Ground-based missile defense: A winning hit

With baseball’s All-Star Game just around the corner we think of winners and the home run derby.  Statistics fly and fans consider batting averages of .333 as great, but a single batter will never carry a team to the pennant.  Babe Ruth’s average of .342 was complemented by Gehring’s .340 and the four other members of Murderers Row, who all hit above .279.  Together, their collective strength won the New York Yankees the pennant 6 times during the "Roaring 20s."

Missile defense operations are similar in that they require a synergistic team effort, but don’t be fooled by test statistics.  Sunday’s intercept of an intermediate range ballistic missile by the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system puts the preceding two failures into the context of developmental learning events and marks a major program success for the homeland’s missile defense.  The test validates an engineering solution in the Exo-Atmospheric Kill Vehicle (a variant known as CE-2) and confirms that the integrated system works.  The test also provides confidence that the desired level of  protection may be achieved by launching multiple interceptors if necessary.  It’s the collective probability of the interceptors, plus the additional data gathered by an integrated family of sensors, that ultimately provides the likelihood of an intercept  and resulting capability to protect the U.S.

ADVERTISEMENT
Some critics will attempt to dismiss the test as scripted or staged; that it was known  "when the target would be launched – the target’s exact dimensions; and the targets expected trajectory and speed…."  For test purposes the scripting may be somewhat true; however, the system under test must deal with what is real, not what is expected.

Technical and operational objectives drive test profiles and a target’s physical characteristics, like intelligence data, is part of system initialization data. But once the target launches - it is in free-flight and game-on.  The launch decision and the interceptor’s flight path rely totally on the system’s operational architecture – its supporting sensor and communications network.  GMD’s battle management system integrates this data and guides the interceptor to a point and then the interceptor’s Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) guides itself to the intercept point. 

Actual target and interceptor telemetry data collected during flight is not part of the kill chain or operational architecture.  It is part of the ‘truth data’ that is critical to post-test analysis.  Engineers predict what should happen and this data confirms what did happen. 

Sunday’s test, like most of the GMD tests since 2009, was an operational and technical test.  The operators have no knowledge of the actual target launch time; their first indication of launch is from the sensor network.  The decision loop stems from the operations centers at USNORTHCOM and the Pentagon through the actual integrated missile defense network, not through Missile Defense Agency engineers.

GMD’s operational architecture and integrated battle management system performed well on Sunday, discriminating the myriad of target debris and objects, and enabling the interceptor to rapidly identify the target’s warhead.  The end result was a single shot-kill – pretty good for a complex system going against a ballistic missile launched almost 5,000 miles from the homeland.

Sunday’s test validates the Exo-Atmospheric Kill Vehicle’s effectiveness and clears the way for procurement of 14 additional interceptors.  It also validates the engineering process and grows the knowledge-base to enable evolution of the current family of missiles. Now is not the time to balk - Congress should fully support this procurement, MDA’s missile refurbishment and upgrade program, and the near-term redesign of the EKV that makes it more modular and open in architecture to further enhance the interceptor’s reliability, effectiveness, and enable future improvements.

The U.S. can’t wait for the ‘perfect system’ - if there really is such a thing. The threat from rogue states like Iran and North Korea are clear.  Now the U.S. has a means to field a comprehensive team that achieves a synergistic capability of protection that is far better than going into the batter’s box without any bat at all.

 

Retired Maj. Gen. Francis Mahon is a former Commanding General of an Army Air and Missile Defense Command and a former Director of Test in the Missile Defense Agency.