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How America Plans to Defend Itself Against New Nuclear Threats


North Korea is parading new missile capabilities, testing submarine-launched nuclear weapons and conducting multi-staged launches of space vehicles. At the same time, Iran has by no means relinquished its nuclear ambitions and the Chinese military is not only building new nuclear missiles at staggering speeds but also integrating longer-range, more high-tech sea-launched nuclear missiles.

These fast-evolving threat dynamics, which include the advent of new attack weapon possibilities such as hypersonic missiles traveling five times the speed of sound, continue to inspire the Pentagon and its industry partners to engineer a faster, adaptive and highly impactful Next-Generation Interceptor (NGI) to emerge at the end of the decade. 

The Missile Defense Agency  (MDA) program, plans to award several contracts to industry partners as part of a longer range plan to field a new weapon by 2028. The MDA seeks to build upon the performance of existing Ground Based Interceptors with new generations of Command and Control technology, computer processing, speed of flight, precision targeting and sensing discrimination.

Senior Pentagon officials tell The National Interest that requirements for the new, high-speed weapon are being driven by the fast-changing global threat environment. 

“It has to be able to take out the latest generation of ballistic missiles that might proliferate from Iran or North Korea, find its way through a maze of countermeasures and use an effective filtration system for the optics that can see and pick out the warhead … and hit it every time,” a senior Pentagon official familiar with NGI told The National Interest. 

Several of the main competitors offering NGI solutions include a Northrop Grumman-Raytheon team as well as offerings from Lockheed and Boeing.

“We are asking these teams to come up with the best NGI they can. We went with letting the teams know specific requirements and giving them enough leeway to do the best they can do, Many of the technical specifics left up to the offerers,” the official said. 

Unlike interceptors engineered to track and knock out attacking weapons within the earth’s atmosphere, the new NGI is being built for exo-atmospheric operations, meaning it will need to take-out intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) during space travel. 

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While many technical specifics are of course not available due to security reasons and competition-sensitive industry innovations, the NGI may include multiple kill vehicle interceptors.

One of the industry teams competing to build the NGI consists of a Northrop Grumman-Raytheon collaborative effort to merge Northrop’s data networking, command and control technology and computer expertise with Raytheon’s kill vehicle and sensor discrimination enhancements.

“Our NGI program is an interwoven, joint endeavor, split by expertise to ensure seamless operations within a joint program office,” Terry Feehan, Northrop Grumman’s vice president and program director for NGI, told The National Interest. 

Northrop Grumman has spent many years supporting technologies woven into the Pentagon’s existing Ground Based Interceptor command and control technology, and is the prime contractor on the Air Force’s new ICBM program, called Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. Raytheon builds multiple variants of the SM-3 ship and ground-fired interceptor missile used for maritime ballistic missile intercept as well as Aegis Ashore land-launched missile defense. Raytheon has also over the years built seeker technologies and exo-atmospheric kill vehicles intended to find and destroy approaching ICBMs in space, while also distinguishing actual weapons from debris, decoys or other countermeasures. 

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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters. 

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