The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon made a major investment in its missile defense systems this week, awarding Boeing an additional $6.5 billion contract at a time when tensions with North Korea are growing.
The sole-source contract by the Missile Defense Agency is to complete the “accelerated delivery of a new missile field with 20 additional silos” at Fort Greely, Alaska, the Pentagon said. It would also pay for the procurement of 20 additional Ground Based Interceptor missiles, and bring the total value of the contract to $12.6 billion through 2023.
Faced with a growing threat from North Korea, spending on missile defense is likely to grow significantly, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based policy research organizations that recently predicted appropriations could reach $11 billion in fiscal year 2018. “This would make the highest level of missile defense funding in a decade,” the center’s Tom Karako and Wes Rumbaugh wrote in a report.
While much of the spending goes to established systems, the Pentagon is also pursuing new evolutions. This week, the Missile Defense Agency and the Navy attempted to intercept a ballistic missile with a new Raytheon-built Standard Missile-3 launched from Hawaii. While it failed to take down the missile, defense officials noted Thursday that it was a test of a “new capability” using a missile that is not yet in production. The test was first reported by CNN.
“We always make progress every time we conduct a test,” said Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves. “While we are disappointed that we did not demonstrate a successful intercept, we did demonstrate significant advances in capability and collected valuable test data that will allow us to further improve our capability and capacity of the ballistic missile defense system. We are committed to protecting and defending our nation, its warfighters, friends and allies against all ranges of ballistic missiles in all phases of flight.”
The potential uptick in spending “suggest that missile threats from North Korea and others seem to have the attention of legislators,” the authors of the CSIS report wrote.
It also has the attention of the major defense contractors. In an earnings call this week, Marillyn Hewson, chief executive for Lockheed Martin, noted that in the continuing resolution passed in December about $4 billion of the additional $4.7 billion included for emergency defense spending was for missile defense.
The budget request called for nearly 200 additional missiles built by her company, which she said was “a clear recognition of the need for the country to maintain a leadership position in this vital area of national security.”
Despite the increased spending, there are concerns that the country’s air and missile defense system is vulnerable. In another report, released last month, CSIS said that air and missile defense forces are “far too susceptible to suppression.” A series of shortcomings have made system “all too vulnerable to exploitation,” and as a result forces “may now find themselves outgunned and outmatched.”
Cybersecurity experts have warned for years that a nuclear first-strike against the U.S. would probably be accompanied by a parallel cyber-attack designed to knock out U.S. missile interceptors or steer them off-course.
Last Friday a small Virginia-based cybersecurity contractor called Decisive Analytics Corp. won a $59 million contract to help make sure the ballistic missile defense system’s information systems include the proper cybersecurity controls, including the system’s authorization controls.
The CSIS report also noted that last June a North Korean drone crashed after attempting to conduct surveillance of a particular missile site in South Korea. If it were carrying an bomb to take out the system’s radar it might have “virtually incapacitated” the defense system on the Korean peninsula, the report said.
“The combined arms problem of sophisticated air and missile threats is not an academic one, but a very present-day, real-world challenge that we see in Yemen, North Korea, Ukraine and other places,” Karako said.
While not commenting on the report of the failed test, U.S. Rep Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Thursday, that he is “reasonably confident that we have a significant missile defense capability that will be effective most of the time, the vast majority of the time. That doesn’t mean it’s fool-proof.”
He said there was a real urgency in the Pentagon and Congress to bolster defenses, saying the spending plan would “increase the numbers of missile defense capabilites of existing systems ,and also put a lot more money and effort into building advanced missile defense systems that will be even more effective.”
Karako said that while the Pentagon needs to “play catch-up” in terms of acquiring more missile defense systems, it also needs to invest in creating “new, advanced technologies to actually be able to outpace the threat.”
There are signs that the Pentagon is moving in that direction. Late last year, Boeing received a nearly $9 million contract from the Missile Defense Agency to test a “low-power laser on an unmanned aerial vehicle.” In other words, it is looking to develop the capability to shoot down a missile with a laser from a drone.
In this year’s Pentagon spending plan, Congress inserted language that would call for the development of a “space-based ballistic missile intercept layer to the ballistic missile defense system.” If such a program was consistent with its on-going ballistic missile defense review, Congress said it wanted a program that would be capable of providing defense in “boost phase,” meaning hitting targets early on as the rocket’s engines are firing.
Such a system could still be years away, but many experts have called for more robust sensors in space that could better detect and track missile launches. Interceptors, the missiles that take out other missiles like a bullet hitting a bullet, “are only as good as the sensors that tell them where to go and what to kill,” Karako wrote in an op-ed last year.