The White House's reversal on missile defense architecture plans reestablishes Boeing's position as producer of interceptors for stateside defenses against potential ICBM attacks from North Korea and Iran. It also scraps hopes for what would have been the first large interceptor booster in more than a decade and opens the door to an advanced kill-vehicle capability.

The Boeing-led Ground-Based Missile Defense program—with 30 long-range interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg AFB, Calif.—was curtailed four years ago in favor of fielding regional defenses. At the time, the Pentagon cited an uptick in proliferation of short-to-medium-range ballistic missiles.

Now, however, under Kim Jong Un, North Korea has conducted a third nuclear test, proven its advances in long-range missile technology and is vowing to target U.S. cities.

As a countermove, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says he will add 14 Ground-Based Interceptors (GBI) to the arsenal in Alaska and California and study the environmental impact of establishing a third GBI site on the U.S. East Coast. “We believe that this young lad ought to be deterred by that,” says Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, referring to Pyongyang's new leader.

But this approach reverts to older technology boosters. USAF Lt. Gen. (ret.) Trey Obering, former director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), notes that the first GBI was put on alert a decade ago, and even then its technology was mature. He advocates continuing work on next-generation interceptors.

The administration's reversal found some support on Capitol Hill, where a number of members of Congress have been calling for completion of the purchase of 44 GBIs since the decision to scale back the program. The move hits the “Republican sweet spot,” says one industry source, citing a desire by conservatives to revive the Ground-Based Missile Defense (GMD) program. Some Republican lawmakers, however, have criticized both curtailing GMD years ago and bringing it back.

It also restores Boeing's position, which had eroded, in missile defense. The company's flagship directed-energy program, the Airborne Laser, was terminated in 2011 and GBI production had been stunted. Also, during President Barack Obama's first term, MDA competed Boeing's lucrative contract to manage GMD sustainment. Boeing eventually won it back, but the cost of the work dropped substantially.

An East Coast site, which could take up to six years to establish, according to Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), could require another 20 interceptors in addition to the 44 already planned for Alaska and California, experts say.

The policy change also returns the industrial balance to its state during the administrations of President George W. Bush, with Boeing leading production of large, long-range interceptors; Raytheon heading up sea-based interceptor work; and Lockheed Martin handling targets and manufacturing of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) interceptor.

Within months, Hagel also plans to put a second Raytheon AN/TPY-2 X-band radar on Japanese soil to complement the one in Shariki, in northern Japan. This would provide a “stereo” look at any missiles coming out of North Korea as well as better discrimination if they were to head across the North Pole for U.S. soil.

It is unclear where that radar will come from. Building the powerful sensors takes about 30 months, and all of those delivered are obligated: three to existing U.S. Army Thaad batteries; one each in Qatar, Turkey, Israel and Shariki; and another in the Pacific for testing. Plans are being made to select a non-deployed radar for use at the new Japan site.

Finally, the Pentagon will restructure what was known under then-MDA Director Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly as the SM-3 IIB long-range interceptor. This missile was to be introduced in the fourth phase of the incremental buildup of defenses to protect Europe and the U.S. East Coast first by 2020 and then, because of a slip, around 2022. Though it was only conceptual, the IIB would have been the first major new interceptor program in more than a decade. It represented an opportunity for Lockheed Martin or Raytheon to edge into the market of GBI makers Boeing and Orbital Sciences Corp.

O'Reilly pushed the SM-3 IIB as a way to conduct an “early intercept” from Europe of an incoming Iranian missile.

Industry officials say the restructured SM-3 IIB will no longer focus on a booster and kill vehicle but drive solely for the latter. The Raytheon Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV), the hit-to-kill mechanism developed by Raytheon for the GBI, relies on “1980s technology tied to a '70s architecture,” says Nick Bucci, director of missile defense development programs for Lockheed Martin.

EKVs were quickly developed in response to Reagan's urgent call for a homeland missile defense capability and thus were not designed with ease of production in mind. They also use old mission computer technology and have suffered from reliability issues.

“This is a real opportunity to look at more robust, more reliable and lower-cost solution,” says Doug Graham, vice president of advanced programs for Lockheed Martin's missile defense business.

The GBI has not successfully intercepted a target since December 2008. The most recent issue was with the next-generation EKV's gyro guidance system, which will be tested against a target again late this year. Boeing has delivered 48 booster stacks, but production and assembly of the EKV has been on hold since January 2011 while engineers worked to fix to the gyro issue. In the meantime, Hagel announced a test of the GBI with its existing EKV in the summer.

Advances in miniaturization as well as in the focal plane arrays used by interceptors to discriminate their targets in space and propulsion systems could point to a new kill vehicle design that is easier to produce and more reliable, industry sources say. Goals will be to destroy maneuvering targets and achieve a volume kill.

“The focus will be not on the state of the art but on what is doable with today's technology, in a smarter way ,” says one industry official. “The IIB program was ill conceived.”

This shift also effectively restores the U.S. missile defense architecture to that left by Bush, though his plans were to place the third GBI site in Poland rather than in the U.S. Missile defense advocates applaud the reversion; many say the SM-3 IIB plan was exposing the U.S. right flank to a vulnerability, as the interceptor was slated to be fielded in 2022.

Hagel says all 14 new interceptors will be at Fort Greely in 2017. Conservative intelligence estimates suggest an ICBM attack from Iran could come as early as 2015. Ayotte and other lawmakers say the administration should proceed with adding the 14 interceptors and building a third site on the East Coast. But she wants to continue SM-3 IIB work until that third site is functional.

Third-site options are Fort Drum, N.Y., and Caribou, Maine, the hometown of Sen. Susan Collins (R) near the Canadian border. Obering suggests that the so-called Ground-Based Radar-Prototype built by Raytheon and now used at the Kwajalein Atoll for testing, could provide significant sensor coverage if moved to the East Coast. Congressional sources say moving that radar and setting it up would cost about $400 million.

However, missile defense advocates say the wording of Congress's direction to conduct an environmental impact review of East Coast sites does not restrict the Pentagon to a GMD solution. It could also allow for land-basing of the SM-3 IBs now being tested or the larger, more maneuverable SM-3 IIA being developed jointly with Japan. The fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act directs the Pentagon to study the need for three more missile defense sites in the U.S., two of them on the East Coast.

Along with basing some Thaad batteries on the coast, this could provide defense against a ship-launched missile.

But Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who leads the Senate Armed Services Committee, contends that the Pentagon's study could conclude that a third site in the lower 48 states is not required. “There's a couple things underway that may show we don't need a site,” Levin says.

There could be more programmatic reverberations from the policy announcement, too. Obering says the Sea-Based X-Band radar, a massive sensor mounted atop a floating oil rig, will likely be used again. It had largely been shelved due to unreliability and operating cost. The radar could be based in Hawaii and activated and transported around the Pacific as needed, he says.

Though missile defense advocates see the shift as an opportunity to offer new ideas and dust off existing technologies such as Sea-Based X-Band radar, all of these will be measured against stiff pressure to reduce defense spending.

This article reflects a correction made after the print version went to press.