WASHINGTON — A senior U.S. Defense Department official urged Congress to fund a proposed upgrade to an existing Lockheed Martin-built regional missile defense system, a move that would continue study work that the company has been funding largely on its own.
In written testimony to the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, Navy Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, identified the nascent Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System-Extended Range (THAAD-ER) project as one of several that would address a growing number of missile threats around the world. In doing so he raised the profile of what has been described as a relatively low-level activity.
The THAAD-ER interceptor features a two-stage booster rocket that would travel at higher speeds than the current THAAD booster, enabling it to engage incoming missiles in earlier phases of flight and thus at greater distances. This could, among other things, increase the number of opportunities to shoot at and destroy attacking missiles.
THAAD-ER also is being touted as a way to offset advances by China and other countries in maneuverable gliding or hypersonic strike vehicles that may be difficult to intercept using current systems.
Officials with the U.S. Missile Defense Agency had stressed that THAAD-ER is strictly an industry concept and not a formal program of record. However, the agency’s budget request for 2016 includes $13 million for THAAD follow-on activities, including “trade studies to assess configuration and performance requirements of interceptor components such as boost motor, kick motor, canister, and kill vehicle,” budget documents said.
That money appears headed to Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, California, via a sole-source contract, according to the documents.
The existing THAAD system, 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-ER 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 a hypersonic target’s window to take evasive maneuvers, Lockheed Martin officials say.
Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, the MDA’s director, said during a press briefing Feb. 2 on the agency’s budget request that Lockheed had completed “some very low-level conceptual analysis” on THAAD-ER and that the agency is in “early evaluation of an industry concept.”
“It’s fair to say that we’ll look at others in conjunction with THAAD-ER and I think by next year, you’ll see a more definitive answer on our path ahead with either that program or an evolution of other interceptor programs,” Syring said.
Syring also mentioned the concept during a classified conference in Bucharest, Romania, 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. MDA provided Lockheed Martin about $2 million to study potential concepts in 2014, officials have said.
During the Feb. 26 hearing, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) asked Haney and Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, where the United States ranks in its own hypersonic technology.
“I’m not sure we’re ahead,” McKeon said, “but I’m not sure we’re significantly behind.”