Next-Generation Interceptor: How America Will Kill Nuclear Missiles
There are many very serious threats the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and the defense industry are working quickly to counter. These dangers include mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear weapons traveling at hypersonic speeds. Also of concern are multiple precision-guided re-entry vehicles and multiple missiles attack at once, each with several separating warheads. The MDA hopes to counter these problems through a series of innovations, including new weapons such as power-scaling lasers. Perhaps of greatest consequence, the MDA also has a Next-Generation Interceptor (NGI) initiative aimed at deploying a new missile defense weapon by the end of the decade.
The MDA is planning to award two developmental contracts for the NGI, a weapon intended to integrate the best current innovations with the technical infrastructure necessary to accommodate new technologies as they emerge.
While naturally, neither the MDA or its industry partners are offering detail regarding specifics of the new weapon, which will replace the existing Ground-Based Interceptors, there are some general parameters which the MDA does discuss. The new interceptor, to fully emerge by 2028 or so, will need to be “fast” and likely armed with multiple “kill vehicles” such that it can take out several ICBMs at one time in space, should that be necessary.
“The MDA has stated to all of the vendors that current threats cannot be met with a single kill vehicle on the interceptor,” Feehan said. “Credible systems that can be deployed on time to dramatically increase capability against tomorrow’s threats and build in the flexibility to be advanced enough to counter future threats,” Terry Feehan, Northrop Grumman’s vice president and program director for NGI, told The National Interest in an interview.
Northrop Grumman has partnered with Raytheon on an NGI development program to optimize innovations and technical progress from each company through programs such as Northrop’s Ground Based Strategic Deterrent ICBM and Raytheon’s SM-3 Block IIA interceptor missile, both of which harness breakthrough technologies in the areas of sensing discrimination, targeting precision, range and functional reliability.
The concept, as explained by Raytheon Missiles & Defense director and NGI Deputy Program Manager for NGI Melissa Morrison-Ellis, is to architect a new high-speed interceptor with promising new-generation technologies from some existing cutting-edge weapons programs.
“MDA told industry ‘don’t bring us paper rockets, we want you to bring us technology-proven capability that you can integrate and bring to bear,’” Feehan added.
The idea with this kind of developmental strategy, Missile Defense Agency developers have told The National Interest, is to engineer new systems which can quickly and consistently be upgraded and modified as needed, according to the threat. One official specifically cited NGI, of course without adding any detail, saying it would likely be ready by 2028 and that it would draw upon MDA’s longstanding technical developmental strategy.
“We continuously upgrade and improve our existing systems to make sure the warfighter has the most effective system available to defend the country. We call it spiral development where we put something that is working out into the field and then don’t stop there. We look for the next improvements such as software upgrades,” Mark Wright, Chief Spokesman, Missile Defense Agency, told The National Interest.
Known for its SM-3IIA interceptor, which for the first time in history, recently destroyed an ICBM-type target, Raytheon intends to further refine and advance its seeker technologies designed to guide kill vehicles. These upgrades will include the ability to discriminate and discern between multiple objects flying quickly through space. Interceptors, seekers and kill vehicles will increasingly rely upon a need to distinguish decoys from actual ICMBs, debris or other countermeasures intended to confuse interceptors, therefore improving the prospects for an ICBM to pass through to its target.
Known for the Exo-Atmopsheric Kill Vehicle and previous progress with a Multiple Kill Vehicle interceptor, Raytheon hopes to build upon technical advances to engineer a new generation of promising, precision-guided kill vehicles. While neither Raytheon or Northrop elaborated on any technical specifics related to their offering, it is indeed quite likely that any NGI offering will seek to incorporate multiple kill-vehicle interceptors and a new generation of seeker technology to discern and target threats and, if needed, destroy multiple ICBMs at one time.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.