The Missile Defense Agency faces some big challenges as it adjusts its investment agenda to the priorities of the Obama Administration. First, it has been directed to put more emphasis on interception of hostile missiles early in their trajectories, but funding has been cut for most of the defensive systems that could do that. Second, the operational viability of many of the programs it is supporting depends on the willingness of other countries to host radars and interceptor systems on their territory. Third, most of the defensive weapons it wants to buy have unfavorable cost-exchange characteristics, meaning it is cheaper for an attacker to launch more warheads than it is for a defender to shoot them down.
If the agency can’t address these issues, its programs will continue to be attacked in the budget process by critics who claim defenses can’t function effectively in wartime. When you can’t intercept hostile missiles in their most vulnerable phase (before they release multiple warheads and decoys), you can’t deploy defenses in later phases without the goodwill of other countries, and you can’t achieve a favorable exchange ratio with likely enemies — well, maybe you just aren’t capable of really defending America.
There are solutions to these dilemmas, if the agency will show more imagination. Investing in sea-based defenses using the Navy’s Aegis combat system is a start, but there are plenty of places that Aegis warships can’t go. What MDA really needs is a low-cost, versatile system that can intercept hostile warheads in both early and later phases of their trajectories without having to worry about whether locals are willing to provide bases. Oddly enough, there is such a program that was begun in 2006, but MDA is starving it of funds. It’s a Raytheon effort called the Network Centric Airborne Defense Element. Hate the name, love the program. NCADE (“En-Cade”) is at least a partial solution to every big challenge the agency faces, including tight budgets.
Here’s why. Instead of developing new interceptors, sensors and command links from scratch, NCADE adapts hardware already in the joint force to the missile-defense mission. It modifies an air-to-air missile carried on all U.S. fighters from a single-stage to a two-stage munition with longer range, equips it with the ability to destroy fast-moving targets on impact, and then links the planes carrying the modified missile to the existing network of joint-force sensors. Because the interceptor is carried on an airborne platform it doesn’t require bases in any particular place, and because host planes are capable of supersonic speeds they can be moved at the last minute for optimum defensive positioning.
That means NCADE could be used for early (boost or ascent-phase) interception of Iranian missiles aimed at Israel, or it could be used for later (terminal-phase) interception of maneuvering Chinese warheads aimed at U.S. carriers. The solution works across the spectrum of short and medium-range threats because the hardware fits into fighters already deployed on land and sea by the military services, and would be able to receive targeting data from many sources. And because it is adapting existing systems rather than reinventing the wheel, it costs less than any other missile-defense solution MDA is pursuing — to do more.
The Missile Defense Agency has validated that NCADE can be developed and deployed within a few years, at very low cost compared with other programs. The Air Force has cited its defensive potential favorably, while the Navy is beginning to consider its ship-protection possibilities. But MDA is barely funding the program at all. Why? In the current fiscal environment, NCADE seems like the one missile-defense option that could satisfy everybody.
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