pretty exciting work happening in the C2BMC area.”
Integrated Air and Missile Defense
RADM Hill – “Then the US has the first destroyer on the planet that has integrated air and missile defense, the Baseline 9 version that has the ability to do both air and, cruise missile defense and ballistic missile defense at the same time. So, we’re doing that, which is a pretty impressive capability. Japan is moving down the path to do IAMD. Their request for Aegis ashore in Japan, they are looking at two sites, and they’ve asked that both those sites be integrated in air and missile defense. Now, they haven’t been very clear on their requirements in terms of threat and how much air defense do you want to do, and what kind of air defense and ballistic missile defense. I think they are very focused on primarily ballistic missile defense, but they want to have the air defense capability likely to protect the site. But they haven’t been real clear on their priorities, so I would say to Japan, our greatest ally in my opinion, that they need to be clear on what their requirements are. And you always want to start with your design, right? We’re spending time with the government of japan to really assess what is required to defend that island nation.”
Mr. Ellison – “Can we take our most expensive platform, the F-35, and be able to do some of this sensing? Are we looking at that?”
RADM Hill – “One of our first engagements by Mr. Rood when he checked in as our Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, he reminded us that if you’re in a big missile defense kind of gig, that you’re not going to be out there alone. So, say we’re out there defending South Korea. There are going to be F-35s in the area. There are going to be ships in the area. There are going to be submarines in the area. So, his question to us was, are they integrated into the C2BMC? And I think you can guess the answer. So, it’s not a hard put to get there. So, I started out as an air defender. Where we had multiple sensors on the target. Everything you got, just put it up there. So, the big challenge for us was fusing all that data. It is a hard challenge to fuse all that data. So, when I talk about the ballistic missile 6 systems track, that’s assuming that is with multiple sensors. Because the way we do things today we really hand things off from one sensor to the next. It’s not a big fusion game, it’s really more about handover, which in itself is really a heck of an engineering challenge. Now, if you have multiple sensors on a target, whether they are from space or terrestrial base, of the maneuver force or the Navy. And then it becomes a fusion question. So, maybe it is the offset to the loss of the JLENS program.”
RADM (Ret.) Montgomery – “The other thing I want to ask the both of you is the zero-defect mentality in testing. I think it’s driven by a zero-defect mentality in project development. No one has ever gotten the legion of merit or the SES during a failed program, right? Being the guy who kills his own program because the guy or gal no longer thinks it’s relevant. So, I think what you’ve been referring to with testing is what we can see with Kim Jung Un. And at some point, he decided to stop killing test directors at the end of an exam and allow them to have a robust testing cycle with significant numbers of failures that included several successes followed by a group of failures again. That’s something you don’t usually see in a testing program. So they have had a definite non zero defect mentality in testing. I’m not sure we can adapt the North Korean system exactly. But, Jon what is your feeling now in terms of a more robust testing cycle that allows to bring things a little faster to the run with a little bit of increase risk of failure.”
RADM Hill – “General Greaves very openly got on board that we are not going to be afraid to fail. But in order to do that you got to fully understand that there are major risks when you are going to the test range. So, he’s comfortable not having everything perfect as long as he understands that, ‘hey I’ve got risk in this one area’ and he’s willing to go do the test to prove to the larger objective. And it is a different mindset. I would say that within the agency we don’t have a fear of failure, but it exists within the culture everywhere else. So, we don’t test by ourselves. We’re under the guidance and over watch of a lot of different organizations, whether its fundamental requirements of the overall test objectives themselves. You have this whole culture that will often come in with this risk adverse view, ‘hey we don’t think you should go because of the following reasons’ and a lot of them are admin in my mind. It just drives us nuts. Getting to where Dr. Wilkening’s going, the question about the cost of tests. So, we’re limited by range capability and capacity for example. We can’t just go and say, ‘hey were going to test next week at PMRF’. They have other things scheduled and so we can’t just bump everyone out of the way and so what we’ll do is go over to the services and see what we can do. But the range capacity is tough. We need some investment in these ranges from their basic sensing capability to everything you need for range safety. It’s really important you got to take care of those ranges. It sort of gets lost in the safety ownership of the range verses those using it so who is paying the bill to keep that range in place. So we have got to address that. Getting test assets in place. A lot of the times this will bump up against the procurement roles. Oh my gosh. You can’t buy before you fly. Well how are we going to fly if we can’t buy anything. So we have to get the test articles out there, but yes they are expensive to your point.”
Speed of Decision
RADM Hill – “The last thing I’ll leave you with is about what it takes to move fast. We talk all the time about speed. We tend to fall back on the unique authorities that the Missile Defense Agency has, and as having been a Navy PEO, I will tell you it is different at the agency. We follow the intent of DoD 5,000, no kidding, that’s law and we’re going to follow that. But, the difference is our director has unique authorities vested in him. Head of contracts, the BMDS program manager, he has all the contracting authority that he needs. And so rather than working through multiple layers in our own building and then in the building in the pentagon, we have one person at the Missile Defense Agency. So, we can move quickly. So, speed of decision is really important. It’s not about working faster. We can all work really fast, but at the end of the day you may not get the kind of speed that you want. But if you had fewer people in the decision cycle as Dr. Griffin always says, it really does work and the Missile Defense Agency does have those set of authorities to go do that. But, the one thing that we think is also important, we looked at our flight test record over the past few years and we started comparing when we made changes to our engineering discipline and things we have done for rigor in the system. and we have seen a causal effect. When you have the discipline and the rigor in your engineering you have success in flight. And we are not afraid to fail. We have them all the time. But we learn from those, and we don’t just say ‘hey I learned something’ and then walk away. We dig deeply through that data. We are going to do the analysis. You’re going to figure out what changes you’re going to make and you’re going to incorporate that into the system. and guess what, that takes time. It’s ok to take time if you’re going to do it right. So, speed is one thing, but discipline and rigor is another. You got to make sure you don’t lose that when do a speed trade.”
Speed of decision-making and process discipline/rigor is the critical way forward to new layers and new technologies.
Listen to the full audio of the event and read a transcript (expected next week) here.