Pentagon eyes new anti-missile technology

WASHINGTON: The Pentagon is redirecting its missile defence efforts by winding down multibillion-dollar programmes aimed at destroying enemy missiles very soon after they take off.

The move away from “boost-phase” intercept programmes was announced as part of President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2010 budget request sent to Congress on Thursday.

Prospects: The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency said it had turned bullish in recent months on prospects for intercepts during the ascent phase, which it termed “significantly less challenging”. The ascent phase starts after powered flight, but before a ballistic missile deploys decoys or executes manoeuvres to avoid being shot down in the post-boost phase of its flight. “We believe technologies now available — not previously available — make this a more suitable, more affordable enterprise,” said retired Navy Rear Admiral David Altwegg, the agency’s executive director.

“Our studies tell us that this ascent-phase interceptor effort will provide the margin of superiority needed and replace boost-phase as we now know it,” he told reporters. Altwegg said the Missile Defense Agency had several initiatives under way that could lead to deployment of such systems as soon as 2013 or 2014, if funded by Congress. Altwegg declined to name any of the potential contractors. The Obama administration said on Thursday it would cancel the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, a boost-phase program being developed by Northrop Grumman Corp. The cancellation was one of the few surprises in a spending plan that was largely laid out by Defence Secretary Robert Gates last month.

Once valued at as much as $6 billion, the KEI was targeted for cancellation after running into cost and technical hitches, including overheating and repeated first and second stage booster failures, the missile agency said.

Randy Belote, a Northrop Grumman spokesman, said the company was disappointed the administration had chosen not to fund the KEI program. He said it offered “the strategic flexibility we believe is absolutely essential to deal with constantly evolving ballistic missile threats”. Gates had previously announced plans to turn another boost-phase program, a modified Boeing Co 747 equipped with a chemical laser, into a research effort rather than one aimed at potential production models. The Airborne Laser, designed to destroy all classes of ballistic missiles in their boost phases, is scheduled to try to shoot down a dummy target in September.

“I would not yet dismiss ABL,” Altwegg told reporters. The residual research programme could lead to other “speed-of-light” missions, including destroying enemy aircraft and surface-to-air missiles, advocates of the system have said.

Overall, Obama sought $7.8 billion for the Missile Defense Agency, a cut of about $1.2 billion from last year. Also terminated was Lockheed Martin Corp’s Multiple Kill Vehicle programme. The spending reduction was slightly smaller than the $1.4 billion cut announced by Gates on April 6, when he rolled out plans to tie US military spending more closely to conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan. In another development, Altwegg said it had been agreed to let federal research labs compete to carry out a $5 million study of a possible space-based missile defence, a potential baby step toward a system once mocked as “star wars”. The Pentagon has spent more than $100 billion to date to develop anti-missile systems based at land, sea, and in the air. reuters