Vice President and Deputy General Manager
Although Northrop Grumman Corp.’s work for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) cuts across a full range of programs, some of the company’s highest-profile contracts are on efforts that many believe are most vulnerable to budget cuts under the incoming administration of President-elect BarackObama.
Northrop Grumman is prime contractor, for example, on the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI), a high-acceleration rocket designed to knock down missiles during their boost and midcourse phases of flight. The first flight test of the booster is slated for this year, but the system’s future is uncertain; currently there are no specific plans for deployment.
Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman also built the high-powered chemical laser that is the lethal element of the Airborne Laser, a modified Boeing 747 aircraft designed to destroy missiles in the boost phase or as they lift off from the ground. Boeing Co. is the prime contractor on the Airborne Laser, which is expected to make its first missile shoot-down attempt this year but has come under criticism from budget hawks and skeptics of the technology.
Another vulnerable-looking Northrop Grumman-led program is the Space Tracking and Surveillance System, a low Earth-orbiting satellite system designed to track missiles from below as they coast through space. Plans for an operational constellation have been deferred repeatedly, and a pair of experimental satellites built by the company has encountered several lengthy delays.
Larry Dodgen is confident those satellites will launch this year and begin providing “dynamite” data for tracking and intercepting ballistic missiles in flight.
Regardless of how all these demonstrations go, however, few expect Obama to be as supportive of missile defense as was outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush during his eight years in office. In addition, Democrats in general have tended to favor deployment-ready systems, such as the Boeing-led Ground Based Midcourse Defense and Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense systems.
, a retired U.S. Army major general and former commander of Army Space and Missile Defense Command, joined Northrop Grumman in 2007. He spoke recently with Space News staff writer Turner Brinton.
Where do you think the United States is headed in missile defense?
We’re two weeks away from the inauguration of a new president from a new party, and we’ve had eight years of unprecedented support for missile defense. It’s going to be a pretty interesting time to see how they look at missile defense and how they look at the affairs of the world. I think it’s a good time for them to take a fresh look at where we’re going, and hopefully they’ll take a fresh look at some of our stuff.
Northrop Grumman’s missile defense portfolio is weighted toward the futuristic systems that some believe are the most vulnerable as the new administration scours the budget for possible savings. Does this concern you?
We think this review has to happen. We think if you just maintain the fixed sites that you have today, the United States is going to be losing ground to a threat in the future. We think the threat is real. What I would like to see them do is take a robust look at all the programs and capabilities that are out there and what they would like to have in the future. I think some of the programs such as KEI will have a role to play in the future defense of our country.
What has the MDA told you about the role KEI will play?
Our focus right now is on the booster flight test this year, and probably sometime in late summer we hope to have a successful test that validates the energetics of the propulsion system. The MDA has had a change in leadership, and I think they are going to be figuring out just exactly what they will be telling the next administration. So what MDA is telling us is to concentrate on a successful booster test. We’re doing some systems engineering work for a weapons system, but it’s not the priority right now. Once we prove out the energetics and the technology, we think they’ll proceed to actually putting that technology to use.
The scope and scale of KEI has already been modified several times. What effect has that had on your business?
The restructuring that’s happened has been all government-based, not developmentally based. We have had some bouncing back and forth, but we like where we are now and that’s a full concentration on the flight test later this year.
Tell me about the internal studies you have done on possible future missions for KEI.
When you look at KEI, it has some great attributes including mobility, so it can be deployed in a relatively short period of time. The energeticsare ideal for early engagement, but boost phase has some positioning restrictions. It could also be an ICBM-killer in the midcourse, depending on the kill vehicle. So we’re doing some engineering work with the Multiple Kill Vehicle and other things. It would be capable as a ground-based interceptor for the proposed European missile defense site.
There is also great value in sea-basing KEI. It’s not compatible with the current [sea-based] launch system, so you’d have to develop a new launch system on the next-generation cruiser. We actually see a lot of synergism between KEI and the Standard Missile-3, one dealing with the strategic homeland threat and the other one dealing with the theater threat.
How concerned are you about future funding for KEI and Airborne Laser?
Both of them have knowledge points this year, and they’re probably going to shoot around the same time. After that, it’s probably hard to say that both of those programs will be supported. I think some choices will have to be made once the test data is analyzed. Both of them overlap in the boost arena, but I think KEI adds a greater deal of flexibility to be positioned someplace and can stay a lot longer than the Airborne Laser. We’re pretty confident in both programs, so I think it’ll be a decision up to the MDA and the next administration.
Why have the Space Tracking and Surveillance System demonstration satellites not been delivered and when will that happen?
We’re working through a couple of issues, but we don’t think they’re serious. I can’t give you a date because that situation is very fluid right now. We’re very confident we’ll make the launch this year.
When those two demonstrators are in orbit, that’s when their true test will start. I think the MDA will want to start using those satellites for their flight-test program very early on to understand their capability and begin planning for an operational capability that will be crucial for the future. I’ll tell you, once those satellites get up, I think they’re going to be dynamite. Cold-body tracking in space is going to be valuable for all the weapons systems that are out there, regardless of what countermeasures our enemies may use in the future.
The demonstration satellites were salvaged from a program that was canceled in the 1990s. Would an operational system need brand new technology and how many satellites would be required?
There has been a lot of thinking about the next generation of sensors. We certainly have done a lot, so the demonstrators will not be the final version that goes up. There’s always an improved version. In terms of how many you would need for an operational capability, the robustness of the data delivered by these demonstrators will play into that determination.
Northrop Grumman has a long history providing sensors for U.S. geosynchronous infrared missile warning satellites. Has planning begun yet on the follow-on to the Space Based Infrared System, and would you be poised for a prime role in that?
We have not been told about any plans for that system. But absolutely, we think we’re the experts in that business. We’re primed to be a prime.