Earlier this year, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency determined that a planned upgrade to the nation’s defense against long-range North Korean missiles wasn’t going to work. A seeker essential to homing in on hostile nuclear warheads wasn’t suitable for operations in space, where the current U.S. homeland defense is designed to intercept attackers.
The upgrade program was canceled in August, and within weeks a draft solicitation for a Next Generation Interceptor was issued to industry. The solicitation described a much more capable system for negating North Korean attacks, specifying nearly 50 threat scenarios in which the new system would need to work effectively. Some of the scenarios involved demanding challenges that are not within the operational “envelope” of the existing defensive network.
The Missile Defense Agency has said very little of substance about the Next Generation Interceptor program, such as when it must be operational or how it will be configured. What follows is a simple explanation of the new system, based on conversations with half a dozen people who are conversant with the agency’s objectives.
It will be a hit-to-kill missile. The head of the missile agency told a think tank audience on Monday that “all options are being considered.” That is only true in a narrow sense. Nobody is seriously considering using a beam weapon to counter incoming ballistic warheads. The plan is to develop a new hit-to-kill system sitting on a new solid-rocket stack that can destroy hostile warheads with the sheer energy of impact. Conceptually, the Next-Generation Interceptor resembles the existing approach to homeland missile defense.
It will have multiple warheads. The single-warhead design of existing interceptors can be overwhelmed by a moderate number of attackers. The Missile Defense Agency envisions 64 interceptors total in the current system, with 2-4 allocated to each attacker depending on circumstances. That means a threat involving two dozen warheads, or even a handful of warheads accompanied by sophisticated decoys, might saturate the system. The plan for the Next Generation Interceptor is to stick with 64 interceptor missiles, but equip each interceptor with multiple kill vehicles that can counter a number of attackers. (end of excerpt)
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