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Sea-Based BMD Hits Target Missile; Obering ‘Confident’ In Anti-Missile Craft

By | June 26, 2006

      By Dave Ahearn

      Hours after testing yielded yet another successful destruction of a target ballistic missile, the top U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) leader gave assurance that the United States now possesses the capability to hit an incoming enemy intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

      “Based on the testing that we have done to date, I am confident we could hit a long-range missile that would be fired at the United States,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry A. “Trey” Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). He declined to quantify in percentage terms his degree of confidence.

      His comments came as North Korea has assembled a long range Taepo Dong-2 missile on a launch pad, ready for a test flight despite the United States urging the isolated communist regime not to light off the missile.

      Asked whether U.S. BMD forces will attempt to shoot down the North Korean missile if it is fired, Obering indirectly indicated it would depend on which direction the missile flight path might take: toward the United States, or in some other direction.

      “If there is an attempt by [an enemy] to strike the United States, there has to be–there are certain trajectories that you have to fly, and we understand that,” he said.

      “The missile defense system is geared toward defending” American territory, he said. Therefore, “if someone is firing a missile into the South Pacific or … whatever, that would not be considered a threat to the United States.”

      This comes down to the basic design of the system, he indicated.

      “The [BMD] system would not attempt to engage something outside of what it was told to do,” meaning to engage against any missile targeting the United States.

      That said, however, Obering noted separately that North Korea, in its avowed development of nuclear weapons and missiles, is a key reason the United States began assembling a multi-layered ballistic missile shield.

      “We deployed the system with the North Koreans in mind,” he said, examining their intent and capabilities.

      Even if the United States doesn’t use ballistic missile defense against any North Korean ICBM, U.S. forces still would gain from the rogue nation launch. While Obering declined to comment on intelligence gathering efforts, he indicated that “common sense” dictates such a North Korean missile launch would create rich opportunities to gather information on their missile technology, how it works and more.

      Obering declined to comment on reports that the United States has moved its BMD systems to operational status ahead of the possible North Korean missile launch. Describing whether a system is operational is up to others, he said; for BMD participants such as himself, “We provide capability.”

      He noted that development of the missile shield isn’t conducted in a traditional manner. Rather, there can be fielding of an early version of a BMD system with limited capability, with development and advancement to a desired level. Then further advancements may be produced and inserted in the system and it returns to the testing phase.

      He answered questions from defense journalists in a news conference after speaking before a National Defense University Foundation breakfast at the Capitol Hill Club

      Successful Test

      Obering was elated at the successful test, the latest in a series of target-missile take-downs. The score at this point is seven hits out of eight attempts by the MDA and the Navy.

      Especially in the sea-based portion of the multi-layered BMD system of systems, American forces have enjoyed repeated wins.

      The ballistic missile threat target was launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands, Kauai, Hawaii. Then the Aegis system spotted the target missile, and the intercept race began.

      This sea-based test was notable in that it involved a different cruiser, the USS Shiloh (CG 67), as the lead ship, Obering noted. Prior tests have seen the USS Lake Erie (CG 70) play the key role.

      The Shiloh fired a Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) as the interceptor to take down the target missile.

      Importantly, the target this time was smaller, and yet a kill still was achieved. The target was a separating component, splitting away from a propulsion phase unit. The SM-3 thus had to discern correctly which was the target, and eliminate it.

      Contractors involved in the sea-based missile defense program include Raytheon [RTN], which makes the SM-3 kinetic warhead that actually performs the job of killing the target missile (Raytheon also makes an infrared seeker, signal and image processor and integrated software); Lockheed Martin [LMT], maker of the Aegis radar and control system that guides the SM-3 to the kill; Boeing [BA] which provides warhead avionics, guidance and control hardware and software and other items; and many other firms.

      Obering also advanced a stout defense of the missile shield program generally.

      For years, critics have alleged that missile defense tests are rigged for success, such as by “telling” the interceptor missile where to find the target.

      This is just not true, Obering said.

      “We are not cheating on these tests,” he stated. Rather, targets are launched and move over a broad area, where intercepting them is difficult but successfully achieved, he indicated.

      As far as complaints that BMD systems have been deployed without sufficient testing, Obering indicated that such assertions fail to appreciate that BMD is a spiral development effort, where an initial system is rolled out, and then successively improved with technology after technology being inserted in the system. There never was an attempt to wait until a final system could be fielded with every last capability fully developed and tested, he said.

      He also rejected as wrong complaints that the missile defense effort lacks oversight. “We don’t have standard oversight, but we have sufficient oversight,” he said.

      Other critics fault the cost of the BMD systems. But Obering said one must have perspective in this area. All of the BMD programs combined total about $90 billion thus far. But the costs of just the 9/11 attack alone are approaching that level, and the 9/11 terrorists used commercial airplanes instead of weapons of mass destruction, he noted. Obviously, just examining the matter on a dollars-and-cents basis, BMD is well worth the investment, considering the losses it averts, he reasoned.

      The United States is fortunate that policymakers didn’t listen to those critics’ carping, Obering said.

      Today, as a long-range missile sits on a launch pad in North Korea, a state building nuclear weapons, the United States is fortunate to have had decision-makers years ago decide to initiate a missile defense program, and have those assets deployed now, he said.

      “Thank God we started” years ago, he said, and didn’t wait until now, just as North Korea may test an ICBM.

      He also was upbeat on the Airborne Laser system, which uses a steer-able laser beam in a Boeing 747 to fry systems in an enemy ICBM shortly after it lifts off from a launch site. Recent tests show the ABL can work, he said.

      Turning to a decision by Japan to cooperate with the United States on BMD, Obering said he is “very pleased” by that decision, which builds on “a very strong foundation” of Japanese-U.S. relations.

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