Missile Defense Agency Seeks Universal Kill Vehicle

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is requesting $350 million over the next five years to develop a common kill vehicle that would work almost interchangeably with two of the major programs in its emerging global architecture, the Ground Based Interceptor and Standard Missile (SM)-3 family, according to U.S. Defense Department budget documents.

The congressionally mandated effort represents an infusion of research and development funding in kill vehicle technology that fills at least part of the void left by the cancellation of the SM-3 Block 2B interceptor program. The agency is requesting $70 million for the effort in 2014, budget documents show.

U.S. Defense Department officials believe a common kill vehicle would reduce risk and costs across the Ground Based Interceptor and SM-3 programs, as well as potentially increase their accuracy and reliability. The kill vehicles that top both interceptors are designed to home in on missile warheads and destroy them by force of impact.

The Ground Based Interceptor, designed to hit long-range missiles, is the primary interceptor for the Ground Based Midcourse Defense U.S. territorial shield. The SM-3, designed to engage short- and medium-range missiles, is operational aboard several U.S. Navy ships, with variants under development that could be deployed on land or at sea.

The common kill vehicle program will “address emerging threats and increase the protection of the homeland,” the documents say.

It is part of a larger increase to a ballistic missile technology fund, one that received a $126 million boost in U.S. President Barack Obama’s budget request for 2014. The common kill vehicle is not funded in prior-year budgets. 

Richard Lehner, an MDA spokesman, declined to comment on any aspects of the common kill vehicle effort, saying only that the agency is not doing any interviews at this time. 

Raytheon Missile Systems of Tucson, Ariz., is the contractor for the kill vehicles on the Ground Based Interceptor and the SM-3 family. Boeing Defense Space & Security of St. Louis is the prime contractor for the  Ground Based Interceptor; Raytheon is prime on the SM-3.

Common kill vehicle technology has been talked about for more than a decade, but the most recent incarnation of the program was  in response to direction in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013. Then, Congress called for a long-term plan, including modification and enhancements, for the Exo-Atmospheric Kill Vehicle and modifications to the vehicle used for the Ground Based Interceptor. 

The new technology “has the potential to increase the capability of all missile defense interceptors,” the budget documents say. It would also enable faster upgrades and replacements, the documents say.

Eventually, MDA officials hope for the capability “to destroy several lethal objects from a single missile” as well as recognize decoy warheads from the real thing, the documents say. 

The ability to destroy multiple objects from a single missile was the objective of an MDA program dubbed the Multiple Kill Vehicle, which was canceled a few years ago.

The common kill vehicle program includes funds to develop and test various technologies, including propulsion systems and seekers, the documents say. A focus of seeker development would be to better discriminate between missile warheads and decoys, which has long been a vexing problem in missile defense.

MDA officials initially plan to turn to federally funded research centers, applied research centers and universities and government labs for much of the work. Research work on the program would be doled out through competitive procurements and a broad agency announcement.

MDA officials hope the technology could be ready before the end of the decade, according to the documents.

The president’s budget requests also shows the MDA is pursuing two laser technologies using money from the newly robust technology account. The laser technologies, described as “promising” in the documents, would be used for target discrimination and boost-phase defense.

“We will focus on developing the enabling technology necessary to make game-changing breakthroughs with our future interceptors,” the documents read.

The plan calls for demonstrating a 10-kilowatt subscale, Diode Pumped Alkali Laser System during 2014. The lasers would be used in several ways, including to help discriminate between missile warheads and decoys and for boost-phase defense.

The program would involve working with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which funds high-risk, high-payoff technology development efforts, the document said.