The Obama Administration has directed the Missile Defense Agency to place greater emphasis on early interception of ballistic missiles that might be launched by countries like Iran or North Korea against forward-deployed U.S. forces. The move makes sense because such “theater-range” missiles are likely to be deployed sooner by renegade regimes than more expensive, technologically challenging intercontinental-range weapons. Figuring out how to intercept these near-term threats early in their trajectories, before multiple warheads and penetration aids are released, will be the driving mission for the Missile Defense Agency during the Obama years.
But the administration did something else at the same time it reordered mission priorities that is harder to understand. It canceled or cut back the two biggest programs the agency was funding that could provide a solution to the challenge of catching theater-range missiles shortly after liftoff. One of those systems, the fast-reacting Kinetic Energy Interceptor, was simply killed. The other, a revolutionary airborne laser, was reduced in scope and could also be killed if it fails to destroy a test missile in trials later this year. In effect, the Obama Administration has drastically cut the funding for the part of the missile-defense mission it now deems most important.
That presumably means other methods must be found to accomplish the task of early interception. And fortunately for the Missile Defense Agency, the Raytheon Company has a solution so elegant and inexpensive that it is affordable in almost any budget environment. The company is developing a modified version of a widely used munition called the Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile that can intercept lofting ballistic missiles both inside and outside the atmosphere after being carried to the launch area on a combat aircraft. By substituting a proven heat-seeking sensor for the munition’s existing radar seeker and replacing the munition’s warhead with a second propulsion stage, the company can fashion an impact-kill weapon from existing parts at very low cost.
The genius of this approach is that it can be deployed on any fighter in the joint inventory, and requires only minor modifications to be installed. Most of the targeting information needed to intercept hostile missiles would be obtained from off-board sensors like the next-generation Space Based Infrared System that were already being built for other purposes. By networking together these various sensors and linking them to the aircraft carrying the interceptor missile, the military can obtain a highly capable defensive system while avoiding many of the costs associated with traditional missile-defense programs. In fact, the whole program can be made operational by 2013 for less than $500 million, at a cost of only a million dollars per operational round. That’s a real bargain if it saves a billion-dollar warship.
Raytheon calls its solution the Network Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE). Patriot-X might have been a catchier name, but oh well. When you’ve got an affordable answer to a pressing defense need, people will forgive you for having a funny name. On June 2, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz sent the head of the Missile Defense Agency a point paper endorsing the concept of airborne hit-to-kill missile defenses, and citing NCADE as an attractive option. No weapon is perfect, but at the very least NCADE can provide a deterrent against missile launches by rogue states, and it has the potential to reduce or negate the most potent threat that U.S. forward-deployed forces will face in the years ahead.
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