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BMD's Slow Progress Towards Technological Maturity

A. Vinod Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • October 12, 2007

    "We fired an operationally configured interceptor out of a silo at Vandenberg Air Force base, and it flew out, and was successful in intercepting the target." - Lt. Gen. Henry Obering

    This assertion by Henry Obering, chief of the Missile Defence Agency (MDA), which manages the US ballistic missile development programme, was made after a successful intercept test on September 28 of a Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) - a part of the Ground-Based Mid-Course Defence System (GBMDS). The successful test puts to rest, for the moment at least, persistent criticism of the limping development progress of BMD programmes. The September 28 interception test saw a ground-based interceptor launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base intercept and destroy a long-range ballistic missile launched from the Kodiak Complex in Alaska. This test, the seventh successful intercept of a total of 12 GBMDS tests, is significant in many respects.

    First, this was the first interception after a previous unsuccessful attempt in May when the target missile failed to take off, forcing the mission to be aborted. The Democrats had then called for a review of Congressional funding for the Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) programmes. Because of this clamour, the Senate Appropriations Committee had slashed to US $85 million the Pentagon's budgetary request of $139 million to fund construction of a radar base in the Czech Republic and a missile interceptor site in Poland as part of GBMDS deployment in Eastern Europe. This project was already under strain after Russia strongly opposed the establishment of a US BMD base in its backyard.

    Second, a group of physicists and arms control activists had termed the testing undertaken so far as inadequate for validating the operational deployment of these systems. While calling for 'operational testing' under real conditions, physicists like Ted Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had consistently questioned the feasibility of BMD systems to undertake credible interception of long range missiles when there is possibility of counter-measures like decoys being used by incoming missiles. Arguing that the current level of BMD technology developed by the MDA does not have the capability to tackle counter-measures, this group has called for operational testing under 'actual conditions'.

    Third, the MDA was under intense pressure after mixed results on various programmes of its multilayered BMD architecture. Until September 2006, most of these programmes had gone through successive test failures, putting a question mark on their future. The Bush administration had planned deployment of an initial operational capability of GBMDS by 2005. Till December 2002, the MDA had conducted eight tests with interceptor vehicles, scoring hits in five of these though under carefully controlled conditions. After a failed attempt in December 2002, the Pentagon suspended further flight testing until a new booster could be developed, which occurred in mid-2004. But two consecutive interceptor failures with the new booster in December 2004 and February 2005 had raised doubts on the future of this programme. There were serious glitches in the Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV), which needed further modifications. After a hiatus of one and a half years, marked by insinuations and pressures from various sections, the MDA undertook a successful intercept in September 2006. Though this test raised new hopes on the GBMDS, the aborted attempt in May 2007 again generated brickbats for the Agency.

    The purported success of the September 28 test has to be placed in this context. The MDA claimed that the test was conducted under real operational parameters during which the EKV had performed to optimal requirements placed by the Agency. Soon after the test, Obering had declared that "early evaluations of the test data indicated that the interceptor missile's rocket motor system and exo-atmospheric kill vehicle functioned as expected". The interception occurred at the 100-200 km exo-atmospheric range, and was tracked by the SPY-1 radar and the high-powered Sea-Based X-Band radar deployed in an Aegis class ship. One of the mission objectives was also to test the capability of the upgraded satellite-based Early Warning Radar at Beale Air Force Base, which played a primary role in detecting, acquiring and targeting the 'enemy' missile launched from Alaska and passing crucial identification data to the fire control and communications unit that launched the interceptor missile. The Beale radar also fed the EKV with final target data and guided it towards the target for homing and final destruction.

    This successful application of the EKV in an operational environment signifies an important milestone for GBMDS, paving the way for functional steps towards deployment. Obering had already announced that the final part of the GBMDS tests would involve counter-measures. For this purpose, the X-band radar is likely to be employed as the primary guidance and engagement radar, which by its sheer coverage could provide increased capability to detect countermeasures. If that test were to be successful, the GBMDS would be totally on an operational track. Presently, two operational interceptor missiles are deployed at Vandenberg Air Force Base and eleven at Fort Greely, Alaska. The MDA's hasty decision to deploy them without completing development trails has invited criticism from various quarters. Another successful test could see the MDA rushing to operationalise the system by deploying an initial BMD complement in the Czech Republic and Poland before the end of the Bush administration's term.

    The MDA would prefer to operationalise as many systems of the BMD programme as possible in order to save itself from Congressional criticism. Amidst stronger scrutiny from the Congress and further budgetary cuts expected, the onus is now on the MDA to justify the heavy funding for the comprehensive BMD programme, which has now surpassed the $100 billion mark. In the revised budgetary allocations passed by the Senate in September, the MDA receives a total of $8.5 billion from the defence bill. Over the next five years, the Agency is expected to spend another $49 billion on developing and deploying various components of its layered defence programme.

    Even when the Senate made major cuts on the East European plan, it has not trimmed funding for other crucial programmes standing at the threshold of maturity like the Air Borne Laser (ABL), Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI), the Theatre High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), and the capability augmentation for Aegis BMD, which is currently the only operational component of the layered architecture. In fact, the Senate had increased funding for the Aegis programme by $75 million by aligning it with other R&D programmes. This system, deployed on Aegis destroyers, comprises of the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptor, which is claimed to have a range in excess of 200 km thus effectively making it an early ascent boost-phase interceptor. The missile operates in conjunction with the high-power X-Band radar, which is deployed on high seas and gains the first interception opportunity in the layered architecture. Being in a forward operational position, the system also has the first early-warning opportunity in the event of an intercept failure by the SM-3, thus alerting other systems to an enemy launch.

    Six Aegis destroyers equipped with 18 SM-3s are known to be deployed in the Asian seas, conducting the world's largest operational BMD patrol. Japan and Australia have already received the Aegis system for integration with their destroyers, thus forming the first component of a future East Asian Theatre Missile Defence. When the GBMD System is fully operationalised at Vandenberg and Fort Greely, and deployed in East Europe, they would initiate the chain of global deployments of US BMD systems.

    Other important projects of the layered defence, like the ABL, KEI, and THAAD are in advanced stages of technological maturity. The ABL programme, which got a major budgetary boost in September after the successful roll out of the modified Boeing-747 last year, is currently undergoing on-the-ground weapon system and integration tests. The Low Power System Integration-active flight test series, using a surrogate low-power laser (to replicate the high-power Combined Oxygen Iodine Laser [COIL] in the aircraft), was completed in August 2007 at Edwards Air Force Base. Once the field trails are complete, the High Energy Laser system has to be integrated on the aircraft for mid-flight trails. It is felt that the ABL system would be an ideal interception vehicle for its capability of intercepting missiles during the boost phase from an airborne platform. The flight test, expected in mid-2008, would be crucial for this programme. In the past, the aircraft has been known to suffer jitters, affecting laser targeting in mid-flight. Once this and other problems are redressed and flight tests completed, the aircraft will move to lethal demonstration against a boosting missile in 2009.

    On September 11, 2007, the MDA successfully completed development tests of the Stage 1 rocket motor for the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI). The KEI, an important component for the late boost-phase or early mid-course phase, is a three-stage, solid-fuelled rocket with a non-explosive kinetic energy hit-to-kill warhead which can travel at 12,000 mph. Under calibration currently is its kinetic kill vehicle, which employs a 'shotgun' approach by using several small kill vehicles aboard a single missile to defeat not only a hostile warhead but also any countermeasures. A crucial booster flight test for the KEI is scheduled for 2008, after which the system is likely to replace the SM-3 in the Aegis system.

    The last of these advanced technologies that is picking up pace is the THAAD system, which is reportedly preparing for operational deployment. This system had its own share of development failures and was sent back to the design table. With new improvisations, the THAAD system returned back to flight test stage in November 2005 and was subjected to many trails at the White Sands Missile Range. In January 2007, the system had two successful intercept tests, one of them under actual operational conditions. The system, which would be a unique upper endo-atmospheric interception capability, is moving through the final phases of deployment with the US Army.

    When each successful or failed test dominates news headlines, the ignored aspect is the giant steps these systems have trodden towards technological maturity. Every major technology goes through a laborious evolutionary process during which failures are treated by the protagonists as stepping stones towards success. The MDA seems to follow the same philosophy. For, intercepting and destroying long range missiles flying at speeds five times faster than sound, minutes after launch or in mid-course outside the atmosphere, is no easy task. The optimism on these technological breakthroughs was best captured by Obering when he affirmed with satisfaction that 22 out of the 23 tests undertaken since 2005 have been successful.