WASHINGTON: Boosted by a few strong years of testing successes, much of the United States’ missile defense technology that once was questioned is now ready to be fielded.
“A few years ago the question was, ‘Could you even hit a missile with a missile?’ We have proven we could do that well over 35 times,” Army Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O’Reilly, the director for the Missile Defense Agency, said in an interview at the Pentagon today.
O’Reilly said that 39 of the last 45 tries at stopping a test missile were successful. The failures were mostly at the start of the testing, and in the past few years, all hit their mark, except one that had a manufacturing problem. It was fixed, and three weeks ago successfully hit its target in a test, O’Reilly said.
Most of the new technologies fielded will be to bolster missile defense for deployed troops. Right now, O’Reilly said, forward deployed bases are exposed to missile threats and there is a large gap in U.S. capabilities to protect them.
This summer, both Iran and North Korea tested their ballistic missiles systems. And several other nations have as many as a few hundred such missiles in their arsenals.
“We want to provide the same level of protection against ballistic missiles that we enjoy today against cruise missiles or against aircraft,” O’Reilly said.
The Defense Department recently committed an additional $900 million toward fielding the Army’s theater high altitude area defense mobile missile defense system. The agency has finished seven of eight required tests of the system, and O’Reilly said he expects to see it in the field next year. The Army also will get some new radar systems.
The Navy’s Aegis-class ballistic missile defense ships are being equipped with some improved missiles. The Aegis ship’s capability was demonstrated to the world when it stopped a crippled reconnaissance satellite over the Pacific Ocean before it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere in February 2008. The Aegis ships will have a second-generation interceptor fielded next year, O’Reilly said. And the Pentagon has proposed converting six more Aegis-class ships to provide additional theater missile defense coverage.
“This capability will provide protection in the theater against ballistic missiles — short-range missiles, medium range and missiles up to ranges greater than 3,000 kilometers,” O’Reilly said.
As much as $8 billion is slated for additional missile defense technologies in the future, the general said.
Two demonstrator satellites will be launched into space next month. The pair of satellites will “talk” to each other, extending the capabilities of other sensors in place to detect missiles. By 2012, the agency will test the satellites, launching an interceptor from an Aegis ship toward a test target. This will allow the ship to fire at a target that is beyond its own radar ranges.
Eventually, O’Reilly said, the pair will be part of a larger constellation of connected satellites. Plans are to develop a satellite system that tracks missiles around the world.
“It’s just an extremely exciting area,” he said. “And all theaters across the world now are receiving missile defense command and control and will soon be receiving the capability.”
In the next five years, extensive testing will take place with more than 56 flight tests, many including multiple missiles in the air at the same time, across the entire Pacific Ocean. In that testing, the agency will use a mix of satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles, ships and ground-based radars.