The administration’s current plan to deal with the growing threat from ballistic missiles is to develop missile defenses in four phases between now and 2020; each phase will have greater capability than its predecessor and will be deployed, it is hoped, in time to meet an evolving threat. Phase I of the Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA), currently underway, will address the threat posed by short-range ballistic missiles. It will rely on the deployment of ships equipped with the Aegis radar and advanced variants of the Standard Missile. The next phase, beginning in 2015 will provide a capability to deal with the intermediate-range missiles already in Iran and North Korea’s inventory. This phase begins the deployment of the Aegis/Standard Missile system on land. The Phase II defense would be deployed forward, in Europe and possibly elsewhere. Phase III will improve on the sea and land-based Aegis system to intercept longer-range missiles. Finally, Phase IV, scheduled to begin deployment as early as 2018, is intended to engage ICBM-class missiles that could reach the United States from either the Middle East or Northeast Asia.
The PAA plan relies heavily on leveraging the capability embodied in the highly successful Aegis radar/battle management system with variants of the Standard Missile 3, or SM-3. These two systems were originally deployed in the 1970s to defend against hostile aircraft. In each phase of the PAA, advances in interceptors are married to improvements in sensors, battle management and communications. Phase I is deploying the SM-3 Block IA along with a software upgrade to the Aegis radar, creating an Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) capability. Phase II will deploy an enhanced interceptor, the SM-3 Block IB, capable of intercepting longer-range ballistic missiles and a combination of new hardware and software for the Aegis radar and battle manager. Phase III will add sensors and a new interceptor, the SM-3 Block IIA that is larger and can fly faster and farther. Finally, Phase IV will employ a larger and even more powerful interceptor, the SM-3 Block IIB which has yet to be designed, much less tested, as well as a new air and missile defense radar for the sea and land-based Aegis BMD and space-based sensors.
PAA is on a very aggressive schedule, with new phases being introduced every few years. The Missile Defense Agency is pursuing a challenging research and development program not only for variants of the Standard Missile, but improved radar, new airborne sensors and advanced command and control. This program includes developing and deploying a network of space-based sensors, the Precision Tracking and Surveillance Satellites (PTSS) which will provide birth-to-death tracking of missiles and warheads. Such a capability is absolutely necessary in order to have an effective, layered defense against ICBMs.
MDA is likely to find itself challenged to achieve multiple benchmarks for deploying new phases. Improving the performance of the SM-3 alone is no small challenge. Some analysts believe that the speeds required of an interceptor capable of engaging ICBMs will necessitate creating an entirely new missile and kill vehicle rather than being able to extend the Standard Missile system. Such a new missile also should be designed from the start to be both sea and land-based. Successive administrations have struggled for nearly two decades to deploy a viable space tracking system much less do it on the stringent timelines for the PTSS. As my colleague Loren Thompson pointed out in a recent Space News article, MDA is not demonstrating notable energy in developing and deploying sensor satellites.
If the threat appears faster than anticipated, which seems distinctly possible, will MDA be able to respond? Because it must pace the evolving threat, MDA should consider developing hedging options to avoid a situation in which either a new missile or sensor program is delayed. There are opportunities for modifying existing missiles, kill vehicles and sensors further to give them some additional capability. While not the perfect answer, such hedges could prove very useful. That way, MDA can keep moving forward on its system-of-systems approach to advanced missile defenses.
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