A top Missile Defense Agency official recently said its work on a new hypersonic missile defense effort is “throttled” due to new technology that has to be matured, but it hopes to ultimately accelerate the schedule.

“If you look at the program plan right now, it is a pretty extended timeframe. And that’s been throttled by a couple of reasons. Number one is there are new technologies that have to be established and matured and proven out,” Laura DeSimone, Executive Director, Missile Defense Agency, said on Aug. 17 during the Defense News

virtual SMD Debrief event following up on the Space and Missile Defense Symposium from earlier this month.

Raytheon Missiles & Defense concept art of a potential ship-based Glide Phase Intercept hypersonic defense system. (Image: Raytheon Technologies)
Raytheon Missiles & Defense concept art of a potential ship-based Glide Phase Intercept hypersonic defense system. (Image: Raytheon Technologies)

In 2021, MDA awarded contracts to RTX [RTX], Northrop Grumman [NOC] and Lockheed Martin [LMT] to develop and refine their concepts for the Glide Phase Interceptor (GPI) that seeks to defend against hypersonic glide vehicles (Defense Daily, Nov. 22, 2021).

Last year, MDA downselected to RTX and Northrop Grumman to continue refining their concepts (Defense Daily, June 24, 2022).

In April, former MDA Director Vice Adm. Jon Hill told a House panel he would appreciate funding to accelerate deploying GPI, but after the agency works through risk reduction and milestone A to be confident about acceleration opportunities (Defense Daily, April 21).

In the fiscal year 2024 budget process, Hill said he supports the first GPI deployment in the early 2030s but at that hearing lawmakers said they want to see the first deployment faster.  The House version of the FY ‘24 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes a provision requiring MDA to reach Initial Operational Capability (IOC) for GPI by the end of 2029, with 12 interceptors fielded.

When asked if this faster timeline is possible, DeSimone said, “I’d say that that’s everybody’s hope.”

While she would not comment on current draft legislation, she said MDA will continue to put as many resources as it can to accelerate GPI, but right now the agency has to focus on the current next steps.

“I think there will be opportunities. But let’s not get focused on when that first emplacement is, let’s get our work done that’s in front of us today.”

DeSimone noted MDA has already reached one major milestone when it moved from material solution to technology development.

“So both teams right now have the go ahead. And they’re working to mature their concepts, to mature the higher risk elements of the technology, and we’re looking forward to future reviews- watching that progress continue to mature,” she said.

DeSimone said she is telling the GPI team to focus on today’s work.

“The onus is on us to make progress to mature these technologies. And if opportunities present themselves that we possibly could accelerate the schedule, we’ll come talk to the department about that, and see if that’s possible.”

She said she tells the team to not get too caught up in the entire GPI development cycle until they emplace the first interceptor. 

More generally, DeSimone explained why MDA sees GPI as a promising engagement opportunity as part of a layered defense system.

“Engagement in the terminal flight, when you’re close in to what you’re trying to protect, can be really difficult, especially I’ll say in this missile class, where they’re coming in very high velocities and we have shorter reaction times and decision space. If we’re able to intercept and execute an engagement further out, it not only potentially cuts down if there’s a raid, it [also] gives us this decision space.”

However, she said another reason MDA is working on GPI is that it is currently an “uncontested battlespace.”

“So if we challenge our adversary in this uncontested battle space, we’re going to force them, if you will, to either maneuver or do something different. And it’s just a great opportunity to put in place a layered defensive capability that’s going to overall increase,” DeSimone said.

DeSimone did not announce any updates to cooperative GPI work with Japan but said the discussions are “progressing.”

In March, Hill told reporters MDA was exploring working with Japan on cooperative development to produce GPI with Japan, similar to the model used on the Standard Missile-3 Block IIA (Defense Daily, March 16).

The House NDAA also authorizes the MDA director to enter into a cooperative agreement with international partners for development of GPI’s Full Operational Capability. 

DeSimone said Japan “has been a great partner to the Missile Defense Agency” with a lot of government and industry talent in the country. Since MDA and the Japanese government have been working on joint analysis, technology maturation for years “so as the need for the glide phase interceptor was identified, that was brought into the discussion to see, you know, are there opportunities to work together here.”

DeSimone said over the past six months DoD and the Japanese government have been meeting “really intensely”, looking at “different possibilities” related to GPI.

“So those discussions are advancing,” she added.