With North Korea presenting an immediate threat, U.S. Pacific Command should enlist the Navy as its champion for developing a near-term airborne boost-phase kill capability based on a kinetic interceptor. As discussed in Part 2 of this series, an airborne boost-phase intercept system based on existing or near-term capabilities could provide an improved defense against North Korean intermediate- and intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
Boost-phase intercept (BPI) capabilities would not only provide Pacific Command with an improved ability to defend the homeland against ICBM threats, it would provide an additional means of defending fixed assets on Guam, complimenting Aegis mid-course and Theater High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Patriot batteries. Advocacy for an airborne BPI system through the combatant command’s integrated priorities list could create the required momentum within the development community to develop and sustain boost-phase intercept capabilities.
Combatant commands have successfully wielded such power in the past. The retrofit of the USS Ponce (LPD-15) to support U.S. Central Command priorities serves as an example of a combatant command's ability to drive acquisition. Responding to a request from Central Command in late 2011, at the time headed by then-Marine General and current Secretary of Defense James R. Mattis, the Navy slated the Ponce, an aging amphibious landing-transport dock, for conversion into an interim afloat forward-staging base (AFSB). The AFSB concept allows for the forward stationing at sea of helicopters, small boats, and special operations forces. The Navy conducted a rush retrofit of the Ponce to rapidly field the capability to Central Command in the interim while awaiting purpose-constructed vessels.
The Ponce example illustrates how a service can successfully champion the development of much-needed capabilities for a combatant commander. As in the case of the Ponce, the Navy is the ideal service to support and develop a boost-phase intercept capability. Advocating for such a system could increase the Navy’s access to missile defense funds to support unmanned aircraft and integrated warfare programs, similar to missile defense support for the Aegis system. The Navy’s interest also stems from the utility of BPI to enhance its integrated warfare capabilities and the ability to leverage existing or emerging Navy systems.
With the Navy increasing its ability to perform networked warfare, adding sensors should increase capability. The Navy is devoting significant resources into the development and expansion of the Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air (NIFC-CA) architecture, the Navy’s system for networked warfare linking different sensors and weapon platforms. Beyond providing a boost defense capability, an airborne BPI system would provide another sensor and link useful for these integrated warfare efforts. A 12 September 2016 test demonstrated the integration of an F-35 into NIFC-CA.
The system guided an SM-6 to destroy a target aircraft on a track generated by a Marine Corps F-35B. The test demonstrated an expansion of NIFC-CA from the carrier-centric paradigm to one that facilitates information flow across a variety of platforms. Anant Patel, the program manager for future combat systems in the Program Executive Office for Integrated Warfare Systems, remarked, “This was a demonstration to show within the NIFC-CA architecture we can add another sensor. As long as it meets quality of service, we can engage the threat,” continuing, “The more sensors, the better off we are.”
The addition of the UAV-based BPI system proposed here could further enhance the NIFC-CA system by adding an additional sensor and weapon node. The system would provide an additional layer to the missile defense system by allowing the engagement of missiles during the boost segment of flight. An over-the-horizon UAV-based sensor could expand the reach of the SM-3 to allow earlier engagements in midcourse. Further, the sensor suite on board the platform could offer additional capability to deliver firing cues to other platforms against other types of targets. The capabilities of the multi-spectral targeting systems-C (MTS-C), for example, against boosting missiles also could be leveraged against aircraft or surface contacts, complimenting existing and emerging radar capabilities.
The Navy has a growing interest and competence in advanced unmanned systems. While the Navy does not currently operate the Reaper, it could acquire them in the interim or pursue a joint effort with the Air Force to provide capability while the Navy investigates its own platforms. Two UAV programs in the Navy portfolio could provide platforms for the boost phase intercept mission: the MQ-4C Triton and the MQ-25A Stingray. The Triton carries the MTS-B infrared sensor, also carried by the Reaper, as well as the AN/ZPY-3 Multi-Function Active Sensor Maritime Radar. The sensor suite on the MQ-4C Triton would be capable of tracking slow moving targets at long range, indicating a future ability for the platform to contribute as a part of the NIFC-CA architecture and could support ballistic missile engagements during boost phase. Replacing the MTS-B with the C variant would extend the system’s missile-tracking capability into the midcourse portion of flight. Triton also has the payload capacity to support carriage of multiple boost-phase interceptors but would require modification and additional development to do so.
The developing MQ-25A Stingray program offers another option for a possible BPI platform, although on a longer time horizon. The MQ-25A is the latest evolution of the Navy’s pursuit of a carrier-based, unmanned aircraft. While its primary stated role at this time is as an airborne tanker, additional capability is planned for integration in the future. The Navy’s request-for-information at the inception of the program calls for a small, lightweight sensor similar to the MTS-B used on the Triton and Reaper. The MTS-B would provide the Stingray with the same sensor capability as the Reaper for supporting boost-phase engagements without modifying the program sensor requirements. Further, the aircraft should have sufficient payload to carry interceptors, given the platform's desired ability to carry sufficient fuel to refuel other platforms. Carrying interceptors, however, would require a specific design effort. Incorporating the boost-phase kill capability on the Stingray also would allow basing of these capabilities on board aircraft carriers, giving greater operational freedom and utility.
The bottom line is the U.S. Navy has options to deliver rapidly an effective BPI capability to counter North Korea’s missile threats to the United States and its allies. Such a capability could be provided by relatively quickly based on existing components. Such a capability set would increase the ballistic missile defenses of the U.S. Pacific Command for homeland defense as well as for the defense of forward deployed forces and allied interests in the Pacific. Through its integrated priorities list, Pacific Command should advocate for the development of a boost-phase intercept capability, and the Navy should drive development of this capability to enhance its integrated and unmanned warfare efforts and better defend the nation and our allies.
Editor's Note: You may find Part 1 of this piece here.
Lieutenant Lacinski graduated from the U.S.Naval Academy in 2015. Following commissioning, he completed a two-year Master program at MIT, earning a Master of Science in Technology and Policy. He is currently stationed in Pensacola, Florida, where he is beginning flight training as a Navy pilot.
Photo caption: The USS Hopper (DDG-70) successfully conducted an SM-3 test against a ballistic missile target fired from the Pacific Missile Test Range on Kauai in 2009.