HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – The Army is on the losing side of a cost equation where it must deploy high-end, expensive interceptors to destroy relatively inexpensive but effective missile threats.
Lt. Gen. David Mann, chief of Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC), said several efforts are in the works to make Army missile defense technology more efficient and affordable. The United States finds itself on the wrong side of a cost curve where an increasing number of potential enemies possess relatively inexpensive cruise missiles. The Army would be forced to engage those threats with dramatically more expensive air defense systems, Mann said.
“We need better understanding of what is going on on the ground in terms of threat indications and warning, in terms of threat intentions, because quite frankly, if you look at the calculus problem in terms of the number of interceptors versus threat vehicles, we’re on the wrong side of that problem. We will never have enough interceptors.”
The service’s prototype mobile high energy laser could be the figure that rights the upended missile-defense calculus, Mann said. It is ready to field at a moment’s notice, but the 10-kilowatt version currently being tested is too weak to destroy ballistic missiles in flight.
“You really have to get into the hundreds of kilowatts if you are talking about missile defense,” Mann said March 16 at the Association of the U.S. Army’s 2016 Global Force Expo.
Currently the system is powerful enough to burn up unmanned aerial systems and other small, less sophisticated threats. Army engineers are developing new beam control and power generation technologies to enhance the laser’s power to between 50 and 100 kw., Mann said.
“We’re also looking at cruise missiles as we increase the output, beam control and the other associated components that make this capability effective,” Mann said.
The need for modernized, expanded missile defenses was driven home lately by provocative missile test launched by both North Korea and Iran, two of the U.S. military’s top perceived threats, Mann said. With constrained resources, SMDC is being asked to do more with the missile defense technologies it has.
“We work very closely with MDA and the integrated missile defense community to continue to modernize our capability set,” Mann said. “It is fair to say that there is not a lot of appetite for expensive, exquisite programs of record. Rightly so, Congress has directed us to optimize our current capabilities that we have as well as pursuing” next-generation missile-defense systems.”
Efforts are ongoing to modernize the Patriot missile system, Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries and to increase the per-shot capabilities of the Army’s ground-based interceptor missiles (GBIs), Mann said. Programs are underway to develop and field new radars, networked command-and-control systems and other component upgrades, he said.
“Patriot is going to be with us for years to come,” he said. “A lot of our partners have bought Patriot and so as we add different capabilities…we also have to make sure we upgrade the other components.”
The Army also is developing new sensors to ensure the efficient use of the limited number of available interceptors against actual threats. The long-range discrimination radar is a major effort to field technology that can pick out incoming missiles in crowded space and shoot them down instead of wasting missiles on inert or harmless debris.
Aside from upgrading existing missile defense systems, the Army also is rethinking how and when it defeats missile threats during the launch and delivery or an enemy warhead.
The Army’s missile defense systems are focused on destroying incoming warheads in the terminal-phase of flight, Mann said. A ballistic missile is launched and then progresses through boost, mid-course and terminal phases. Patriot, THAAD and Aegis are all focused on “the receiving end of the calculus problem,” he said.
“We have got to expand our perspective,” Mann said. “That is why we are looking at the boost phase in terms of directed energy capability. We are also looking at left-of-launch.”
Mann said the “most exciting technology” on the horizon is the multi-option kill vehicle, which gives a single ground-based interceptor to destroy multiple incoming missiles or other airborne threats.
“Many times when threat missiles are shot, it’s not just one re-entry vehicle that’s coming our way, it is multiple,” Mann said. “Having one GBI be able to address multiple threats sets is a key capability we are pursuing.”