MDA Pursues Kill Vehicles with Cost-cutting Mandate

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — U.S. Defense Department leaders want the Missile Defense Agency to lower the notional cost of stopping an incoming strike, or “cost-per-kill,” guidance that is driving the MDA’s approach as it works to develop two new kill vehicles.

“We need to cut it by factors and maybe orders of magnitude,” Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acquisition czar, said during a press briefing here Aug. 12. The Defense Department wants to field a defense system that offers low cost and a high-probability kill, he said.

The MDA is developing a pair of new kill vehicles to top its fleet of ground-based missile interceptors. First is the Redesigned Kill Vehicle, or RKV, to be fielded by around 2020. The longer-term program is the Multi-Object Kill Vehicle (MOKV), which would mature five years later.

Speaking at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium here, Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, the MDA’s director, said the organization hopes to draft a preliminary RKV design, one that cobbles together the best ideas from three concepts submitted by industry, by the end of the year.

MDA has tasked specific RKV subsystems to either Boeing, Lockheed Martin or Raytheon. These three companies had submitted RKV concepts last year based in part on work done as part of a since-canceled interceptor program.

Syring declined to discuss which specific elements of the RKV each company will handle, but said the design is “production focused,” aimed at reducing steps it its construction requires. That would addresses one of the criticisms of the Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) that currently tops the U.S. arsenal of ground-based interceptors.

“The biggest design attribute we’re after is to modularize the design with components,” Syring said in an interview. “Today it’s very difficult for us to build the EKV and a lot can go wrong.”

Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, the MDA’s director, said the organization hopes to draft a preliminary RKV design, one that cobbles together the best ideas from three concepts submitted by industry, by the end of the year. Credit: C. Shamwell
Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, the MDA’s director, said the organization hopes to draft a preliminary RKV design, one that cobbles together the best ideas from three concepts submitted by industry, by the end of the year. Credit: C. Shamwell

The RKV program was hatched following a string of intercept failures of the Boeing-built Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, the primary U.S. territorial shield. At least two of those failures have been attributed to the EKV, which is designed to destroy incoming missile warheads by force of direct impact. The Raytheon-built system has not had a significant change to its fundamental design in more than a decade, experts say.

The MDA hopes to begin a preliminary design review for the RKV at the beginning of 2016. Boeing Missile Defense of Arlington, Virginia, Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control of Dallas, and Raytheon Missile Systems of Tucson, Arizona, are expected to compete for the production contract in 2018.

One of Syring’s top priorities, the RKV is expected to offer performance improvements including new maneuvering thrusters and increased on-demand communication capabilities. Today, Syring said, the MDA rarely communicates with the EKV, in contrast to the way it operates its regional missile defense systems.

Improved communication would allow the agency to update the vehicle in flight and is expected to build a technological foundation for the MOKV. The MOKV is intended to destroy multiple objects simultaneously, addressing perhaps the biggest criticisms of current missile defenses: the inability to distinguish between missile warheads and decoys and other objects.

Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon in August won study contracts worth approximately $9.7 million each to develop MOKV concepts.

The program appears to be a resurrection of the Multiple Kill Vehicle that U.S. President Barack Obama terminated shortly after taking office in 2009. Then, both Lockheed Martin and Raytheon had submitted substantially different concepts to the MDA.

But since then, the threat has advanced, as has the technology available to the MDA, industry sources say.

Syring stressed the MOKV is only in the “concept exploration” phase. But he also said having the MOKV means “you don’t have to be perfect with discrimination anymore.”

Work on the study contracts is expected to be completed by May 2016, the Defense Department said in a pair of announcements. The MDA then plans to mature the technology with proof of concept demonstrations at the component level, Syring said.

“We’re back on this path in terms of concept exploration and understanding where the technology is,” he said. “It’s important for us to pursue this as we talk about being able to defeat a more complicated enemy threat.”