Know Your Military

Layered Missile Defense System Protects Homeland

Oct. 7, 2019 | BY David Vergun

The Missile Defense Agency's mission is to protect the deployed forces, allies and partners from hypersonic and ballistic missile attacks of all ranges through a layered missile defense system, its director said.

Navy Vice Adm. Jon Hill spoke today at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Hill illustrated how it works, using an example of a March 25 missile defense test over the Pacific Ocean.

A missile target launches in a dark sky.
Kwajalein Sky
A threat-representative ICBM target launches from the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, March 25, 2019.
Photo By: Missile Defense Agency
VIRIN: 190325-O-F3405-0001

An intercontinental ballistic missile was launched from the Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, he said. It cruised into space heading eastward toward the United States.

Meanwhile, more than 4,000 miles away, two ground-based interceptors were launched a minute apart from each other from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California -- the first-such test firing more than one GBI, he said.

A missile interceptor launches amid an ignition cloud.
First Salvo
The lead ground-based Interceptor is launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., March 25, 2019, in the first salvo engagement test of a threat-representative intercontinental ballistic missile target. The test’s two interceptors successfully intercepted a target launched from the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.
Photo By: Lisa Simunaci, Missile Defense Agency
VIRIN: 190325-D-AD122-004A

The first GBI, also known as the kill vehicle, successfully collided with the ICBM target, destroying it, and the second GBI hit a large chunk of that debris, he said.

A lot was happening in the background to make that kill successful, he said.

For instance, two powerful radars were used to track the ICBM, one on Wake Island and one on a floating platform in the Pacific. Satellites fitted with infrared sensors also tracked the target, he said.

Data from the sensors and radars were transmitted to the fire control stations in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Fort Greely, Alaska, he said.

A missile launches as a cloud of smoke lingers in the sky.
Sky Trail
The 'trail' ascends as a ground-based interceptor launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., March 25, 2019, in the first-ever salvo engagement test of a threat-representative ICBM target. The two GBIs successfully intercepted a target launched from the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll.
Photo By: Lisa Simunaci, Missile Defense Agency
VIRIN: 190325-D-AD122-0003

An X-band radar on a ship in the Pacific picked up the target as it flew through space and collected detailed information to send back to the fire control station, he said. Once the data was received by the warfighters operating the system, they fired the two GBIs, which obliterated the target.

Other types of missiles used in missile defense include the Patriot, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense and the Standard Missile-3.

Two soldiers work on a large missile defense system.
Training Task
Soldiers train with a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system for short-and medium-range missile defense at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, Feb. 6, 2019.
Photo By: Army Capt. Adan Cazarez
VIRIN: 190206-A-IA862-162C
A soldier watches a missile fire.
Whoosh!
Army Maj. Brian Ahlers watches a Patriot missile fire during Exercise Saber Guardian in Romania, June 19, 2019. U.S. Army Europe and Romanian land forces lead Saber Guardian, which is designed to improve the integration of multinational combat operations.
Photo By: Army Spc. Brian Pearson
VIRIN: 190619-Z-DI929-005C

Hill then explained the way ahead, noting that great progress has already been made in missile defense since MDA stood up 15 years ago. He also mentioned that there's still a lot more work to do.

For example, different radars operate at different frequencies. Getting the different systems to communicate with each other is a work in progress, he said.

Also, sharing data and better integrating missile defense with allies and partners is something MDA is doing through exercises and foreign military sales, he said, mentioning the NATO nations, Japan, South Korea, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Improving space-based sensors, cyber defenses and installing more GBI is also part of the work the agency is doing, he said.

Alt Text: A long-exposure photograph of a night launch of a missile, which leaves a trail of light.
Missile Launch
A Standard Missile 3 Block IIA launches from the Aegis Ashore Missile Defense Test Complex at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii, Dec. 10, 2018, during a test to intercept an intermediate-range ballistic missile target in space.
Photo By: Mark Wright, DOD
VIRIN: 181210-D-ZZ999-005C

The agency is also working with the military services on directed energy weapons, such as powerful lasers that can take out missiles, he said.

Hill said that artificial intelligence will become more important over time, with the goal of AI being to more quickly and efficiently inform the warfighter of threats and options so the warfighter can make better decisions.

Lastly, Hill said these improvements are important because near-peer competitors are designing and fielding advanced missiles that are harder to track and take out such as hypersonics and advanced cruise missiles that are very maneuverable.