An event like this week's Space & Missile Defense Conference in Huntsville can be an exercise in information overload, and it can be hard to detect an overall theme. But if there was a big message it was this: the first generation of systems, now being deployed on the ground and on ships, work better than critics expected and well enough to affect policy. So what's the next stage?
By 2015, new interceptors are likely to enter service, The Navy's urgent plans for terminal area ballistic missile defense were discussed here earlier this week. However, Northrop Grumman is keenly pushing the potential of the big Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) missile, on which it is team leader. Nobody's saying exactly how fast the KEI is, but both stages of the 40-foot missile burn out in 30 seconds each, which is a whole lot of energy being unleashed very quickly. This is done by molding larger-then-usual burn chambers into the rubber-like solid propellant. It gives rise to greater-the-usual pressure in the case, which is why the burst test announced this week is important.
KEI is a cold-launched missile - popped out of its canister by gas pressure before the motor lets rip - which makes it both transportable and ship-compatible. Because of its speed, it can run down an ascending missile in its boost phase, from a considerable distance. The result is that it can be used in a different way from today's ground-launched interceptors: stationed in theater, it can actually deny a clear launch opportunity over a wide area, rather than being used to protect a target at the end of the missile's flight.
Missile Defense Agency director Gen. Trey Obering wants more though: asked what breakthrough technologies he'd like to see the scientific and research community focus on, he listed higher-energy propulsion. (The former Soviet Union, incidentally, had worked extensively on a solid propellant "zip fuel" called ADN.)
Another key development for future missile defense is so-called "birth to death" tracking. The idea is that space-based, ground-based and even airborne sensors can track the missile continuously from launch to impact or intercept. Among other things, this helps considerably with defeating countermeasures and decoys.
Controversially, more than one speaker talked about the value of space-based interceptors. This gives a lot of people the willies, but it is not banned by current treaties, and space-based systems would be a vital step towards global coverage - rather than today's systems, which protect targets in one region against missiles launched from another.