The terrorist threat is changing US defence industry priorities

Paris provided clear evidence of a divergence in defence thinking between Europe and the USA. While Europe’s focus remains primarily on platforms for traditional roles such as air defence, strike and transport, US industry’s creativity is being diverted increasingly towards finding solutions to perceived terrorist threats.

Several US firms chose Le Bourget to provide briefings on systems to counter terrorist-launched surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles, to a mainly European audience that was largely noncommittal and occasionally nonplussed. The jury may still be out on the sophistication and severity of the terrorist threat, but US industry is already expending effort designing countermeasures of varying complexity and credibility.

Briefing the results of an 18-month, $6.5 million, company-funded study into how to defend the heavily populated north-east USA against the “asymmetric threat” of ballistic or cruise missiles launched by terrorists from ships offshore, Lockheed Martin pointed out that Europe’s population centres are similarly vulnerable. But the postulated threat, and proposed defence, came across as uniquely American.

As evidence to support the existence of such a threat, Dave Kier, Lockheed Martin vice-president and managing director of missile defence and protection programmes, cites the discovery of a Scud missile and launcher in a container at Los Angeles harbour. This Scud had been purchased at an arms bazaar in Macau by a US collector who planned to display the missile, but could as easily have been bought by terrorists, he said.

Short-range rockets such as the Scud are easy to conceal, Kier said, while cruise missiles like the Chinese-made Silkworm have 10 times the accuracy when fitted with GPS navigation. “A rogue state has launched a ballistic missile and a cruise missile from a ship,” he said, adding that a ship-launched cruise missile could strike the US north east in 11min, and a ballistic missile in 4min.

Lockheed’s internal study developed the architecture for an asymmetric missile defence system that could be deployed to protect the US northeast from 2007. The initial architecture, dubbed OV-1, would have “ a pretty good chance of success”, said Kier – a 94% probability of intercepting a ballistic missile and 91% chance of shooting down a cruise missile, increasing to 99% with an “intelligence tip-off”.

Missile shield

The missile shield would be created by repositioning existing Aegis air-defence ships and Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile batteries. Three Aegis ships and 12 Patriot fire units would be needed to cover the US northeast from Boston to Washington DC, said Kier. The cost would be substantial: $1 billion to set the system up and $650 million a year to operate it.

Defending a heavily populated region from missile attack without turning it into a fortress poses unique challenges, including the need for sensors that are both deployable and publicly acceptable, Kier says. Command and control systems will have to be extended to include “consequence and crisis” management to deal with missile debris and provide links to emergency services.

While ballistic missiles can be detected by existing and planned early-warning satellites, Lockheed’s solution to the cruise missile threat is passive coherent location. This uses transmissions from existing FM radio stations to detect the missile. “We can detect disturbances in the broadcast radio-frequency field, triangulate and locate the target,” says Kier. Testing against cruise missiles has been conducted at White Sands missile range in New Mexico, he says. Once located, the missile would be handed off to an Aegis or Patriot radar for the “end game”.

Lockheed proposes evolving its architecture between 2007 and 2013 into a “fully integrated, networked, persistent asymmetric missile defence system”. This would involve introducing the aerostat-based JLENS cruise-missile defence sensor in 2011 and the proposed high-altitude surveillance airship in 2013.

Although Lockheed’s proposal seems far-fetched, it has attracted the attention of at least one Congressional committee, which has added $20 million to its mark-up of the 2006 US defence budget to continue the study. If approved by Congress, the money would allow Lockheed access to “real” weapon and sensor performance data and information on classified programmes with which to refine its architecture.

So far, Lockheed seems to be ahead of its potential customer, the US Department of Defense. Although US Northern Command is responsible for homeland defence, it lacks acquisition authority and must procure systems through the individual services. It remains to be seen whether they will place a high enough priority on protecting the USA from a terrorist missile attack to reward Lockheed’s creativity.


Source: Flight International