March 25, 2013
Credit: Tony Osborne/AWST
Amy Butler and Jen DiMascio Washington
The White House's reversal on missile defense architecture plans reestablishes Boeing's position as producer of interceptors for stateside defenses against potential ICBM attacks from North Korea and Iran. It also scraps hopes for what would have been the first large interceptor booster in more than a decade and opens the door to an advanced kill-vehicle capability.
The Boeing-led Ground-Based Missile Defense program—with 30 long-range interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg AFB, Calif.—was curtailed four years ago in favor of fielding regional defenses. At the time, the Pentagon cited an uptick in proliferation of short-to-medium-range ballistic missiles.
Now, however, under Kim Jong Un, North Korea has conducted a third nuclear test, proven its advances in long-range missile technology and is vowing to target U.S. cities.
As a countermove, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says he will add 14 Ground-Based Interceptors (GBI) to the arsenal in Alaska and California and study the environmental impact of establishing a third GBI site on the U.S. East Coast. “We believe that this young lad ought to be deterred by that,” says Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, referring to Pyongyang's new leader.
But this approach reverts to older technology boosters. USAF Lt. Gen. (ret.) Trey Obering, former director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), notes that the first GBI was put on alert a decade ago, and even then its technology was mature. He advocates continuing work on next-generation interceptors.
The administration's reversal found some support on Capitol Hill, where a number of members of Congress have been calling for completion of the purchase of 44 GBIs since the decision to scale back the program. The move hits the “Republican sweet spot,” says one industry source, citing a desire by conservatives to revive the Ground-Based Missile Defense (GMD) program. Some Republican lawmakers, however, have criticized both curtailing GMD years ago and bringing it back.
It also restores Boeing's position, which had eroded, in missile defense. The company's flagship directed-energy program, the Airborne Laser, was terminated in 2011 and GBI production had been stunted. Also, during President Barack Obama's first term, MDA competed Boeing's lucrative contract to manage GMD sustainment. Boeing eventually won it back, but the cost of the work dropped substantially.