A report out this morning from the US National Academy of Sciences calls on the nation’s Missile Defense Agency to take a new tack on the age-old problem of stopping ballistic missiles before they fall on the homeland.
The report authors say it is time to abandon airborne lasers and super-fast interceptors that can catch a missile in its vulnerable boost phase (when it is attached to its rocket). Instead, the programme needs to network existing technologies together so that they can actually hit something travelling through the air.
The report backs up a 2003 study by the American Physical Society that essentially ruled out boost-phase technologies. In fact, the United States has been backing away from boost-phase-intercept technology, and it essentially ended its two main programmes in 2010.
Nevertheless, the idea “keeps coming up like a bad penny every spring”, says David Montague, a consultant and former head of Lockheed Martin’s missile systems division, who co-chaired the committee. Congressional supporters continue to believe that a system to catch warheads when they’re still attached to their rockets is the way to go.
Instead, the committee called for a focus on mid-course systems, which strike a warhead while it’s travelling high above Earth. Mid-course systems have been deployed on the US West Coast for years, but critics have questioned their ability to track a missile and differentiate it from debris and decoys.
Despite the criticisms, “the technology exists, we believe”, Montague told reporters in a conference call. In particular, the committee would like to see interceptors networked together with high-power radars, satellite monitors and smaller, faster interceptors. The integration of so much data, in real time, should allow for much better discrimination. It would also allow for a shoot-look-shoot approach that could allow data from a first interceptor to increase the chances of a successful second shot.
The committee made a slew of other recommendations, including a new base on the East Coast, probably in upstate New York or Maine, and the addition of powerful X-band radars at early-warning stations in the United States and Canada.
The committee clearly had no love for the Missile Defense Agency, which is responsible for the programme. According to Montague, the agency “basically was driven by exploring all the technologies that might be used”. Now, he says, they need to get serious about making the technologies they have work. That won’t come easily: the academy found that the agency has slashed the money needed to do the networking job. As for discrimination of warheads from other things: “We were not particularly impressed with what we heard on the subject,” he says.
It’s safe to say this won’t be the last word on the topic. The report is highly technical and is already being interpreted many different ways. Nor is the programme likely to change direction quickly — the authors say that it could be at least 7 years before the new, networked system is ready to go.