Facing a growing threat from long-range North Korean missiles, possibly armed with nuclear warheads, and desirous of garnering strategic advantage after its withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the George W. Bush Administration decided on early deployment of an interim National Missile Defense (NMD) capability, consisting of ground-based interceptors (GBIs), land-based sensors and battle management systems. As originally conceived, the system would have 30-plus GBIs at Fort Greeley, Alaska and four more at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The idea was to field something to provide a minimum defense of the homeland and develop better systems, operational concepts and tactics as time went on.
The initial deployment had more than its share of problems. The first set of GBIs were not actually production missiles. Instead, they were test articles pressed into service. This led to some embarrassing test failures. There was a lot that was still unknown about midcourse discrimination and even the best technologies failed to support the end-game interception of an RV by the kinetic kill vehicle (KKV). Difficulties with sensors and concerns about the reliability and performance of both interceptors and kill vehicles led to a proposed engagement concept that amounted to little more than fire the entire defensive inventory in the general direction of the incoming missile and hope for the best.
Over the past decade, there has been a deliberate and dedicated program to improve virtually every aspect of the NMD architecture. New radars were deployed and existing ones upgraded. Lots of work was done on the GBI to improve performance and reliability. Perhaps most important, the Missile Defense Agency and its contractors spent years developing KKV sensors and divert motors that would improve the potential for success in the endgame.
In its most recent test last week, a GBI was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base for the purpose of evaluating the performance of alternate divert thrusters for the system’s new Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV). This was a planned non-intercept flight test intended to stress the kill vehicle’s divert motors and gain the maximum data from imaging the midcourse debris cloud. Future tests will involve actual collisions between the EKV and a simulated warhead.
The next administration will have the chance to build a robust missile defense of the homeland. The Obama Administration signaled the way, reversing its earlier decision to downsize the number of GBIs deployed at Fort Greeley. The incoming administration could make its own mark in this critical area by deciding to open an East Coast GBI site and by carrying through on current programs to improve the performance of the GBIs and EKVs. With two approximately equal-sized deployments on the East and West Coasts, the U.S. would have a robust defense of the homeland against both North Korean and Iranian long-range ballistic missiles. With the ability to launch based on data from forward deployed sensors, the GBI sites could execute a shoot-look-shoot defense doctrine, raising the probability of annihilating the entire incoming attack.
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