Stars Wars Gets More Complicated

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missile defense agency

The Pentagon's quiver of missile-defense arrows.

An august panel of graybeards at the National Research Council has concluded that the U.S. should deploy interceptor missiles along the East Coast to defend against incoming missiles from rogue states like Iran.

The recommendation is counter to the views of many in the U.S. military, who privately see a perpetual quest to defend the nation from such threats as a sucking chest wound to their own hardware dreams.

But the panel said a smarter missile shield could be built for about as much as the $10 billion annual investment the nation is now spending on missile defense,  so long as programs it deemed unnecessary are scrapped to free up funds. The report didn’t assess the threat as much as try to figure out how best to defend the nation assuming there is a threat.

The recommended shift in missile-defense options meshes with a push from the House of Representatives, which includes a call for such an East Coast system in its version of next year’s defense authorization bill.

“Today’s report by the National Research Council highlights that we as a nation have much work to do in countering the threat of long-range missiles to the homeland,” said Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the armed services committee’s strategic forces subcommittee and an advocate of the East Coast interceptor base. “The ultimate goal of nations like Iran and North Korea [are] missiles that could carry weapons of mass destruction to threaten the American people.”

The panel’s report — Making Sense of Ballistic Missile Defense: An Assessment of Concepts and Systems for U.S. Boost-Phase Missile Defense in Comparison to Other Alternatives — said the U.S. should consider building an interceptor base either in Maine or upstate New York, largely to protect the East Coast from Iranian missiles. That makes more sense, the panel concluded, than the Pentagon’s recurring interest in developing a boost-phase interceptor that would destroy enemy missiles shortly after launch. The current interceptor sites, in Alaska and California, are primarily aimed at destroying crude incoming North Korean warheads.

The NRC is a part of the National Academy of Sciences, and has a congressional mandate to provide policy-makers with advice on highly-complex scientific matters. The 240-page report, dense with technical details, marks the first time the NRC has addressed national missile defense.

The 16-member panel was largely made up of scientists and academics, several with military or defense-industry experience. The two co-chairmen of the panel are Walter Slocombe, a former No. 3 Pentagon civilian, and David Montague, a former Lockheed Corp. executive.

It doesn’t make for easy reading. Here’s what the panel wants a new KV – kill vehicle – to be able to do:

For both CONUS [continental United States] and forward-based GMD-E [Ground-Based Midcourse Defense-Evolved] missiles, the new interceptor’s KV should be designed around a 30-cm-diameter two color LWIR [long-wave infrared] sensor with an additional visible band to detect targets as far away as 3,000 km. It is estimated that this sensor with a blow-down-cooled 256 Å~ 256 three-color focal plane array cued by SBIRS [spaced-based infrared system] high and/or forward-based X-band radars can observe the threat complex for as long as 300 sec with adequate and ever increasing signal-to-noise ratio. The committee estimates that a KV with the features described below will have a wet mass of 106-110 kg and a total divert capability of 600 m/sec. The GMD-E interceptor and KV must be designed to receive uplinks at any time during fly-out and to downlink what the KV sees any time after shroud removal without vehicle hardware or orientation constraints, preferably at X-band using one or more of the X-band radars that has the interceptor in view for both up- and downlinks. The KV should have a battery operating time in excess of 700 sec after boost, and the blow-down cooling should take the focal plane and immediately adjacent optical structure to 100 K when the sensor is uncapped. With the focal plane heat sunk, the sensor optics may warm up slowly from that point as the interceptor closes on the target complex. The KV should include an inflatable kill enhancement “net” similar to that used on ERIS [exoatmospheric reentry interceptor system] to deal with any objects tethered close to the threat warhead.

Piece of (yellow)cake!