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The Pentagon Plan to Track Weapons Traveling at Hypersonic Speeds

Kris Osborn

military, Americas

A push is underway to create a next-generation interceptor by the end of the decade.

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 intercontinental ballistic missiles (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 (MDA) 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 (NGI) 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.

The 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 Ground Midcourse Defense (GMD) 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.” 

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 Standard Missile-3 Block IIA interceptor, both of which harness breakthrough technologies in the areas of sensing discrimination, targeting precision, range and functional reliability.

Known for its SM-3 Block IIA interceptor, which destroyed an ICBM-type target several months ago for the first time in history, 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.

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. 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.

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.

Image: Reuters

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