The U.S. Missile Defense Agency, claiming progress on its efforts to knock out incoming missiles, is asking Congress to support development of a range of new and upgraded sensors.

On July 30 MDA conducted a successful missile defense test using the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. This follows a successful shoot-down of a ballistic missile this spring.

These recent wins could help build momentum behind MDA’s effort to win congressional funding for a variety of sensors and other technologies related to missile defense. The service wants to “press forward with plans to identify, develop and field cost-effective solutions to enhance BMDS sensors and discrimination for homeland and regional defenses,” Vice Adm. Jim Syring, then MDA director, told the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Strategic Forces in June.

Syring went before Congress with a laundry list of sensors and related technologies the MDA says it wishes to pursue. “We are investing in radars and developing advanced electro-optical sensors to achieve a diverse sensor architecture that eventually will provide highly accurate midcourse tracking and discrimination,” he said.

The agency’s wish list gives some insight into the technologies driving the nation’s missile defense capabilities. MDA’s priorities highlight the need for sensors that can differentiate between lethal and non-lethal targets, as well as continued development of the Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR), and an ongoing effort to sustain existing surveillance systems.

The agency’s budget request includes $191.1 million to sustain several facilities. These include COBRA DANE, a single-faced ground-based, L-band phased-array radar located at Eareckson Air Station, Shemya, Alaska, and operated by the United States Air Force, as well as the Upgraded Early Warning Radars (UEWR), and the Army Navy/ Transportable Radar Surveillance and Control Model-2 (AN/TPY-2) radars.

Syring outlined a request for $213.5 million to continue the development of advanced discrimination algorithms for the AN/TPY-2, Sea-Based X-band (SBX) and the UEWR radars, a capability he said is needed to counter evolving threats. Improved algorithms will specifically help missile defense assets to identify lethal and non-lethal objects.

Target acquired

In support of its extensive requests, MDA can point to a successful intercept test carried out this spring and summer. In addition to the THAAD test conducted by the 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade from Fort Bliss, Texas, MDA — in cooperation with the U.S. Air Force 30th Space Wing, the Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense and U.S. Northern Command — successfully intercepted an intercontinental ballistic missile target during a test in May of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) element of the nation’s ballistic missile defense system (BMDS).

MDA said it was the first live-fire test event against an ICBM-class target for GMD and the U.S. ballistic missile defense system.

The interception involved “multiple sensors” providing both target acquisition and tracking data to the command-and-control system, Syring told a press briefing at the time.

These successful tests serve as a backdrop to the agency’s present requests, which include a number of sensor-related technologies in addition to those mentioned above.

MDA also wants to expand the use of SBX, an advanced mobile radar that provides precision midcourse tracking and discrimination capabilities. The agency wants $130.7 million for the system. Syring referred specifically to continued missile test activity of North Korea, saying the U.S. needs to enhance SBX in order to extend at-sea time from 120 to 230 days and conduct contingency operations for defense of the homeland.

The agency’s $357.7 million request in support of LRDR would further enhance that midcourse sensor, providing precision tracking and hit assessment while improving BMDS target discrimination capability. LRDR also will support additional mission areas, including space situational awareness. Phase I construction is set for 2017. Initial fielding for LRDR is anticipated in 2020 with war-fighter readiness by 2022.

Syring also described ongoing work on the Space-based Kill Assessment experiment, which uses fast-frame, infrared sensors to deliver a defensive assessment capability. MDA envisions a network of SKA sensors to be hosted on commercial satellites to be in orbit by FY 2018.

Even as it pursues these various enhancements to its existing missile defense capabilities, MDA says it remains ahead of the game, capable of countering any threat that may emerge between now and 2020.

“Our mission becomes more challenging as time goes on, as I’ve spoken in the past, as they continue to develop increasingly complex threats,” Syring said after the May intercept. “But yesterday’s test did demonstrate that the system continues to improve and mature, and it is ready to defend the homeland today.”