$400 million ballistic missile defense award

Published 5 January 2009

The Bush administration awarded Boeing a $400 million contract for Ground-based Midcourse Defense interceptors; it may well be the last large ballistic missile defense contract, as both Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress have shown little interest in the program

The Democratic Party was never keen on the ballistic missile project initiated by President Ronald Reagan two-and-a-half decades ago, and President-elect Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress may well make major cuts in the program. Still. “there is only one president at a time,” as Obama likes to say, and the administration of the current president has just awarded a $400 million contract for one of the most controversial missile-defense weapons — the Groundbased Midcourse Defense (GMD) rocket interceptors. The contract award was announced by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) on 30 December. The MDA stated that the deal was on a “cost plus” basis, though not to exceed $397,900,000. Under the contract, Boeing will “continue development of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program; including Block 3 development and fielding activities for six months until a long-term, Core Completion contract for development can be awarded.”

Register’s Lewis Page writes that the existing GMD systems are large, triple-stage rocket stacks designed to lob a single exo-atmospheric kill vehicle up into the path of objects traveling on ballistic trajectories beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Such objects would normally be “threat clusters” made up of warheads and decoys launched by enemy ICBMs. They would smash into the U.S. kill vehicles, destroying themselves as much by their own kinetic energy as that of the interceptor.

Such extra-atmospheric kinetic kill vehicles can also be fired into space by the Standard SM-3 missile from U.S. Navy warships. According to the MDA, though, the Standard can not lob kill vehicles high enough to reach threat clusters thrown by serious, long-ranging ICBMs on the midpoint of their arc: only the bigger, land-based GMD rockets can do this. Standard naval jobs would need to be nearer the beginning or the end of the enemy warheads’ trajectory, or be dealing with less puissant enemy launchers — perhaps theater range missiles, rather then real intercontinental ones.

Page notes that despite their potentially greater capability, the expensive GMD rockets do not have the same reputation for reliability and efficiency as the Standard SM-3. Critics of the U.S. missile defense effort would normally mark the GMDs — and the equally controversial raygun jumbo jet, the Airborne Laser — for the chop ahead of the Standard. Many people are expecting some such announcement shortly after Obama takes up power in Washington in January.

The MDA is undaunted. The new Block 3 developments, according to previous statements, will add 14 new GMD rockets in Alaska, and will see “more sophisticated sensors and algorithms” across the whole GMD system, designed to pick out enemy missile warheads from their accompanying cloud of decoys and launcher debris. In particular, much of the new warhead-sniff tech would be implemented at the long-range radar warning stations at Fylingdales in the United Kingdom and Thule in Greenland.

The following stage, Block 4, if we get there, is intended to develop a new two-stage GMD rocket to be emplaced in Poland, offering some defense to “allies and deployed forces” in the region. The MDA is also pressing ahead with its “multiple kill vehicle” initiative, designed to put more than one kill vehicle aboard each rocket and so perhaps go some way toward dealing with the fact that a modern ICBM can easily send multiple warheads and decoys into space, overwhelming basic one-shot-one-kill defenses. Initial “hover testing” of a multiple kill vehicle carrier module was carried out last month, as was a successful intercept test of a normal, singleton kill vehicle shot from a GMD rocket.

It will be interested to see whether last week’s award was part of business-as-usual for the GMD program, or the last major chapter in a book about to close.