MDA Deputy Director O’Reilly To Succeed Obering As Director

Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering III, after providing stellar, sterling leadership for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) since 2004 that rescued troubled missile-intercepting programs, will step down from his post.

Obering also helped, successfully, to defeat efforts last year to kill or greatly weaken some missile defense programs.

He will be succeeded by his deputy, Maj. Gen. Patrick J. O’Reilly, who will be promoted to the rank of lieutenant general upon taking the reins at MDA. O’Reilly’s nomination by President Bush, which was announced by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, first must be confirmed by the Senate.

The news that Obering would be leaving MDA came in a very low-key, indirect way, via a cursory Department of Defense listing of O’Reilly’s proposed promotion, which didn’t mention Obering’s name. It is unknown at this point where Obering may move next.

But he leaves with a strong record of bolstering tested performance of U.S. missile defense programs.

As well, Obering and others successfully opposed attempts to weaken or kill programs by starving them of money. With a low-key, friendly and outgoing personality, Obering easily has made friends on Capitol Hill.

Last year, as Congress considered funding for MDA in the current fiscal 2008 ending Sept. 30, the House Armed Services Committee strategic forces subcommittee proposed hacking Bush’s request for $549 million for the Airborne Laser (ABL) program down to just $149 million.

After a months-long struggle, the program was saved, netting more than $500 million.

That was thanks in part to ABL meeting its program budget and schedule targets.

ABL involves a giant, heavily modified 747 jumbo jet freighter aircraft contributed by prime contractor The Boeing Co. [BA], with high-powered laser gear by Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] and a beam control/fire control system by Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT].

It uses a laser beam, traveling at the speed of light, to focus steadily on an enemy missile and bore a hole in the side of the missile, while also frying its electronics. Other BMD systems, in contrast, use a missile to hit a missile, which has been likened to a bullet hitting a bullet, with only one chance of success in killing the enemy threat, at one point in space and time.

ABL will hit enemy missiles in their most vulnerable phase, just after liftoff, before the enemy weapon has a chance to spew forth multiple warheads, decoys or confusing chaff. Most other BMD systems, in contrast, strike an enemy missile in its midcourse ballistic trajectory, typically in space, or in the terminal phase close to the target.

Obering noted recently that every component of ABL has been tested separately and shown to work. Now the components are being assembled to work as a coordinated whole, with a target missile shoot-down set for next year.

He also battled against proposals to kill funding for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) missile defense site in Europe, which if built also would be a Boeing-led effort.

The GMD system would involve a radar in the Czech Republic and interceptors in silos in Poland. Obering personally pressed for those countries to provide sites for the GMD system, and President Bush and Cabinet secretaries — Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — have urged those nations to provide the sites.

Both the nations have indicated the talks are close to bearing fruit, with a likelihood that the GMD European system will be built, in addition to two other GMD installations in Alaska and California.

The European GMD system would counter enemy missiles that might be launched by Middle Eastern nations such as Iran. It has developed steadily longer-range missiles, launched a missile from a submerged submarine, and persisted in developing nuclear materials. Western leaders fear those fissile materials will be used to produce nuclear weapons that could be mounted atop Iranian missiles aimed at European cities or at U.S. troops in Europe. As well, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has vowed that Israel should be wiped off the map.

When Russia roared with anger and alleged the European GMD system really would be intended to knock down Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), Obering pointed out that there would be only 10 GMD interceptors in Poland, whereas there are hundreds of Russian missiles and nuclear warheads. In any event, Obering noted, the interceptors would lack the speed needed to catch and destroy Russian ICBMs.

Despite Russian rage, bluster and threats, Bush and a key Polish leader reached the outline of an agreement to have Poland host the interceptors. And Czech leaders have indicated a deal for the radar is likely as well.

Assuming those agreements eventuate, that will lift a roadblock to funding for construction of the European GMD site. Congress froze funding for construction work on the GMD sites until the Czech Republic and Poland agree to the plan. Until then, funds still can be spent on some items, such as program development work and buying assets even if they can’t yet be installed.

Since Obering took the helm, over the past four years, MDA has achieved repeated successes after a spotty record in earlier tests of ballistic missile systems.

The few cases where a target missile kill hasn’t been achieved typically stemmed from a problem with that target, rather than with any fault in the interceptor system.

Now, the future for MDA looks promising.

The sea-based Aegis weapons control system (Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT]) and the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) (Raytheon Co. [RTN]) interceptor have been used to shoot down a series of target missiles in steadily more complex tests.

And, shortly before Obering’s departure became known, that sea-based BMD system was modified to shoot down a disabled U.S. intelligence satellite carrying a tank full of toxic hydrazine fuel that could have threatened civilians if it had survived reentry and struck a heavily populated area.

The SM-3 smashed into the bus-sized satellite in a bulls-eye hit. Better, the SM-3 kinetic interceptor demolished the fuel tank full of hydrazine.

While this operation wasn’t advertised as a test of the sea-based ballistic missile system, the shoot-down certainly burnished its reputation as a potential missile defense asset.

Also on Obering’s watch, that sea-based system was brought to operational status and sent off the coast of North Korea, as that insular regime prepared to launch a series of missiles in a single test, including a long-range missile thought to be capable of striking the West Coast of the United States.

It was that last missile that was a point of concern. But before the sea-based BMD system had any need to attempt to shoot it down, the North Korean missile exploded seconds after launch.

Recently, Japan as well acquired and tested its sea-based missile defense system that has the Aegis and Standard Missile components.

Asked when Obering may be stepping down, an MDA spokesman indicated it likely wouldn’t be soon, given that O’Reilly first must be confirmed by the Senate. Thus Obering may remain in office for much of the current budget debate season in Congress, which is considering the MDA spending plans for fiscal 2009.