The director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) poured cold water on the idea of easy boost-phase ballistic missile intercept due to both the difficulties in technical feasibility and how it gets close to being a strike operation.

Speaking during a Heritage Foundation event on Tuesday, MDA Director Vice Adm. Jon Hill underscored while the department needs to develop to boost-phase capabilities, there are several technical and concept of operations (CONOPS) limitations on it, if it’s ever ready.

Vice Adm. John Hill, Director of the Missile Defense Agency. (Photo: MDA)
Vice Adm. John Hill, Director of the Missile Defense Agency. (Photo: MDA)

Hill said using directed energy laser weapons to destroy a ballistic missile at high atmosphere is where the department researched before, with altitude needed to keep out of the range of surface-to-air missiles in a target country.

“That should start to scare you a little bit, because boost phase scares me a bit because it just gets so close to being a strike operation when you think about it.”

Hill added to make boost-phase interception usable you need to have “very exquisite” indications and warning as well as a track of the target in the boost-phase. He said  open source documents note there is only about 90 seconds from launch to burning out of boost phase of ballistic missiles “so it’s a very, very fast game, so that means whatever you’re using for boost phase has to be there.”

Hill also said while the department needs to continue scaling up laser energy power while scaling down the size and weight so it can be used on aircraft, he is skeptical suitable laser weapons would be technically ready and placed on suitable platforms in the near term. he said given the issues, “I think it’s pretty far away.”

The director implied, given North Korean geometry, in order to conduct boost-phase intercept, you would have to already be over their territory and it could be limited only to retaliatory operations.

“It’s not going to be a place you’re very comfortable being,” Hill said.

While Hill acknowledged the Defense Department has had discussions of using directed energy or various missiles for boost-phase intercept, he underscored a main problem is difficult concept of operations issues.

“It’s a very, very tough mission and I think if we do it at all, it will be post-first attack. So if we take and defend against a first wave and we’re able to get strike forces out, then boost phase is probably in that mix…”

However, he said, “it’s certainly not something we would do first because it really is so close to being a first strike that it’s a little scary. But the technology is very hard to do, the concept of operations is very hard.”