New Missile Defense Radar Can Help "Steer" Interceptor to Destroy ICBM
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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven
(Washington D.C.) An enemy intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) shooting through space as part of a massive nuclear attack can be very difficult for missile defenses to intercept, due to the sheer amount of debris, clutter and specific enemy countermeasures such as decoys intended to confuse or throw off sensors guiding interceptor “kill vehicles.”
Several ICBMs can present even more of a problem for defenses, as seekers can at times be at a loss to track multiple threats simultaneously. Moreover, and to perhaps an even greater degree, defenses struggle to distinguish an actual warhead-carrying ICBM from a decoy, debris or even non-lethal parts of the missile breaking off in-flight to release a reentry vehicle.
The complexity of these challenges, and the concerning pace at which adversaries continue to develop new weapons and countermeasures, provides much of the inspiration for a massive Pentagon and Missile Defense Agency effort to engineer newer, more advanced radar systems, interceptors and sensors.
For example, the MDA is already progressing with a new Next-Generation Interceptor intended to help bring missile defense into a new era of sophistication and, among other things, potentially engineer multiple-kill vehicle interceptors able to target and “take out” several attacking ICBMs at once, essentially knocking them out of the sky. While early in its development, the NGI program is exploring options for interceptor systems able to operate several “kill vehicles” from a single interceptor. The effectiveness of this mission rests in large measure upon the technical precision and sophistication of sensors and seekers able to successfully discern actual warhead targets amid the clutter.
The Missile Defense Agency is also bringing this mission to new levels of sophistication by finalizing preparation of a new generation of ultra long-range, high-powered sensitive radar technology able to network with Ground Based Interceptors and introduce new levels of target discrimination. Its called Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR), a system an MDA essay says can “search, track and discriminate ballistic missiles, threats as small as baseball sized objects and even hypersonic weapons” through a 220-degree wide field of view.
The emerging radar, slated to reach operational capacity this year, is a solid state radar engineered with advanced missile defense algorithms which can provide track data and discrimination data to GBIs. The tactical concept, a senior Pentagon weapons developer explained to The National Interest, is to enable a “first-shot kill” whenever possible.
“It is designed with proven radar technologies and proven ballistic missile defense algorithms. The radar has been designed for future upgrades to make it better as we go. We can update the LRDR with new software as new threats emerge,” the senior official said.
The MDA essay explains that the S-band radar “can be scaled and extended to adapt to new threat sets, like hypersonic threats, without changing the hardware design.”
Discerning the actual warhead, or emerging reentry vehicle from other objects presents significant complexities for seekers looking to pinpoint the target correctly, and highly sensitive and discriminating systems such as the LRDR are engineered to address this. The Pentagon official described that the LRDR can “steer” the GBI interceptor into the warhead after identifying the warhead itself as separate and distinct from other non-lethal parts of an ICBM such as its outer shell which merely transports the warhead.
“Where do I need to steer my interceptor? You want to hit the re-entry vehicle and you need precise radar,” the official added.
As an ICBM approaches descent, it “comes apart in space,” the official described, explaining that many objects can be “floating and flying along at 10,000 miles per hour close to the reentry vehicle.” The reentry vehicle of course includes the lethal nuclear warhead and, as the official described it, the “other stuff burns up in the atmosphere.”
Nuclear-armed missiles speeding through space, and even hypersonic weapons traveling at five times the speed of sound represent threats which the LRDR is engineered to detect. The LRDR is described by the MDA essay as a “massive array” that is both 60ft high and 60ft wide and draws upon gallium nitride technology to increase radar power and discrimination technology.
The tactical concept is to not only “knock out” the approaching threat, but also identify and counter many potential threats at one time, in large measure by relying upon new levels of sensor detection sensitivity and precision which can succeed in distinguishing actual warheads from surrounding objects such as discarded missile parts, space debris or enemy countermeasures. The LRDR can, as one senior Pentagon official described it to The National Interest, help “steer” Ground Based Interceptors to the correct target.
“LRDR tracks and discriminates multiple threats simultaneously, providing precision track and discrimination data to Missile Defense System firing units such as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System (GBIs),” the MDA paper says.
The Lockheed system, which developers said is now 90-percent done, has successfully tracked over 200 satellites with up to five simultaneous satellite tracks over an eight hour period, during what the MDA described as a LRDR Capability Exercise Event in December of last year. This year, Lockheed and the MDA plan to track up to six rockets launched from NASA’s Wallops Island flight facility.
Lockheed developers, who have been employing a “build, test, build” strategy with LRDR development at their facility in Moorestown, N.J., say the new S-band radar technology is rapidly nearing completion.
“The team is gearing up to complete the installation of the radar and light off of the first array during the second quarter of this year. Our system is mature and embedded. We are working toward finishing our test program. We build a little and test a little and have 10 percent left,” Chandra Marshall, Radar Systems and Centers Vice President, Lockheed Missile Systems, told The National Interest.
Ultimately, it may seem almost too self-evident to mention that the tactical aim of the LRDR is “homeland defense,” the Pentagon official said.
“LRDR’s improved discrimination capability in the Pacific architecture will increase the defensive capacity of the homeland defense interceptor inventory by conserving the number of Ground-Based Interceptors required for threat engagement,” the MDA essay explains.
As Marshall explained, the concept is to optimize, streamline and preserve GBI functionality by increasing descrimination, precision and actual intercept capability.
“You want to make sure you are not wasting a GBI. This radar will confirm accurately whether you need to fire it,” Marshall said.
The Pentagon and MDA are now working on a new interceptor expected to be ready by 2028. In the interim, the military is working to modernize and sustain its current arsenal of GBIs with software upgrades and the addition of more discriminating seekers. Ultimately, the Pentagon hopes to arm GBIs with multiple “kill vehicles” to enable a single interceptor to fire many interceptors.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
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