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DoD News Briefing with Lt. Gen. Obering from the Pentagon

Presenters: Missile Defense Agency director, Lt. Gen. Henry "Trey" Obering III
September 01, 2006 3:15 PM EDT
MODERATOR: Good afternoon. As you know, we had a test today of the ground-based missile defense system. And Lieutenant General Trey Obering, who is the director of the Missile Defense Agency, has been kind enough to come down and at least give you some of the preliminary results of that test today and take a few questions.


GEN. OBERING: Thank you.

Well, good afternoon, and I'm pleased to announce that the test that we executed today was a total success. In fact, it exceeded even our primary objective on the test. And we also met all the secondary objectives of the test.

Basically, what we did today is a huge step in terms of our systematic approach to continuing to field, continuing to deploy and continuing to develop a missile defense system for the United States, for our allies, our friends, our deployed forces around the world.

The test that we conducted today was significant in the fact that as the next step in progression, we in fact did launch an operational interceptor out of an operational site at Vandenberg Air Force base. It was conducted by operational crews that were manning operational fire control systems in Colorado Springs. It was conducted with the support of an operational radar in California that was also manned by warfighters operational crews. And it was against a very threat- representative target that was launched out of Alaska.

So all in all, this is about as close as we can come to an end- to-end test of our long-range missile defense system. It is the next step in the test -- in the progression because the last one that we did in February was a validation that we could fly a target across the radar in California and be able to generate a fire-control solution, as we say, to the interceptor. And that was built on a test that we conducted last December, which was actually the first flight of the operationally configured interceptor out of Kwajalein in the South Pacific.

So this continual progression will proceed. We think we're on the right track. Just a reminder, though; this is a major portion of our missile defense system, but it is not the only portion of our missile defense system. And in fact, this intercept now is the fourth in the last 90 days of a hit-to-kill intercept using our ballistic missile defense system.

Last June we launched a sea-based interceptor that was successful in intercepting a separating warhead.

In July we launched a land-based terminal-phase interceptor, the Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense, or the THAAD, interceptor, successfully intercepting the target.

In August, just yesterday, we had a successful Patriot-3 -- PAC-3 -- intercept that was conducted by the U.S. Army in collaboration with Missile Defense Agency.

And then today the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System.

And so we are very pleased and very proud that as the results of a lot of hard work from a lot of hardworking Americans that are bringing this capability into reality.

As we look to the future, we'll continue this systematic progression. We will make our test even more challenging as we measure the results of this one, and it will take us several days and weeks to be able to go through the amount of data that we collect. We actually collect gigabits and gigabits of data that we have to go through, analyze all potential possibilities, and see how everything performed. But I will tell you that what we do know now is that we did, in fact, exceed our objective. We did intercept the reentry vehicle, and we did use the operational radar data to provide the initial track for that intercept. And the kill vehicle performed its own discrimination and targeting of the kill vehicle.

And we got that from the -- from the instrumentation that we have.

A lot of firsts in this -- first time that we flew the interceptor out of Vandenberg; first time that we were able to actually use the operational fire-control system end to end, as I said; and the first time we were able to put warfighters on the consoles at all these positions. So this is a validation of the confidence that I've expressed in the system and we'll continue to explore as we go into the future.

So with that, I'd like to answer any questions that you may have.

Q General, based on the results of the tests to date, including today's test, what are the chances that the United States could shoot down an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile from a country, for instance, like North Korea?

GEN. OBERING: I won't tell you a specific number because that is a classified number for our defensive system. But what I will tell you is that this test validated the confidence that I've expressed in the past with the performance of the system.

And the reason I say that is because this was the configuration that we have in the silos in Alaska and in California. This is the fire-control system that we would use for those interceptors. This was an operational radar that we would use, similar to the one in the defense of the United States from a long-range Taepo Dong II, for example, that's launched at the United States. And so -- these were the procedures. This is the way the system works. And so I believe that we're very confident that it would work.

Q If you're not -- if you're not going to put a number on it and you're not going to give us odds, essentially, would you say, for instance, that you'd have an excellent chance, a good chance, a fair chance or a poor chance of shooting down a missile that threatened the United States?

GEN. OBERING: I think we'd have a good chance, and it's one that I feel a lot safer and sleep a lot better at night.

Q General?


Q I think you said that this is about as close as we can come to an end-to-end -- complete, end-to-end test. And you also said the next test would be more challenging. I'm wondering if that first statement was based on what capability you have today, if this is as good as you can get but it's got to get better?

GEN. OBERING: Exactly. Then we'll continue to challenge ourselves with respect to presenting more complex threat suites, okay, as we go through. We will -- we will continue to look at azimuths, different intercept geometries, et cetera. And that's one reason why we moved the interceptor to Vandenberg, and it's also why we built mobile telemetry systems that we place on ships and mobile range safety instrumentation that we can move flexibly around so it allows us to expand our geometries.

But what we saw today was a very realistic trajectory for the threat, for the target, and a very realistic trajectory, a very realistic intercept altitude and intercept speeds for the target enemy -- interceptor against the target.

Q What was the altitude?

GEN. OBERING: I can't talk about it now. I'll just tell you it was in space.

Q In specific terms for someone who doesn't understand any math whatsoever, can you describe how the next test will be more challenging in real, non-mathematical layman's terms.

GEN. OBERING: Well, what we will do is we will go through all of the data from this test and then we will determine how we can challenge ourselves for the next test. And what that means is today we had a kill vehicle that was used against a very threat- representative target, which means that there was a warhead that was inbound, and there was also what we call part of the target, post- boost vehicle or part of the booster that was used for the target. We will begin to add what we call countermeasures to that, which is we will try to lay out decoys; we will try to lay out different things that will try to confuse the kill vehicle as well as the overall system.

Now we have used those in the past in some of our earlier testing against the prototypes that we had of the kill vehicle as well as some of the surrogates that we had for the system. What we now want to do is use that for the -- against the real items.

Q Were there no countermeasures? I'm sorry.

GEN. OBERING: No, we didn't use countermeasures on this flight.

Q As clearly as you can, can you give us a sense of the artificiality of the test in terms of you knew where the warhead was in the sky and the mock warhead -- you may remember the critics, it's always, I mean, you know, beacons and you always need to know where the thing is in the sky. What actually did you know in terms of --

GEN. OBERING: That's a -- you know, there's been a lot of criticism about that, and I would like to clarify that.

When we were launching interceptors out of Kwajalein in the South Pacific against targets from Vandenberg, we were not geographically located to be able to take advantage of the operational radars, such as the one in Alaska or the one in California, for our testing. So we had to try to emulate those radar signatures. And that's what you're referring to with respect to being able to know where the warhead is with respect to the overall system. Okay? We did not do that in this test because we had the operational radars available to us. So we used the actual -- (word inaudible) -- radar. So we have to know, by the way, at all times where the warhead is, where the kill vehicle is, et cetera, because this is a test, and it is something we have to worry about with respect to range safety.

But we did not use any of that information, not either in the early warning portion of this or in the terminal intercept phase at all. So this is as realistic as it gets in that regard.

Q One follow-up. What was the role of the Boeing golf ball on the ship, the XB -- the Sea-Based X-Band Radar. Did it play a role? It's had some problems lately, apparently.

GEN. OBERING: What happened is, we have the Sea-Based X-Band Radar. It did participate in this test. It was off the coast of California. It did successfully track the target all the way through to intercept.

Some of what you saw in the press was also very misleading. I had actually chartered a team to independently assess the viability of the Sea-Based X-Band Radar before we actually moved it to its home in Alaska. I wanted to make one final check, because we often like to underpromise and overdeliver. And so the report that was referred to in the press talked about modifications and changes that were recommended by the independent review team. What they failed to announce is that the conclusion of that team was that the platform and the radar were very robust for the intended mission.

And so what we're doing is what I would call modifications to improve the winterization of the platform, those types of things. But it is fully operational in terms of the platform itself. We have calibrated the radar. We actually used it in this test, as I said. The only thing we have left to do is to do some minor mods before we move up to Alaska, and we have that scheduled for this fall. So we're not very far off track, considering how long -- you know, how massive a project that was and what time we actually rolled it out in.

Q Given this is work in progress, and you're still developing it, how would you describe the operational capability today of the system, understanding that you're continuing to refine and improve it? If the United States were to face a threat today, how would you describe your operational capability today?

GEN. OBERING: I would say that if we had to use the system in an operational mode, it would be very capable.

Q General, you said the target was representative of what we might be facing from North Korea or something. Explain that in a little more depth. I mean, how do you -- how do you -- on what basis do you make that? Is it the trajectory of the target? Is it some characteristic of the target? Could you just go into that a little bit more?

GEN. OBERING: Sure. We don't know exactly what a Taepo Dong II is going to look like or perform. However, there are certain physics-based limitations and there are certain engineering-based limitations that apply for any missile that has to be launched from a country like North Korea to make it to the United States or to make it into a defended area. So from that, we understand the band of parameters that that missile would have to operate in.

That's what I'm referring to.

And we also know in -- roughly about the size of that type of missile, based on the propulsion technology today, based on what we believe our best guess is that they may have. And therefore we can pretty much estimate or guesstimate what those sizes would be, whether you're talking about the booster or the warhead, and then the speeds are what they need to be in order to make it as far as it would need to, to get to a defended area.

So that's how we characterize it. And we try to design and build our targets that would represent that.

Q General, you said that you met and exceeded expectations. Can you tell us what expectations you had and where you exceeded them, what you accomplished today that was beyond what you expected to?

GEN. OBERING: Sure. As I said, we do this in a step-by-step fashion. So we launched the interceptor last December against a simulated target. It preformed so well and in fact exceeded our expectations then that I added a target for this flight that we just executed today.

We did the radar characterization flight in February, which allowed us to take the target, fly it across the operational radar and characterize what that target looked like to that radar, and inserted that information into the fire control system.

Our next step was intended to be what we call a terminal phase characterization. Otherwise, we wanted to get the kill vehicle up into the terminal phase of flight, and we wanted to determine whether the -- what we call the software algorithms or the methods by which we discriminate what is the target, what is not, and compare that with radar data in terms of accuracy and track position, that type of thing, to understand if that was operating properly.

That would have been a success if we had gotten that far. But the fact is, it worked so well that it actually intercepted the RV.

Q General, I just want to follow up on Tony's question and make sure I fully understand. You're saying that there were no homing mechanisms or beacons or anything like that that we use to enable the interceptor or the kill vehicle to find the enemy missile in this?

GEN. OBERING: There were -- we have transmitters on the warhead that allow us to understand where that position is vis-a-vis range safety, vis-a-vis the engineering data that we use for the test. Okay? But that is nothing more than a transmitter that says this is the location.

When you talk of -- and we do not use that information and did not use that information in the intercept. We did not use it for trying to emulate or mimic a radar, and we did not use it in the actual terminal phase intercept. We just didn't use it in the intercept of this target.

We have to have that information for range safety purposes; for engineering truth data, so that we can compare how well we performed against a target, that type of thing.

But we did not use it at all in the intercept of this warhead. And that's why I talk about confidence in what we have and what we have in the ground, and, of course, a homing device -- meaning that there's some type of beacon that's transmitting that some type of kill vehicle that's picking up and homing in on is absurd. We just don't do that. That would be a -- that would be misleading the American people, that would be cheating, and we just don't do that.

Q General, is it correct to say this is the first successful flight test since the system was declared operational, where the target was hit?

GEN. OBERING: It is the first flight test in which we have used the operational configuration of the interceptor and the operational configuration of the system since we -- since the 2004 time frame.

Q When it was -- that's when it was declared operational?

GEN. OBERING: That's when we actually started deploying the interceptors and started deploying the radars in the system.

Q General, when do you expect to have a fully end-to-end test?


Q When do you expect to have a fully end-to-end test? That -- the next one upcoming at the start of next year or --

GEN. OBERING: Well, you know, I don't want to ask the North Koreans to launch against us. That would be a realistic end-to-end test. Short of that, this is about as good as it gets with respect to that.

We're always looking at other ways, as I said, to add more complex presentations of the threat, more complex presentations of the threats we -- but again, we have used those in the past, so that's not something -- it's something we are always concerned about, but we feel we're on the right track here.

Q So as far as you're concerned, this is as complete --

GEN. OBERING: This is a complete, end-to-end test. And again, we will fly again in December. That is our next scheduled flight test. That is predicated on what we have learned from this test, and so what I mean by that is we will take all of the data and then, again, we will make this test in December as challenging as we can, the same way we -- when we flew last December. And at that point, our only intent was to fly the interceptor out of the silo to be able to get it into -- separate the kill vehicle, and that was the purpose of that test. We actually took the kill vehicle and put it through its paces from a maneuvering perspective back in December. Because we were so successful in doing that, I decided to add a target to this test.

Q So the primary objective of the next test will actually be an interceptor? No warheads --

GEN. OBERING: Yes, that's correct. That's correct.

Q General --

Q And just --

GEN. OBERING: Wait up, hold up.

Q Can you clarify exactly what the folks in -- whether it was Vandenberg or Colorado Springs knew about this target, like, in terms of when it would be launched or what its trajectory was or -- what did they know in advance?

GEN. OBERING: These are warfighters sitting at the console, so they don't know in advance.

In terms of the specific trajectory, there is a -- there's a little bit of a misconception here.

If you're talking about a tactical system and where, you know, you're on a ship-based or a land-based mobile system where you get surprised in terms of a launch, being able to recognize that and do something, a no-notice launch means something. Okay?

For this system, we used overhead satellites to warn us of the launch. That transitions the system into an alert status. And then we actually have to confine the software to be able to intercept within the range safety criteria. And what I mean by that is, we tell the system: You can't shoot before here, and you can't shoot after here. Okay? In terms of the software for the system. And so it is a little bit of a misconception about no-notice launch versus a notice launch in this regard. But we try to make it as realistic as we can in this test, with the warfighters at the console manning the radar, and the warfighters that remain in the Fire Control Node in Colorado Springs. So we did not use a prior knowledge, so to speak, of some kind of reconstructed interceptor, that kind of thing.

Q But what did they know, though? I mean, did they have a time frame? Did they have a general direction? Or did they not know anything?

GEN. OBERING: Oh, for this particular test, they would know roughly what the target time would be. They would know that -- the target launch would be. But in terms of the details in terms of exactly where the target's going to be, that's all done with the computer-driven fire control system.

Q And can you just speak briefly a little more broadly about both the land-based and the sea-based in terms of their relative level of development and how robust you think the overall system is?

GEN. OBERING: Sure. Well, first of all, we've had seven of eight successful intercepts with the sea-based system. And that was a very -- the last several tests have been very operationally realistic in terms of providing an operational context, an operational scenario for those tests. I have a lot of confidence in the ability of the sea-based system to be able to execute an operational mission.

The land-based system, the Ground-based Midcourse System, the Long-Range Defense System, is a little bit less mature than that, even though, as I said, this has been an end-to-end system, an end-to-end test; we used operational folks, we don't want to do that just one time, we want to continue to do that, improve upon that.

But I believe that the course that we've taken overall has been the right one, which is -- remember, we had no defense against these weapons. We had no defense in the United States against a long-range missile that was launched at the United States, we had no defense for many, many years. And so this is the first time that we've been able to demonstrate a capability that we do have, in fact, using the operational configurations of the interceptors, the operational radars, the operational fire control system.

And so we knew that we could do this even back in the 2002 time frame because of the testing that we had done then.

And so all this does is validate that when you don't have a defense, it's a good thing to test as much as you need to understand whether or not you can technically do it, then begin to deploy that where you have no defense. That gives you some modicum of protection. Then you can confirm that and you can improve upon that over time. And that's what we've done in this series of testing.

Q Just to double-check, the next test, in December, you are going to use countermeasures?

GEN. OBERING: I don't know that. It will depend on the data analysis that we do from this test, and then I'll make that decision as to what --

Q When do you think you'll make it? It will be weeks or --

GEN. OBERING: It normally takes us at least 60 days to go through all of the data and to get all the various engineer teams. You have to realize that there are thousands and thousands of Americans that are involved in the development and the construction and deployment of this system. And so we want to make sure that we've covered every aspect of it.

Yes, sir?

Q Sir, when you say operational -- you're talking service members here, right?


Q That are doing it. What were their reactions in Vandenberg or at Colorado Springs when it became apparent this was a success?

GEN. OBERING: Well, there was a little bit of a lag time between the video and the audio, so it was a little bit interesting. But there was huge cheering that was going on.

Q A couple factoid questions. How much did this test cost, roughly?

GEN. OBERING: Typically our tests are anywhere from $80 million to 100 (million dollars). It depends on all the factors and all the assets we bring to bear. In that neighborhood, I'd say, of about $80 million. And that's why, by the way, we want to make sure that we have squeezed every ounce of knowledge and information out of the test data, because we want to make sure we're getting the most for the taxpayers' money. And it's why we -- that's also why it takes us a little longer on the long-range test to be able to conduct those, because we want to go through all that data before we design the next test, to make sure that we are challenging ourselves and moving on to the next stage.

Q Closing speeds? Can you give us something on that?

GEN. OBERING: I can't tell you that. But I can tell you this. I can tell you that the burnout velocity of the interceptor when it burns out the booster -- that's a commercial booster -- you're talking about 13(,000) or 14,000 miles an hour.

Q One final one. This is the first successful intercept since your August 2002 test.

GEN. OBERING: That's correct, of the long-range system.

Q Right.

GEN. OBERING: We have had many, many -- in fact, this is the 22nd successful intercept using a hit-to-kill -- I'm sorry, 21st successful intercept using hit-to-kill technology since 2001. This is our 13th successful flight test in a row. Thirteen of the overall system. That includes the Aegis, that includes the Standard Missile III, the THAAD and the flight test that we conducted last December, the flight test we conducted for the radar, the flight test that we -- by the way, one thing I failed to mention.

We have actually tested -- there's another radar involved in the system, the Cobra Dane radar in Alaska. We actually launched a target out of the back of a C-17 last September, flew that across the face of that target, generated the same fire control solutions very similar to what we did today. So that gives us confidence that we have yet another sensor in the system that works.

Q Twenty-first in -- what's your benchmark? When was the last -- your benchmark for the last failure that began the string of --

GEN. OBERING: It was about 2001 time frame, is what I'm looking at.

STAFF: We have time for one or two more.

Q I take it's safe to say this is the most complete and comprehensive test of the whole system to date?

GEN. OBERING: It is to date, that is correct. And we will continue to add more as we go.

For example, we will add the Sea-Based X-Band Radar that I mentioned earlier. We will add that and connect that into the system, and then that will be on line and be available here in the next several months. That brings a huge capability to the system because we will be able to handle much more complex threat suites when we get that capability. And that's why we try to take this in a systematic fashion. We have to integrate that, and then we can challenge ourselves with much more complex threat suites.

Q Can you talk a little about expectations management? Clearly, an intercept itself was not the primary objective. And yet, at the same time, the missile was not meant by fly by it. Clearly, you were trying to hit it itself. Granted, there's a lot of people on the Hill and a lot of critics who say, you know, we're just waiting for you to say hit or miss. And some people were saying, well, because even though you were trying to hit it, your objective -- an intercept was not your primary objective, there were a lot of critics who were saying, "Well, see, this is what they're saying, this is MDA is trying to do; just in case they miss, they can still say, `Well, it was still a successful test.'"

GEN. OBERING: Actually, what we're trying to do is underpromise and overdeliver.

Q You mentioned it was a realistic test in terms of what the target would be expected from -- in comparison with North Korea. But is that still true, given that you didn't have any countermeasures on the target?

GEN. OBERING: Well, it depends on -- you know, we don't know, like I said, what type of countermeasures that the North Koreans or other nations could use. This system -- I feel confident we can handle simple countermeasures, just like I said before I was confident in the overall performance of the system. We will prove that in the tests to come. But also, one of the reasons I say that is that, as I said, we have flown countermeasures against this system in the past. We had a prototype of the kill vehicle that we used today, and we used countermeasures against that prototype. And so the ability to discriminate between those countermeasures and the RV has been demonstrated in the testing that we did in the 2001-2002 time frame.

So that's why we test to where we have -- we believe we have some capability, we put it in the field. We test some more systematically, one step at a time, put some more capability into the system. So we're trying to do this in an evolutionary fashion where we grow the capability, because we want to make sure that we're doing it the right way.

STAFF: All right, thank you.

GEN. OBERING: Thank you. Appreciate it.

Q Thank you.


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