The most likely scenario in the event of a ballistic or cruise missile attack against the U.S. or its allies is not a single lofted shot. It is a “raid”—scores of ballistic and cruise missiles—launched at once in an attempt to overwhelm defenses.
Relative to the cost of defenses, ballistic and cruise missiles are inexpensive, and they continue to proliferate globally. Though many offending missiles could be shot down, a single success could score a psychological toll by penetrating the defensive shield of the U.S.
Until last month, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) had not displayed its ability to counter a raid. But in a first-of-a-kind flight test, it launched five threats—three ballistic missiles and two cruise missiles—against three defensive systems. “We worked many years to get to this point,” says Dennis Cavin, vice president of U.S. Army and missile defense programs for. “For the first time in a live-fire event, multiple weapon systems engaged a raid of multiple targets simultaneously,” say MDA officials. “The test provided an opportunity for the [combatant commanders] to develop and exercise operational concepts while gaining experience with a theater/regional [ballistic missile defense system].”
In Flight Test Integrated-01 (FTI-01) Oct. 24, these defenses scored four out of five defeats during the 20-min. engagement. Both cruise missiles were defeated—one by anship launching an SM-2 Block IIIA and another by a ; two of three ballistic missiles were intercepted. The MDA is studying why Aegis, a ship-based radar program led by Lockheed Martin, and its SM-3 Block IA missile, manufactured by , failed to shoot down its short-range ballistic missile target.
The raw score in such a test shows the bottom line. Had this been a real engagement, the Pentagon countered 80% of the threat. But the value of this type of exercise—especially for a first attempt—is not simply in the raw numbers. The complexity of this trial, which cost $180 million not including the prices of targets and interceptors, shows a growing maturity in the missile defense system.
Over the past decade, the Pentagon has focused on developing these regional and area defenses—Aegis and the SM-3 missile family, the Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense () system and PAC-3—designed to counter various short-to-intermediate-range threats. With those maturing through exhaustive testing and design work, the task ahead is now to monopolize on the strengths of the individual systems by networking them together, creating the Pentagon's long-sought-after layered defensive system that works as a single, cohesive shield, rather than a group of disparate programs.
Challenges are plenty. Networking requires data-linking to allow various sensors, such as a PAC-3 radar, to talk to various shooters, such as a Thaad missile. It also requires superior command and control so that operators know which shooters are going after which targets—referred to by the military as claiming target “ownership”—in order to avoid expending unnecessary interceptors on targets. And it demands that sensors such as infrared detectors and radars work cohesively from different vantage points in order to sort out debris and countermeasures from actual warheads, which is no small task as enemy tactics and technology improve. These issues must work within the minutes it takes an offending missile to fly to a target, as well.
In FTI-01, two Raytheon AN/TPY-2 radars were used: one attached to Thaad for tracking and fire control of its medium-range ballistic missile target and another based in a geographically different area in “forward-based mode.” In this mode, the X-band radar scans the horizon for ballistic threats. “It originally started out to be the fire-control sensor for Thaad, but we evolved it to be a forward-based sensor,” says Dave Gulla, vice president of global integrated sensors for Raytheon.
The forward-based radar fed data into the larger command-and-control system, which then cued Aegis, Patriot and Thaad sensors. “Demonstrating that connection with the TPY-2 in the forward-based mode with Aegis and Patriot . . . is extremely important,” says one senior industry official. “That radar has the range and the Aegis [S-band radar] has the legs—that makes for very powerful information.” In this mode, the Thaad radar is not searching for airborne threats such as cruise missiles, which would fly under its reach.
Both cruise missiles were successfully engaged. A PAC-3 destroyed a ground-launched MQM-107. And the Aegis deployed an SM-2 Block IIIA against the BQM-74E target, which was emulating an anti-ship missile. Because this interceptor uses a proximity-triggered blast-fragmentation warhead, intercept was not a goal. A warhead was not detonated because MDA officials planned to recover and reuse the target to save money.
Engagement of multiple airborne and ballistic threats in the same test is a step forward for the Pentagon. Individual systems such as PAC-3 have previously engaged a single air-breather and ballistic threat at once. But involving a second system adds a layer of complexity.
Integrating air and missile defenses is a challenge facing the Pentagon. Because missile defense was so nascent when it created the MDA (from its legacy as the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization), it was singularly focused on countering ballistic targets. Air defense programs continued to be developed among the individual services. But as the technology for both capabilities has matured, and with the successes of FTI-01, the senior industry official says the time is right to begin discussing how to integrate the two. “We need to start thinking more about integrated air and missile defense,” the official says. “That will be the next vector that they need to be focused on.”
Additionally, the use of new sensors, such as downward-looking infrared detectors mounted on Predator unmanned aircraft or on the Space Tracking and Surveillance Satellites, has provided valuable and precise data on the launch points of threats. These data call for the Pentagon to forge a better linkage between the defenses and offensive systems, the industry official says. Knowing these points will allow the Pentagon to attack them with any number of weapons, crippling an adversary's ability to operate from there.
Though FTI-01 broke ground for integrating the defensive systems, trials will continue on them singly as well. Before year-end, MDA plans to test the Aegis/SM-3 Block IB, which has an improved sensor and divert-and-attitude-control system; restart testing of the-led Ground-Based Missile Defense System; and attempt its first intercept with the Medium-Extended-Altitude Air Defense System, a joint program with Germany and Italy that is led by Lockheed Martin.
The U.S. Missile Defense Agency pitted the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system against an air-launched, medium-range ballistic missile as one of five near-simultaneous engagements during an Oct. 24 test. To see video of the Thaad kill, check out the digital edition of AW&ST on leading tablets and smartphones or go to