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When the Obama administration junked the Poland-based "third site" for strategic missile defense in September 2009, replacing it with the new "phased adaptive approach" based on the sea-based Aegis ballistic missile defense architecture, it included the first mention of a Block IIB version of the Raytheon SM-3 interceptor. Compared with the in-development Block IIA, a US-Japan project that expands the SM motor to fill the entire Mk43 Vertical Launch System tube, the Block IIB was to have a redesigned upper stage and a new kill vehicle and was intended to allow "early intercept" of intercontinental ballistic missiles, cued by new sensors such as infrared trackers on high-flying UAVs. Now, there are signs that Block IIB is morphing into an all-new missile. The Missile Defense Agency has issued a presolicitation notice revealing a competitive concept demonstration phase, starting in FY2011, that will involve up to three primes and embrace a completely new missile, from first-stage booster to kill vehicle, designed for "early intercept" - that is, just after the boost phase, between 20 and 40 km altitude - of an ICBM. It will still be sea-based and Aegis-compatible and is still called Block IIB, but will be all-new. That will give Boeing and Northrop Grumman a chance to compete with SM-3 prime Raytheon. A Boeing executive says that MDA studies showed that the Block IIA booster just did not offer sufficient performance to hit the ICBM target. The company is also pitching its Phantom Eye high-altitude, hydrogen-fuelled UAV as a platform for the airborne infrared (ABIR) sensor that provides the high-precision tracking that is needed for early intercept, noting that its 65,000 foot cruising altitude adds range and acuity to the sensor by placing it above most of the atmosphere.Russian reaction to this development could be interesting - because, in many ways, it gives the "Aegis ashore" system included in the PAA the same kind of capability that the now-abandoned third-site interceptor (a two-stage version of Boeing's GBI) would have possessed. But then, there is no sign that the PAA gambit generated any softening of Russian opposition in any event.
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