The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) for many years has been struggling to develop technology that can find, track, target and explode an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) traveling through space. It has been focused on achieving this feat because America's potential adversaries employ sophisticated decoys and countermeasures.
An ICBM can travel with phony missile decoys or travel amid space debris and clutter. These factors can disrupt the targeting sensors of a kill vehicle sent to intercept and destroy an ICBM. This is why the MDA and defense industry have been redesigning seekers, kill vehicles, guidance technology and targeting systems to ensure that an ICBM's interceptors can make discernments that allow them to find and eliminate the correct target.
These factors form the essential conceptual basis upon which the MDA has launched its Next Generation Interceptor (NGI) program, a technical effort to engineer new missile defense systems capable of replacing and moving beyond the existing Ground-Based Interceptor. The program has been underway for several years. It calls for a next-generation technology better positioned to track and destroy incoming ICBM threats expected in 2030 and beyond.
The MDA has awarded several developmental deals to various defense industry teams, including a Lockheed Martin-Aerojet team and a Northrop Grumman-Raytheon team. Both are competing for the opportunity to produce and deliver the NGI. While much of the specifics are likely proprietary or unavailable for security reasons, new NGIs are likely to operate with multiple kill vehicles, meaning a single interceptor will operate and release several actual interceptors that collide with and destroy multiple threats. This technique, which defense industry contractors have been developing over the years, enables a weapon to detect threats from decoys and countermeasures while firing multiple interceptors at a volley of enemy ICBMs traveling through the air.
A Lockheed Martin press statement highlights some of the challenges associated with the existing Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system. It notes that the existing GBI is obsolete and, as with any weapon, there is a limit or point at which a legacy system can no longer be upgraded to keep pace with existing threats.
“While recent tests demonstrate the promise of the system, the interceptor has reached a point where it can no longer be simply updated to meet the demand,” according to the Lockheed press statement.
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.