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ABL, KEI Missile Shields Must Improve: Obering

By | August 21, 2006

      HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – Each of the anti-ballistic missile programs to kill enemy missiles just after launch has improved measurably, but further advancements must be achieved in those ballistic missile defense (BMD) programs, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry A.”Trey” Obering III, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) director.

      He referred to the Airborne Laser (ABL) program led by The Boeing Co. [BA], and the separate Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) by Northrop Grumman [NOC] with Raytheon [RTN].

      Both programs face critical points in 2008, Obering noted.

      The ABL, for example, will face a missile intercept test in 2008.

      Obering observed that separate elements of the ABL system have functioned well, but they now must be melded into a workable, cohesive system. “They have to put it all together,” he said.

      Obering spoke to defense journalists in a media briefing, after he addressed the 2006 Space and Missile Defense Conference, where an audience of hundreds was filled with key military programs leaders, and with senior managers from defense contractors.

      As for KEI, Obering said he must see whether the interceptor can be improved to attain very rapid accelerations as it streaks to collide with and destroy an incoming enemy missile.

      Each program must meet strict criteria if it is to survive, he indicated.

      “We will make adjustments … or downselect to one” program, he said, deciding whether to move forward or terminate a program.

      These are critical BMD programs, because they arguably offer the best chance of success in defeating an enemy ballistic missile attack.

      Both ABL and KEI are to be able to destroy an enemy missile shortly after it is launched, before it has a chance to emit multiple warheads or confusing decoy vehicles.

      Other U.S. BMD systems focus on attacking an enemy missile in its later mid course or terminal phases of the ballistic flight trajectory.

      Boeing, on the one hand, and Northrop/Raytheon, take very different approaches to annihilating an enemy missile in its early boost phase of flight.

      With the Northrop/Raytheon KEI, a missile used to his another missile, critics have said this is like trying to have a bullet hit another bullet in mid-flight, yet this technology has worked against various types of target missiles.

      If KEI misses hitting the incoming missile, it might have another change of hitting the threat later in its trajectory.

      Northrop and Raytheon KEI leaders said at a media briefing that their system is progressing well.

      They also said they hope to sell KEI, conceived as a land-based program, as a sea-based asset for the Navy.

      “We showed the concept works,” said Craig Staresinich, Northrop vice president of the mission systems sector. “We hope to become sea-mobile with this [KEI] system.”

      In contrast, with the Boeing ABL, a giant steer-able laser mounted in a Boeing 747 aircraft, the challenge is using the laser beam capable of disabling the guidance and electronics in an enemy missile.

      This involves Northrop developing a laser beam of sufficient strength, and a capability to aim the beam at a missile despite atmospheric distortions of the beam.

      While this involves new technology challenges, the ABL in a sense provides a better opportunity of defeating an enemy missile, because if it works it doesn’t involve a one- shot, one-point-in-space chance of killing the incoming missile. Rather, the laser beam can focus continually on the enemy weapon until it is destroyed.

      Obering indicated 2008 will be a momentous year for both ABL and KEI, not predicting what the outcome will be.

      On another point, however, Obering said he has certainty now, without waiting: the fact that North Korea failed in firing off a long-range missile last month is no cause for U.S. strategists to give thanks.

      While the Taepo Dong-2 missile exploded just seconds into its first stage boost, that doesn’t mean the North Korean missile threat has evaporated, Obering warned.

      The isolated communist regime still possesses “all of the key capabilities” that it demonstrated in the 1990s, when it fired a long-range missile that arced over Japan and fell into the ocean, Obering observed.

      Therefore, “I don’t take a lot of solace in the fact they had a failed test,” he said.

      The North Korean threat is a major reason the United States has moved to erect a multi-layered ballistic missile shield.

      But North Korea isn’t alone in posing a sinister danger to the United States and its allies, Obering said.

      For example, Iran has shown interest in obtaining missile capabilities. As well, Iran has flouted the will of Western powers as it processes nuclear materials.

      While Pentagon leaders suspect Iran is preparing to produce nuclear weapons, Iran claims it is making fuel for nuclear reactors generating electricity.

      With Iran, it is vital to assess, accurately, both the intent and capabilities of the rebellious nation, Obering said.

      But whatever Iran may be up to, it is imperative for Western powers to be able to counter threats from that region, Obering said.

      To that end, he urged creation of a third ground-based ballistic missile defense installation in Europe which could take down hostile missiles launched by Middle Eastern nations, he said.

      Sources have said a problem here is that if the BMD installation is too far forward, near threatening nations, a failed attempt to take down an incoming enemy missile could leave European nations helpless to kill the weapon before it reached its target. But siting the BMD installation to the rear of the theater could mean chunks of the enemy warhead- – possibly nuclear material–would fall on some European nation, a politically difficult issue.

      Obering conceded that there is some concern in Europe over falling remnants of destroyed enemy missiles. It is true that Europeans have “expressed concern about the debris issue,” he said.

      But such concerns are misplaced, he indicated. In U.S. BMD tests, the dummy warhead of the surrogate “enemy” missile was obliterated, he said. “We completely destroyed the warhead,” he said. The possibility of large chunks of a warhead surviving a successful intercept and kill would be “very, very small,” Obering said.

      As far as where the European BMD installation should be located, Obering said it should be capable of affording maximum protection to both Europe and the United States from enemy missiles streaking in from the Middle East.

      Asked by a reporter from Poland if the BMD installation might go there, Obering said that a site in Poland could be “very advantageous.”

      The United States would wish to have “a very close relationship” with whatever country finally hosts the BMD site, he said.

      As for another Middle East trouble spot, Obering was asked about Israel’s problems with Hezbollah firing hundreds of missiles into Israel, a barrage that has for the most part ended in a cease fire.

      A paper from the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area think tank, suggested that Israel might counter those numerous, cheap short- and medium-range missiles with a laser system, Skyguard, based on the Tactical High-Energy Laser (THEL). Northrop developed Skyguard.

      While not commenting directly on possible Israeli use of directed energy missile defense systems, Obering said the U.S. military would work with Israel on finding technology to defend itself.

      On other points, Obering said:

      • The threat of ballistic missiles being launched into the United States won’t disappear in the 21st century. “The missile threat is real, and I believe it will remain there,” he said.
      • MDA is overseeing programs making steady progress toward erecting a missile shield against this threat.
      • ABL, KEI, the Ground-based Missile Defense, sea-based (Aegis), and Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems all are combining to help provide that shield.
      • There have been multiple successes thus far in BMD tests.
      • U.S. capability will increase over the near term as more interceptor systems are established, such as in land-based silos and on more Navy ships.
      • U.S. BMD programs will strike a careful balance between putting money in technology maturation and increasing the number of BMD systems built.
      • This is a joint effort, where GMD can’t do its job without input from the Navy sea-based system and from space-based assets.
      • Goals that President Bush set for creating a U.S. missile defense shield are being met.
      • However, “we have major challenges ahead” to perfect that shield, and “we will meet them,” he said.

      *Japan has been a good partner in missile defense, such as providing for a missile defense radar installation.

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