April 29, 2013
Credit: United Launch Alliance
Since President Ronald Reagan's time, U.S. Missile Defense experts have pursued the notion of “birth-to-death” tracking of ballistic missiles to improve the chances of an intercept. Though the billions of dollars spent on a new missile warning system have begun to bear fruit, the Pentagon is still struggling with workable blueprint to provide solid coverage, particularly in the infrared spectrum, during the crucial midcourse of a missile's flight—when it is most likely to be intercepted.
Advances with two Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) demonstration satellites have proved that midcourse, space-based infrared tracking can alert Navy ships to launch interceptors accurately before their radars can see the incoming missiles. A test in February was an eye-opener for the Navy, which now hopes that improved sensors outside of the ship's radar—combined with responsive communications links—can reduce the number of Aegis assets needed to patrol for the anti-ballistic missile mission.
But, only months after the seminal test, the Pentagon announced in its fiscal 2014 budget request it was terminating the Precision Tracking Space System (PTSS), a follow-on to STSS. Through PTSS, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency was pursuing a more simple satellite under the leadership of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL).
The termination comes as the U.S. intelligence community has all eyes watching for a mobile missile launch from North Korea, which has vowed to attack American cities and interests abroad. Though the Pentagon is building more interceptors as a response to Pyongyang's aggression, a hole in the U.S. missile defense tracking net remains. And, missiles from North Korea, China and possibly Iran are becoming more sophisticated, potentially able to deploy more complex countermeasures that could fool radars.
The termination was partly a result of harsh fiscal cutbacks at the Defense Department. But, some in industry wonder whether the steps taken by then-MDA Director Army Lt. Gen. (ret.) Patrick O'Reilly in developing the program doomed it. He assigned the laboratory to lead the design and build of the first two PTSS demonstrator satellites, an unconventional approach possibly crafted to reduce industry's influence over the design. MDA officials, at the time, were concerned with poor quality control in industry and a perception of high fees charged for services. O'Reilly's strategy never won full support from industry and its powerful lobbies in Congress.
So, Pentagon officials are once again studying options. Some question whether the Pentagon is merely “studying the question to death” in order to avoid proposing a new, high-cost satellite program to Congress.
By launching on remote—as was done in February—operators have more time to engage a target because the satellites are able from the vantage of space to see the ballistic missile before it can be detected by the Aegis ship's SPY-1 radar. “Launch-on-remote” depends on disparate systems to work in concert as one weapon using communications infrastructures.