November 05, 2012
Credit: Credit: US Navy
Amy Butler Washington
The most likely scenario in the event of a ballistic or cruise missile attack against the U.S. or its allies is not a single lofted shot. It is a “raid”—scores of ballistic and cruise missiles—launched at once in an attempt to overwhelm defenses.
Relative to the cost of defenses, ballistic and cruise missiles are inexpensive, and they continue to proliferate globally. Though many offending missiles could be shot down, a single success could score a psychological toll by penetrating the defensive shield of the U.S.
Until last month, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) had not displayed its ability to counter a raid. But in a first-of-a-kind flight test, it launched five threats—three ballistic missiles and two cruise missiles—against three defensive systems. “We worked many years to get to this point,” says Dennis Cavin, vice president of U.S. Army and missile defense programs for Lockheed Martin. “For the first time in a live-fire event, multiple weapon systems engaged a raid of multiple targets simultaneously,” say MDA officials. “The test provided an opportunity for the [combatant commanders] to develop and exercise operational concepts while gaining experience with a theater/regional [ballistic missile defense system].”
In Flight Test Integrated-01 (FTI-01) Oct. 24, these defenses scored four out of five defeats during the 20-min. engagement. Both cruise missiles were defeated—one by an Aegis ship launching an SM-2 Block IIIA and another by a PAC-3; two of three ballistic missiles were intercepted. The MDA is studying why Aegis, a ship-based radar program led by Lockheed Martin, and its SM-3 Block IA missile, manufactured by Raytheon, failed to shoot down its short-range ballistic missile target.
The raw score in such a test shows the bottom line. Had this been a real engagement, the Pentagon countered 80% of the threat. But the value of this type of exercise—especially for a first attempt—is not simply in the raw numbers. The complexity of this trial, which cost $180 million not including the prices of targets and interceptors, shows a growing maturity in the missile defense system.
Over the past decade, the Pentagon has focused on developing these regional and area defenses—Aegis and the SM-3 missile family, the Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense (Thaad) system and PAC-3—designed to counter various short-to-intermediate-range threats. With those maturing through exhaustive testing and design work, the task ahead is now to monopolize on the strengths of the individual systems by networking them together, creating the Pentagon's long-sought-after layered defensive system that works as a single, cohesive shield, rather than a group of disparate programs.
Challenges are plenty. Networking requires data-linking to allow various sensors, such as a PAC-3 radar, to talk to various shooters, such as a Thaad missile. It also requires superior command and control so that operators know which shooters are going after which targets—referred to by the military as claiming target “ownership”—in order to avoid expending unnecessary interceptors on targets. And it demands that sensors such as infrared detectors and radars work cohesively from different vantage points in order to sort out debris and countermeasures from actual warheads, which is no small task as enemy tactics and technology improve. These issues must work within the minutes it takes an offending missile to fly to a target, as well.