Army Space & Missile Defense Command boss Lt. Gen. Kevin Campbell was asked at the SMDC Conference in Huntsville on Wednesday if there was any particular missile-defense technology that had gotten him excited recently.
He did a visible double-take. "The answer is yes," he said. "The unfortunate thing is that the one that's in my brain, I can't talk about."
Missile Defense Agency director Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly alluded to the same issue earlier in the day, showing a slide that had a tidy little blank square instead of a picture. "That represents all I can say here about our special access programs (SAPs) - but there are some significant, very encouraging capabilities in there." MDA's special programs line item jumps 70 per cent in FY10 over FY09, to $302 million, and earlier budgets showed it climbing more steeply in the out-years.
It's possible that some of these SAPs have to do with the challenge of tracking a cold missile in its ascent phase, with sufficient accuracy to cue an interceptor. This is what Northrop Grumman's Space Tracking and Surveillance System is supposed to do, but the demonstrator satellites are still waiting to launch, and developing an affordable constellation providing constant coverage of vital areas won't be easy.
O'Reilly also showed a picture of two Reaper UAVs doing the same job, offering persistent coverage of a launch zone. The problem here is that the Reaper is a non-stealthy sitting duck, and it is worth any adversary's while to send a fighter and tanker combo out to remove them from the scene. Either a very long range sensor or the use of a stealthy UAV could help solve that problem.
A different form of secrecy - discretion may be a better word - covers some of the changes in MDA plans, particularly the move away from the "third site" in Eastern Europe for heavyweight Ground Based Intercepor (GBI) missiles and the increasing interest in land-based versions of the Navy's SM-3.
Here's the guess which I ran past Campbell (and he didn't express strong disagreement): The slower than expected emergence of an Iranian ICBM and the strong objections of the Russians have soured the administration on the third site. At the same time, the intermediate threat is being taken very seriously and attention is shifting that way.
But land-based SM-3 provides a relatively cheap hedge against any changes in that picture - whether a resurgent threat or relaxed Russian concerns. With the big SM-3 Block IIA missile, it has pretty good capability, and whenever it is needed the production line, support and training system will be active for the US, Japanese and other navies. Raytheon's TPY-2 radar is transportable, and installing the big launcher box would not take as long as digging GBI silos. And, arguably, the fixed, unprotected SM-3 launcher looks less threatening than silos.