With North Korea launching a missile that apparently is capable of reaching the United States and with Hezbollah rockets raining down on northern Israel, interest is growing in America’s efforts to develop a defense system to block such attacks.
Two East Valley companies — Orbital Sciences and General Dynamics — are deeply involved in developing parts of the U.S. Defense Department’s Ballistic Missile Defense System. A high priority with the Bush administration, the hugely expensive network uses tracking radars and interceptor missiles to knock down nuclear or biological rockets launched at the U.S.
Critics say the undertaking, which may eventually cost $200 billion, is too expensive and the resulting technology might not work in a real crisis. But with militant foreign states continually upgrading their missile capabilities, the system has enjoyed steady support in the Republican-controlled Congress.
“The public is now educated on the reality of the threat,” said Riki Ellison, president of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, an organization that supports development and deployment of missile defense systems. “In the past the public didn’t perceive it as a real threat. That has changed dramatically with North Korea firing seven missiles on July 4.”
The Orbital Sciences Launch Systems Group in Chandler has a contract that could reach $1 billion by the end of the decade to develop interceptor booster rockets for the Missile Defense Agency, which is overseeing the program for the Pentagon. The company, which is functioning as a subcontractor to Boeing, has about 1,000 Chandler employees working on the project, said Orbital spokesman Barry Beneski.
So far, 11 of the ground-based intercepter missiles have been deployed in silos at Ft. Greely, Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., he said.
“We are building them at a rate of about one a month and are under contract to do that into 2009,” he said.
In Chandler the company is doing design, development and avionics work but the actual fabrication of the rockets takes place at Vandenberg, he said.
“Our role is to be the integrator of the rocket,” he said. “The motors we get from a supplier, the guidance system is from a supplier. We manage all of those suppliers and put it all together in California.”
The intercepters do not carry an explosive warhead but instead are designed to kill an incoming missile by colliding with it at high speed as it reaches the height of its trajectory in outer space. So far there have been nine tests of the system, and five have successfully intercepted target missiles, Ellison said.
Orbital also is working on a separate system called the kinetic energy intercepter, a mobile truck-launch missile designed to be deployed in distant lands near the adversary’s launch site. The highspeed intercepters would destroy the enemy missile shortly after launch while it is still in the boost phase of its flight. Orbital is working as a subcontractor to Raytheon and Northrop Grumman on that project.
That program is still in research and development with the first test flight scheduled in 2008.
Finally, Orbital also is producing target missiles that simulate enemy missiles in tests of the system.
The intercepter missiles, while playing a crucial role, are actually only a small part of the overall Ballistic Missile Defense System. Just as important and even more complex are the radars and other tracking devices designed to identify, track and guide the intercepters to their targets.
That’s where General Dynamics in Gilbert is playing a role. GD has a $75 million contract with the Missile Defense Agency to build a infrared sensing satellite that would collection information on enemy missile launches and direct the interceptors.
The GD facility at Elliott and McQueen roads in Gilbert is producing the spacecraft and will integrate the instruments into the vehicle in preparation for a launch next spring, said Ted Kehl, director of missile defense programs for GD.
The purpose of the spacecraft is to conduct research, not be an actual functioning part of the missile defense system, he said.
Also the satellite will carry a German-built laser communications terminal that will test the feasibility of highspeed laser communications between satellites, he said. That technology could be used some time in the future in the missile defense system.
The satellite will be launched on a Minotaur rocket provided by Orbital from a government launch center in Virginia. A few months later two Orbital target rockets will be launched from Vandenberg to test the satellite’s sensors, he said.
Also GD has a $120 million contract to develop a very high performance satellite system that would track intercontinental ballistic missiles from outer space. That program is only in the preliminary phases, and the system could take four to six years to develop, Kehl said.
GD is acting as a subcontractor to Northrop Grumman for that program and will be responsible only for building the spacecraft, not any of the instruments that will go on board, he said.
GD has about 50 employees doing missile defense work in Gilbert.
What the critics are saying
Missile defense has generated political controversies for many years — ever since critics of the Reagan administration dubbed it the “Star Wars” program.
Much of the complaints surrounded the fact that the U.S. had to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, under which the U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed to limit missile defense installations as part of the process of nuclear disarmament.
To pursue missile defense only encouraged American adversaries to build up their offensive missile capabilities to overwhelm America’s defenses, they said.
Critics also have argued that adversaries could easily deploy decoys and other countermeasures that would render even the most expensive missile defense system ineffective. They add that as terrorism has come to the forefront, the greater threat to the U.S. comes not from ballistic missiles but from weapons of mass destruction hiding in boats, planes or trucks.
So far, however, the program has moved ahead in Congress with support from both political parties. The primary difference has been over the timing of deployment.
Republicans favor rapid deployment even before the components are fully tested to provide at least a rudimentary defense in case of an emergency.
Democrats prefer more thorough testing to make sure the technology works before committing large amounts of money on deployment.
— Ed Taylor