BOSTON — North Korea’s July 4 missile tests might have helped pave the way for further cooperation on missile defense between the United States and its allies around the world, according to Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).
Those launches, combined with Israel’s recent difficulties in defending itself against Hezbollah rockets, and MDA’s success in several recent tests, has piqued international interest in working alongside MDA, Obering said in an Oct. 5 telephone interview.
The agency drew more than 1,000 delegates from more than 20 nations to a conference it hosted in September in the United Kingdom, Obering said. The events in North Korea and Israel are likely making other nations more concerned than ever about defending themselves against both long- and short-range missiles, and delegates at the conference expressed “a considerable amount of interest” in working alongside the United States on missile defense, he said.
The United States currently has Ground Based Midcourse Defense System interceptors installed in Alaska and Hawaii and is hoping to find a European site.
MDA officials spent time in Europe over the summer scouting locations and negotiating with potential host countries, Obering said.
Obering said the agency is wrapping up work on an analysis of several options that he hopes to present soon to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Advocates for a European site, including Riki Ellison, president of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, have pointed to Poland as the likely frontrunner, though Ellison says that Poland is holding out for a generous compensation package in return for hosting the interceptors.
Obering declined to comment on those rumors, but said that the Pentagon remains in negotiation with several countries, and that all have been receptive to hosting the interceptors.
Russia presents another avenue for international cooperation. MDA previously worked with Russia on the Russian-American Observation Satellite effort, which was intended to yield two experimental missile warning satellites, but canceled the program in 2004 after it had stalled due to issues including disagreement on how to finish the project.
“We’re continuing to look for ways to cooperate with the Russians,” Obering said.
Obering has talked publicly about the possibility of the two countries sharing data from missile warning radar systems, as well as possible U.S. use of Russian target vehicles for missile defense tests. Those concepts remain on the table, Obering said, as well as other possibilities that he declined to discuss at this time.
Moving to Space
MDA also is exploring other options for missile defense that could lead to stationing interceptors in space. The agency is planning to begin requesting money for a space-based missile defense test bed early next year when it sends its 2008 budget request to Capitol Hill.
That test bed would help MDA explore the feasibility of space-based interceptors, and help generate data needed to inform Pentagon officials and members of Congress about the controversial and potentially costly system, Obering said. He declined to talk about specific projects that the agency might ask to be funded in its 2008 budget request as that request is still being developed, and the agency still is addressing what impact congressional adjustments to the Defense Department’s 2007 budget request will have on future budgets.
If MDA goes forward with an operational constellation of space-based interceptors , it likely will be far smaller than similar concepts that have been considered in the past, and function as a complement to terrestrial interceptor systems, Obering said. Placing interceptors in space would give the Pentagon coverage over large areas of the world at a lower cost than what it would take to deploy terrestrial interceptors all over the globe, Obering said.
That type of global coverage could prove to be important when it comes to addressing the adversaries that could emerge in the decades to come, Obering said. Predicting future adversaries can be difficult, he said, noting that the Pentagon is fighting wars against enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan today that some may not have predicted 10 or 15 years ago.
The recently published “Report of the Independent Working Group on Missile Defense, the Space Relationship, and the Twenty First Century,” whose authors included Henry Cooper, former director of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, which served as the predecessor to MDA, recommended establishing a new office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to conduct the space interceptor program, saying that MDA may lack the technology and engineering expertise to handle the work.
Obering disagreed with that recommendation. Most of the expertise in this area is located within MDA, including experts who had worked on projects like the predecessor Brilliant Pebbles program, an effort to develop a large constellation of space-based missile interceptors that was canceled in 1993, Obering said.
The agency also has sharpened its expertise on the space environment through its work on the Critical Measurements and Countermeasures program, which is used to feed data into the design of various missile defense interceptors and sensors, Obering said. The agency also is working on the Space Tracking and Surveillance System, experimental missile tracking satellites, which are scheduled to launch late next year, he said.
Another possible MDA space program is a follow-on to its Near Field Infrared Experiment satellite, which is slated to launch next year to help the agency gather data that will help with the discrimination between the hot exhaust flame of a ballistic missile and the hard body of the rocket.
MDA had hoped to include a second sensor on the spacecraft based on a missile defense kill vehicle that would fly near an incoming missile during testing to get a closer look, but chose to abandon that aspect of the program due to technical difficulty.
Some members of Congress have encouraged MDA to build another satellite, this time with the kill vehicle; Obering said that he would not rule out doing so, but the work has not yet been funded.
Obering noted that he has been pleased with testing conducted over the past year on missile defense systems like the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, Patriot Advanced Capability-3 and the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System. He said he was not discouraged by a recent Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system test that was aborted due to a malfunction with the target vehicle that could have been caused by aging components, noting that the problem was not with the interceptor.
During a press conference alongside Obering following a tour of the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System facilities at Fort Greely in Alaska in late August, Rumsfeld said he would like to see a test involving the interceptors as well as the various sensors and command and control equipment before declaring the national missile defense system operational. The Pentagon had hoped to declare the system operational by the end of 2004, though it has put it on alert on a temporary basis a number of times this year, including during the July 4 North Korean missile launches.
Obering declined to say whether he thought that MDA had met Rumsfeld’s criteria, but noted that the agency intercepted a target missile in a test reflective of the Pentagon’s current operational capability.
The Sept. 1 test was the first shoot-down featuring the operational configuration of the interceptor launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, as well as an operational missile warning radar sensor located at Beale Air Force Base in California, Obering said. The angle and speed of the incoming target, which was launched from Kodiak, Alaska, was similar to what might come from a country like North Korea, he said.
While the target missile was not equipped with countermeasures, Obering said that did not mean that the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System could not have destroyed it if it had. Enemies will not necessarily use countermeasures in an attack, he said, and the agency will address countermeasures in future tests as part of its “crawl, walk, then run” approach, he said.
Despite this success, Obering says that there is still considerable work to accomplish in the months and years ahead. The agency currently has 11 Ground Based Midcourse Defense System interceptors in silos at Fort Greely, and two more at Vandenberg Air Force Base; that number could grow to 15 or 16 by the end of this year.
Over the course of the next year, the agency will devote significant attention to bringing new sensors online including the Forward Based X-band Radar and the Sea Based X-band Radar, he said.
MDA at a Glance
PRIVATE colorchange:<c”Black”>Mission: Develop, test and field missile defense systems to protect the U.S. homeland, troops stationed abroad and allies.
Parent Organization: U.S. Department of Defense
Top Official: U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering
Year Established: Created as the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization in 1984; renamed the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization in 1993; renamed the Missile Defense Agency in 2002
Locations: Virginia, Alabama, California, Colorado, Alaska, Hawaii and others around the world
Current Annual Budget: $9.42 billion
Personnel: More than 8,500