WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Department wants to pull the plug on the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) program, but Northrop Grumman Corp., the Los Angeles-based company developing the missile defense system, is hoping the Quadrennial Defense Review will save it. Northrop officials describe their mobile missile killer as the kind of “game changer” technology that the U.S. military needs “to sustain our competitive edge” in the future.
During a June 3 briefing, Northrop Grumman senior analyst Dana Johnson said KEI is superior to the underground silo-based interceptors the Defense Department wants to install in Poland. The KEI is among several Northrop programs the company says should be given particular attention during the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR).
The QDR is intended to serve as a guide for shaping forces and buying capabilities for the future. The review is under way and is expected to be completed in 2010. Findings from the review could influence the 2011 defense budget, which is being drafted now to be sent to Congress in February. Northrop hopes to influence QDR support for directed energy weapons — including lasers and high-power microwave weapons — cyber operations, unmanned systems and mobile missile defense.
But the company faces an uphill battle on the KEI and one of its major laser programs.
In appearances before Congress, Defense Secretary Robert Gates adamantly defended his decision to eliminate KEI from his 2010 budget. Gates unveiled his decision May 7, and the Missile Defense Agency ordered work to stop May 11 on Northrop’s $4 billion KEI contract.
Gates told the House Armed Services Committee he plans to “terminate the Kinetic Energy Interceptor” because of cost increases, schedule delays and lack of technology maturity. He also said the KEI program is inconsistent with the Pentagon’s decision to focus missile defense on countering rogue nation missile threats.
Johnson argued that the United States needs a system like KEI — a mobile missile originally designed to shoot down enemy ballistic missiles during their boost phase.
Unlike the silo-based missile interceptors already installed in Alaska and California and planned for Poland, Northrop’s KEI can be readily repositioned to counter ballistic missile threats wherever they arise, she said. And permanent fixed missile sites cost more and are more politically sensitive than the mobile KEI, she said.
KEI is intended to shoot down enemy missiles during their boost phase, before they have a chance to release multiple warheads and decoys. Boost phase is “the most costeffective” point at which to down attacking missiles, Johnson said.
But Gates said the five-and-a-half -year development schedule for KEI has stretched to 14. And the cost has climbed from about $25 million per interceptor to more than $50 million. The first test flight, once set for 2007, will not take place before September.
Those troubles aside, Gates said, the KEI has another major drawback: “It needs to be close to the launch site to be effective,” he said. “The only potential country where it could have a role with some confidence would be North Korea.”
The KEI would have “poor capability against Iran and virtually no capability against either Russia or Chinese launch facilities,” Gates said. “So you have a very limited capability here at considerable cost.” The KEI is touted as ground-launched or ship-launched, but it is too big to be based on any of the Navy’s current ships, Gates said. “We would have to design a new ship to put it on.”
Meanwhile, Northrop also is urging that the QDR focus on solid-state lasers and high–powered microwave weapons. But company officials offered scant defense of the Airborne Laser (ABL) program, which Gates intends to downsize into a research program. Chicago-based Boeing Co. is the prime contractor on the program, and Northrop supplies the giant chemical laser installed aboard a modified 747 jetliner.
Under development for 13 years, the system — also intended to shoot down missiles in their boost phase — has been plagued by technology problems and what government auditors label “negative cost and schedule trends.” Gates offered withering criticism to the House Appropriations defense subcommittee May 20.
“I don’t know anybody at the Department of Defense who thinks that this program should or would ever be operationally deployed,” he said. “The reality is that you would need a laser something like 20 or 30 times more powerful than the chemical laser in the plane right now” to shoot down a missile at any realistic distance from the launch site.
To shoot down an Iranian missile, an airborne laser would have to be flying inside the borders of Iran, Gates said. An operational ABL fleet would require 10 to 20 aircraft. They would cost $1.5 billion apiece to buy and $100 million a year to operate.
“And there’s nobody in uniform that I know who believes that this is a workable concept,” he said.
The first ABL effort to shoot down a target missile is scheduled for later this year.