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Lockheed Sees Hope for Missile Elements to Survive in Other Programs
WASHINGTON – Though disappointed with the Defense Department’s decision to cancel development of an advanced ICBM interceptor intended for fielding in Europe, one major U.S. weapons contractor expressed optimism on Thursday that some elements of the program could live on in other antimissile weapons.
Lockheed Martin is “obviously disappointed” with the Friday announcement to call off the Standard Missile 3 Block 2B interceptor, said Doug Graham, vice president of the company’s advanced programs for strategic and missile defense systems.
“We continue to believe it is the most robust and ultimately the most cost-effective way to augment the defense” of the mainland United States, Graham told reporters at a company news briefing.
Lockheed, along with Boeing and Raytheon, had a Defense contract worth in excess of $40 million to work on “concept definition” for the next-generation interceptor. The contract called for the three defense firms to separately work with the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency in defining and examining viable and cost-effective technologies for inclusion in the Block 2B.
The sophisticated system was envisioned as having the capability to defeat medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles fired at Europe as well as first-generation ICBMs launched from the Middle East against the continental United States. Had the Pentagon not pulled the plug, competition for the development of Block 2B and its initial production would have been limited to the three companies.
Lockheed intends to refocus its planning of system elements for Block 2B toward developing a potential future Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle that could be used to support the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, which the Pentagon plans to expand by adding 14 silo-based interceptors in Alaska, according to Graham.
The critical front-end technology of the GMD system’s ground-based interceptor, the EKV system is designed to use kinetic force to pulverize incoming hostile ballistic missile re-entry vehicles outside the atmosphere. The current iteration of the kill vehicle has a mixed record in live intercept trials.
Graham said he believes the decision to pull black from the Block 2B interceptor, which was not planned for deployment before 2022, resulted from Washington’s desire to have stronger domestic ballistic missile defenses in place on a shorter time-scale. The Pentagon expects by 2017 to add the new ground-based weapons to the existing complement of 30 missiles now deployed in Alaska and California.
North Korea’s recent successful long-range missile and nuclear tests and its new threats of an atomic attack on the United States have caused the U.S. military to re-evaluate upwards the strategic danger posed by the pariah state.
Though some Republican lawmakers see Friday’s announcement as a fait accompli cancelation of the Block 2B, Lockheed views the “guidance” as “tentative,” according to Graham. “They are not canceling the program is our sense. They are refocusing it.”
Mounting interest by Congress and the military for a third interceptor site somewhere on the East Coast also opens up a new arena for Lockheed to promote to the U.S. government various antimissile technologies. These include systems capable of defeating short-, medium, and intermediate-range high-altitude missiles as well as airborne threats inside and outside of Earth’s atmosphere.
Competitors Boeing and Northrup Grumman are the lead contractors for the GMD program. It is broadly speculated that if a third interceptor site is established on the East Coast, it would use the program’s GBI missiles. However, that is not a done deal yet.
“We’ll be looking for details” on how the Pentagon plans to build out the Ground-based Midcourse system, Graham said. “We haven’t gotten a lot of specific direction. We expect to be getting that fairly soon.”
Should the ICBM threat from North Korea and Iran rapidly outpace U.S. efforts to enhance existing strategic missile defenses, technologies such as Aegis Ashore and Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense interceptors could offer a readily deployable stopgap protection for the country. Lockheed said while the systems could not provide comprehensive protection to the entire United States, they could be used to protect critical infrastructure and population centers.
Lockheed’s THAAD technology is designed to destroy short- and medium-range ballistic missiles at the end stages of their flight. Aegis Ashore is a land-based modified version of the company’s Aegis sea-based technology and uses SM-3 interceptors.
The antimissile system is still being developed but it is on schedule for fielding in Romania and Poland in 2015 and 2018 respectively as part of the United States’ contribution to NATO missile defense.
Aegis Ashore could provide missile protection from “some of the short- to medium-range and intermediate-range missiles that could be fired at the United States,” said Nick Bucci, head of Lockheed’s Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense programs.
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