By Dave Ahearn

Some nations are interested in buying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile defense (BMD) system, John Young, the chief Pentagon weapons buyer, told Congress recently.

THAAD, made by prime contractor Lockheed Martin [LMT] with radar by Raytheon [RTN], is a mobile system taking out incoming tactical and theater enemy missiles.

Young, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, appeared before the House Armed Services Committee strategic forces subcommittee as it examined ballistic missile defense (BMD) programs.

He was asked whether any foreign nations have expressed interest in purchasing THAAD through the U.S. foreign military sales (FMS) program.

“We certainly have some nations that have expressed interest” in possibly buying THAAD, Young replied.

Lt. Gen. Trey Obering, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) director, also said there is overseas interest in purchasing THAAD, and that isn’t surprising.

“We do have one country that is fairly well down that path in terms of requesting authority to buy THAAD capability” under the FMS program, Obering said, while not specifying just which nation that is.

“For many countries, as you go around the globe, THAAD is a very attractive solution for nations that have” certain defensive protection needs against enemy missiles, Obering said.

He also was asked, however, whether selling THAAD could risk sensitive U.S. ballistic missile defense technology winding up in the wrong hands, going to foreign enemies.

“We are very serious about that,” Obering said. “We go through a very exhaustive process” in deciding what technologies the United States would feel comfortable in giving to allies, and in ensuring that any technologies that are sent abroad can’t be exploited by other nations.

He also was asked how FMS sales would help to keep the THAAD production line hot. But Obering said it is running now, adding that plans are in train to double production of interceptors in both the THAAD and sea-based Aegis programs.

The United States must develop Space Based Radar to spot enemy missiles that could be missed by ground-based radars, Obering said.

“We believe that’s extremely important as we move into the future,” he said. That is because the space unit would permit the United States to overcome a significant weakness.

In the area where enemy ballistic missiles would travel in the midcourse of their ballistic flight, “typically that’s the region that can be uncovered by ground-based radars for long periods of time.

“If we had a space…tracking and surveillance system that provided the same precision and track that we get from a ground-based sensor, we could close those gaps, so we could provide what we call birth-to-death tracking” of enemy missiles throughout their trajectories, Obering explained.

Separately, Obering said European nations which might have qualms about hosting U.S. ballistic missile defense systems permanently based in in-ground silos, such as the Ground- based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, might nonetheless be willing to host a mobile Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) system.

The United States, after long and difficult negotiations, is close to gaining permission from the Czech Republic to base a GMD radar there, and from Poland to install silos in the ground there that would be filled with GMD interceptors. But that took long, hard bargaining, while drawing furious opposition from Russia.

Gaining permission to use a mobile KEI system in Europe could be much easier.

Such a KEI system would be redefined from its current role of killing enemy missiles in their “boost phase” shortly after launch, into a new role of killing enemy missiles in the midcourse of the ballistic flight.

The high acceleration of the KEI interceptors would permit them to perform well in hitting enemy missiles in their midcourse of flight, provided the KEI were fitted with a more complex warhead, Obering said. If a mobile KEI system were developed, some European nations would “be very interested” in hosting it, he told the lawmakers. That allied interest sparked discussion of providing new configurations for KEI, and giving it a new midcourse mission, Obering said. KEI is led by prime contractor Northrop Grumman [NOC] and teammate Raytheon, along with other firms.

Currently, KEI is in competition with another BMD system, the Airborne Laser (ABL), for the mission of killing enemy missiles in their boost phase, shortly after liftoff from a pad or silo.

The ABL involves a heavily modified 747-400 jumbo jet contributed by prime contractor Boeing [BA], with a high-powered laser that kills enemy missiles contributed by Northrop Grumman, and a beam control/fire control system by Lockheed Martin to aim the laser.

Because the ABL system is proceeding well in development, it is expected to be awarded the boost-phase mission, provided it would be “operationally affordable,” Obering said. That would leave KEI to be used for a different mission, hitting enemy weapons in their midcourse of flight.

When a lawmaker asked Obering what would happen if, contrary to expectations, both ABL and KEI flunk their tests in shooting down target missiles, and the programs both fail, Obering said flatly that the likelihood of both failing would be “very low.”

If that were to occur, Obering said, the only alternative then for a U.S. ballistic missile defense system hitting enemy missiles in their boost phase would be to develop a BMD system that would involve interceptor missiles launched from an aircraft, or a BMD system that would reside in space.