WASHINGTON — Lockheed Martin is working with Aerojet Rocketdyne on a concept for a two-stage rocket that would extend the range of a key regional missile defense system used by the U.S. Defense Department.

Mike Trotsky, vice president of air and missile defense business development at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control of Dallas, told reporters during a Jan. 7 conference call that the companies are designing a new booster rocket for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) interceptor.

The proposed THAAD Extended Range would travel at higher speeds than current versions of the interceptor, Trotsky said, enabling it to engage incoming missiles at greater distances. The idea behind the concept is to use the extended range to offset advances by China and other countries in gliding and hypersonic strike vehicles that may be difficult to intercept using current systems, he said.

Richard Lehner, a spokesman for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, said in a Jan. 8 email that the THAAD Extended Range is strictly an industry concept and not a formal program of record. But MDA did provide Lockheed Martin about $2 million to study potential concepts in 2014, said Lynn Fisher, a company spokeswoman.

U.S. Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the MDA, mentioned the concept during a classified conference in Bucharest last year, industry officials said.
Thus far, Lockheed Martin officials said, the company has spent about $30 million of its own money on the concept.

The THAAD interceptor, designed primarily for overseas deployment to protect against regional ballistic missile threats, is capable of engaging targets both inside and outside the atmosphere. Lockheed Martin is prime contractor; Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, California, supplies the booster for the single-stage interceptor.

The THAAD Extended Range would add what Lockheed Martin officials describe as a “kick stage” to deliver the interceptor’s kill vehicle — a self-propelled, maneuverable system that destroys missile warheads by force of impact — closer to its target prior to its release. This would reduce the target’s window to take evasive maneuvers, Lockheed Martin said.

Aerojet referred questions on the concept to Lockheed Martin.

“Since this is in the concept development phase at this point, it would be premature for us to provide information on any technical specifications regarding the booster or other components at this time,” Fisher said.

Lockheed Martin is under contract for five THAAD batteries with the U.S. Army, which operates the system. In September, the company received a $3.9 billion production contract to produce THAAD elements for the MDA and the United Arab Emirates.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.