Lockheed Martin is hoping that the maturing threat of hypersonic re-entry vehicles from ambitious adversaries will spark interest in the company’s dormant plan to design a more powerful booster for the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) air defense system.
China last month confirmed it conducted what officials there say was the third test of a hypersonic strike vehicle that U.S. officials worry could outsmart its defenses. The U.S. has spent well more than $100 billion on various missile defenses to perfect hit-to-kill technology and improve connectivity among disparate systems fielded for protection against air-breathing and ballistic missile threats. The Army plans to field at least six Thaad batteries; the $3.8 billion program was designed to field an area defense system capable of interceptors both inside the atmosphere and in the low regions of space.
Development of offensive hypersonic systems is “one of the key reasons” that a Thaad-ER (extended range) missile should be considered for introduction into the Pentagon arsenal, says Mike Trotsky, vice president of air and missile defense for Lockheed Martin, which produces Thaad.
“We see a growing interest in this capability. We are working to define what, specifically, this system would look like … to give it the divert capability necessary to address some of the emerging threats we are seeing,” said Doug Graham, vice president of advanced programs for Lockheed Martin Strategic & Missile Defense Systems.
“One of the things that the [U.S. Missile Defense Agency] MDA is looking very closely at is the upgrade of the Thaad system to the ER configuration so that we can extend the reach of dealing with a target just like that,” Trotsky said of hypersonic glide vehicles. “That kind of a target is designed to find a seam between systems like Patriot … and systems like the Aegis weapon system. Because Thaad operates both in the endoatmosphere and the exoatmosphere, it has intercept capability in the region where that threat flies. The extended range version would extend our battlespace against that kind of threat.”
Lockheed Martin has been honing its Thaad-ER concept for nearly 10 years. Today’s Thaad booster is 14.5 in. in diameter, and features a single-stage design. Static fire trials for a prototype of a 21-in. first stage as well as a second “kick-stage” were conducted by propulsion subcontractor Aerojet in 2006, Tom McGrath, then a Lockheed Martin vice president, told Aviation Week in 2009.
Funding for this early work on both stages came from Lockheed Martin’s international research and development accounts from 2006-2008, he said then.
The increased diameter for the first stage is designed to expand the interceptor’s range. The second stage, or “kick-stage,” would then close the distance to the target and provide improved velocity at burnout, Trotsky told reporters during a Jan. 7 media teleconference. Higher velocity at burnout allows for improved divert capability, or more lateral movement during an engagement.
“We continue to work on the booster stack and some of the system engineering that has to be done to [finalize] the design. I think what you will see from MDA is an acceleration of some of that engineering work in the next few years because of the kinds of threats that we are seeing being developed by some of our adversaries.”
Lockheed hopes to garner interest from the U.S. Missile Defense Agency to provide funding for a formal development program as well as integration into the Thaad system, company officials said.
The larger booster design does not require changes to the Thaad kill vehicle. But the ground-based launcher design would have to be modified. Five of the 21-in. interceptors would fit into the launcher that now carries eight of the 14.5-in. boosters today.
MDA spokesman Rick Lehner says Thaad-ER is not a program of record, meaning it has not received development or design funding from the agency. “It is an industry concept we are evaluating and nothing more,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Army is expecting to activate its fifth Thaad battery this year and deliveries from the first foreign military sales customer, the United Arab Emirates, are slated to begin next year. The Pentagon has notified Congress of a potential sale to Qatar as well.
Lockheed Martin is hoping the Pentagon will opt to embark on a multiyear procurement of Thaad interceptors, Trotsky said. The goal is to form a deal for 150 missiles for sale over five years. Multiyear procurements require substantial cost savings from industry, but provide stability for the supply system.