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Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism
Pentagon Awards Two Major Missile Defense Contracts

Wade Boese

In the span of a week, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) doled out two contracts worth close to $9 billion for future U.S. missile defense work. One contract is for developing an interceptor to hit missiles soon after they are launched, while the second is for building targets and decoys that will be used to test missile defenses.

On Dec. 3, MDA announced that Northrop Grumman Corp. won a competition to develop and test the proposed Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI), which is intended to intercept enemy missiles within the first three to five minutes of their flights. During this period known as the boost phase, missiles have yet to reach their top speed nor have they typically dispersed their warheads or any possible decoys. An enemy could employ decoys and other countermeasures to try to confuse U.S. systems from hitting a missile’s true warhead.

The new interceptor will be comprised of three boosters and a separating kill vehicle. MDA is seeking the ability to fire the interceptor, which will travel faster than six kilometers per second, both from mobile land- and sea-based platforms. The Navy is evaluating the possibility of putting the proposed interceptor on its Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers or ballistic missile submarines.

Basing such systems at sea or mounting them on mobile land-based platforms would have been prohibited under the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, from which the United States withdrew on June 13, 2002.

Northrop Grumman’s contract is worth approximately $4.5 billion over the next eight years, pending annual congressional approval of the Pentagon’s missile defense funding requests. Congress has trimmed less and less from proposed missile defense budgets in each of the Bush administration’s three years in office. Although shifting funds from one program to another, the Congress granted the Pentagon all but $5 million of a $9.1 billion request for fiscal year 2004. (See ACT, October 2003.)

The new program’s goal is to field the mobile land-based interceptor by as early as 2010. Tentative program benchmarks include building the first interceptor prototype between 2006 and 2008 and beginning flight testing in 2008.

MDA stated that the new interceptor would provide advantages over systems which would intercept enemy missiles later in their flight, including the possibility that, “in the event of a successful intercept, the missile and its payload of weapons of mass destruction…may fall back on the country from which it was launched.” An MDA spokesperson said Dec. 5 that the “optimum words here are ‘may fall back.’”

That assertion is at odds with a July 2003 American Physical Society (APS) study that found that “warheads or munitions and debris of an intercepted missile will not fall on the country that launched it.” The APS study reported that surviving munitions or debris from a boost-phase intercept would not fall straight down but continue on a ballistic trajectory. Although such intercept leftovers would not reach the original target, they could still potentially land on a populated area. (See ACT, October 2003.)

In general, the APS report concluded that boost-phase intercepts would be feasible under very limited circumstances, specifically intercepting slower moving, liquid-propellant missiles fired by countries with small territories. To handle such a mission, APS recommended that the interceptor would need to reach speeds between 6.5 and 10 kilometers per second and be positioned within 400 to 1,000 kilometers of the potential intercept location.

The APS study also warned that U.S. boost-phase defenses could have to contend with various enemy countermeasures, such as preprogrammed evasive maneuvering by the enemy missile or rocket-propelled decoys and jammers.

Targets and Countermeasures

In public statements, the Pentagon has downplayed the possibility that emerging ballistic missile powers, such as North Korea and Iran, will be able to develop effective countermeasures in the near term. But on Dec. 9, MDA set out to begin addressing the countermeasure issue by awarding Lockheed Martin Corp. with a flexible contract that could last for 10 years and be worth up to $4.6 billion to build targets and countermeasures for testing U.S. missile defense systems. That was welcome news to Lockheed Martin, which had lost the competition to head the KEI program six days earlier.

Lockheed Martin’s charge is to build targets and countermeasures that represent realistic threats that might plausibly be posed by future adversaries.

Members of Congress and outside scientists have routinely criticized MDA for “dumbing down” its missile defense intercept tests by not including realistic decoys. In its eight strategic missile defense system tests to date, MDA has employed balloon decoys that do not appear similar to the mock warhead. Those tests, the last of which occurred in December 2002, have resulted in five successful intercepts and three failures.