Missile defense too critical for 'ready-fire-aim' strategy

Missile defense too critical for 'ready-fire-aim' strategy
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In the news, in the halls of Congress, within the Pentagon and on the minds of the American people, ballistic missile defense remains a weighty and timely topic. But it is also one that is often the subject of superficial, “sound-bite” solutions.  

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA), a highly professional and serious-minded organization with a very tough job to do, is being prodded by some to take a short-term approach to the missile defense of Hawaii and the Pacific with its new Homeland Defense Radar (HDR) programs. 


While defending Hawaii and the Pacific is a real and imminent challenge, it deserves to be met thoughtfully, responsibly, and above all, adequately. Congress can, and should, help the MDA do just that.


At issue is whether MDA’s current approach will actually deliver the required capabilities once fielded, ostensibly in the 2023 timeframe. The plan envisions MDA to procure three Homeland Defense Radars, using up to three separate contracts concluded under a full and open industry competition.   

However, what is currently lacking is a set of rigorous, unambiguous requirements that will ensure the radars will, once fielded, be able to address and successfully operate within the actual threat environment. 

Without these requirements being successfully met, we risk buying and fielding a system that is at a minimum inadequate, and at the worst, obsolete the first time a warfighter turns on the switch. 

MDA is, no doubt, responding to a political environment best characterized by, “Do something — anything!”  Following the commander of Pacific Command (PACOM) testifying before Congress on the subject of ballistic missile defense for Hawaii, a prominent and powerful congressman stated that we had “lost so many years” to the threat, and there was no more time to study the problem.  

An axiom in life states, “if you want it bad, you get it bad.” Our national treasure is too valuable to be squandered in such a ready-fire-aim manner. 

The air and missile defense environment is changing at an ever more rapid rate, both with our adversaries and their capabilities, as well as with our emerging technology and industrial capability.

Admiral Harry Harris, PACOM Commander, has testified, “Given where we think the North Korean capability might be in terms of their missiles in three or four years or in the early 2020s, I think we must continue to improve our missile defenses.” 

On the plus side, the U.S. defense industry stands on the precipice of bringing fully digitized sensors into production to support an integrated air and missile defense capability.

Defense stalwarts are bringing the best of the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar technology coupled with an all-digital design from the airborne fighter jet arena to terrestrial sensors, greatly enhancing their capability not only against ballistic missiles, but against multiple other threats.

Any defensive capability bought by the American taxpayer should be flexible and adaptable enough to defend against the myriad threats that will threaten our homeland. Some threats are long-standing, such as ballistic missiles, and others have only recently been fielded or are just on the horizon, such as stealthy cruise missiles and hypersonic missiles.  

MDA should leverage this emerging digital technology by absolutely requiring its inclusion in the HDR family of programs, instead of risking fielding an inadequate or obsolete system and simply doing more of the same.

However, to fully benefit from this transformation, digital technologies must be paired with another emerging capability — Open Mission System Architecture. 

Admittedly, “open architecture” is the latest Department of Defense (DoD) and defense industry buzzword, but this software-driven concept represents the real revolution in defense systems acquisition. It is being demanded by DoD in programs as diverse as satellite control software and light attack aircraft. 

This architecture will allow a sensor to be rapidly reprogrammed to the evolving threat without lengthy and costly software “patches” or hardware upgrades, both only available from the prime contractor. 

In fact, Congress should demand that all new DoD acquisition programs be built with an open, contractor-agnostic architecture, which allows for rapid reprogramming and inherent flexibility, as well as another potential secondary effect: more competition from smaller, agile companies in a dwindling industrial base now dominated by mega-corporations. 

None of the above should be taken to imply that nothing should be done now to mitigate the ballistic missile threat to Hawaii. PACOM Commander Harris, as well as former Deputy PACOM Commander Lt. Gen. Dan Leaf, USAF (ret.), have both called for the deployment of existing, proven systems to the islands, including Aegis Ashore, THAAD and either SM-3 or MDA-provided Ground Based Interceptors.  

These systems have already been developed, are fielded and represent an off-the-shelf temporary defensive capability, while freeing MDA’s developmental dollars to pursue a truly capable, flexible and adaptable defensive capability.

Congress should help by allowing MDA to take this long-term view, not just for the benefit of Hawaii, but for the entire nation and our allies. 

Every dollar Congress appropriates should compete with every other dollar. Authorizers and appropriators, members of Congress and staffers alike, should support MDA and its mission through the true exercise of their fiscal responsibility, while providing the best capabilities to the warfighter. 

The American People deserve no less.

Retired Maj. Gen. Howard “Dallas” Thompson is a former chief of staff for NORAD/NORTHCOM and a former Air Force fighter pilot.