(Washington, D.C.) The Pentagon is massively fast-tracking its Next-Generation Interceptor program to deploy a missile defense technology capable of tracking and destroying a new sphere of enemy threats to include high-speed, precision-guided ICBMs and hypersonic weapons potentially traveling through space.
Mobile ICBM launchers, nuclear weapons traveling at hypersonic speeds, multiple precision-guided re-entry vehicles and multiple missiles attack at once, each with several separating warheads … are all very serious threats the Missile Defense Agency and industry are working quickly to counter through a series of innovations, science and technology efforts, new weapons development such as a Next-Generation Interceptor initiative aimed at deploying a new missile defense weapon by the end of the decade.
Intended to introduce paradigm-changing technologies, the emerging NGI is being engineered to destroy multiple ICBMs at one time while also distinguishing actual ICBMs from debris, decoys or enemy countermeasures. This requires a new measure of seeker discernment able to discriminate actual threats from decoys or track multiple threats at once.
Next-Generation Interceptor, 2028
Initial thinking was that the new NGI will emerge by the end of the decade, and it now appears the MDA is working with a Raytheon-Northrop Grumman NGI team to see if the timeframe can be accelerated and possibly be ready by as early as 2028. Northrop Grumman and Raytheon Missiles & Defense are slated to provide the interceptor booster, kill vehicle, ground systems, fire control and engagement coordination for the country’s GMD (Ground Midcourse Defense) system.
Missile Defense Agency Director Vice Adm. Jon Hill said the Pentagon’s number one requirement with the NGI is “speed and schedule,” adding “we’ll be testing a little bit earlier.”
Single Interceptor To Carry Multiple Kill Vehicles
While a lot of detail about the technological configuration and components of the emerging NGI are likely not available for security reasons, the Pentagon’s request to industry did mention the possibility of engineering a single interceptor able to carry multiple kill vehicles.
“It is a really complex threat set and there is a lot of complex technology coming forward,” Hill said.
Northrop Grumman has partnered with Raytheon on an NGI development program to optimize innovations and technical progress from each company through programs such as Northrop’s Ground Based Strategic Deterrent ICBM and Raytheon’s SM-3 Block IIA interceptor missile, both of which harness breakthrough technologies in the areas of sensing discrimination, targeting precision, range and functional reliability.
Known for its SM-3IIA interceptor, which for the first time in history, destroyed an ICBM-type target several months ago Raytheon specializes in sensor, seeker and kill vehicle technology. With NGI, Raytheon developers say they intend to further refine and advance their seeker technologies designed to guide kill vehicles and, perhaps of greatest importance, discriminate and discern between multiple objects flying quickly through space.
Distinguishing Decoys From ICBMs
Interceptors, seekers and kill vehicles will increasingly rely upon a need to distinguish decoys from actual ICBMs, debris or other countermeasures intended to confuse interceptors, therefore improving the prospects for an ICBM to pass through to its target.
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Also known for engineering the Exo-Atmopsheric Kill Vehicle and previous progress with a Multiple Kill Vehicle interceptor, Raytheon hopes to build upon technical advances to engineer a new generation of promising, precision-guided kill vehicles.
While neither Raytheon or Northrop elaborated on any technical specifics related to their offering, it is indeed quite likely that any NGI offering will seek to incorporate multiple kill-vehicle interceptors and a new generation of seeker technology to discern and target threats and, if needed, destroy multiple ICBMs at one time.
Pentagon Fast-Tracking NGI
With global tensions on the rise, the arrival of more low-yield tactical nuclear weapons and the pace at which Russia and China are modernizing and expanding their respective nuclear arsenals, the Pentagon is both fast-tracking NGI and upgrading its Ground Based Interceptors to make sure it can track and take out enemy ICBMs flying through space to the continental U.S.
The new “Next-Generation Interceptor” weapon intended to introduce a new paradigm for ICBM defense with advanced sensors able to better discern decoys and countermeasures from missiles and the possibility of firing multiple kill vehicles from a single interceptor. However, the new NGI is not slated to arrive until 2028 and the Missile Defense Agency needs to ensure that it can sustain a viable and highly effective Ground Based Interceptor for several more decades until sufficient numbers of the NGI are available.
Ground Based Interceptor
Therefore, as nuclear threats grow more pressing, the Pentagon is continuing a multi-year upgrade and sustainment campaign for its arsenal of GBIs now based in Fort Greely Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
“Now we're going to have real hardware because we're going to remove interceptors from the ground, we're going to upgrade propulsion, we're going to update one-shot devices, we're going to update the processors, update the threat categories, and if that makes those older missiles perform like the newer missiles, and so reliability goes up, capacity goes up when you do that,” Vice Adm. Jon Hill, Director, Missile Defense Agency, told reporters according to a Pentagon transcript.
Many of the upgrades have been in the realm of computing and command and control to avoid obsolescence and ensure continued connectivity in terms of targeting, flight path and sensing. Increasing software upgrades are a way that existing hardware can be adapted to meet emerging threats and enhance performance without having to be fully reconfigured.
“The big concern back when layered homeland defense was first discussed was the concern that the existing fleet would start to lose its reliability over time while we also had this timeline for next-generation interceptor off to the right,Now we have a Service Life Extension Program and we're moving out there and that will increase and give us a hardware-based data capacity to really understand reliability,” Hill said.
Russia continues to massively modernize its nuclear arsenal to include the addition of hypersonics as well as low yield weapons spanning a wide range of threats, and China is believed to be doubling its number of ICBMs in upcoming years.
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 Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.