U.S. Missile Defense Agency Eyes UAVs For Boost-Phase Targeting

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) plans to continue testing the use of Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles for ballistic missile target discrimination in the near term because taking that mission to space is still too costly.

 The agency terminated plans this year to design and build a follow-on to the two orbiting Space Tracking Surveillance System satellites, which have been used to launch a ship-based SM-3 successfully against a target. “We want to go to space,” said Rich Matlock, director of advanced technology for MDA. But fielding a constellation of satellites capable of acquiring a target and tracking it through the midcourse of flight is far too expensive a goal for the near term.

Instead, MDA is experimenting with using unmanned aircraft to look up at targets, providing additional discrimination and targeting information. MDA has purchased at least four Raytheon MTS-B payloads for this purpose. But the goal is to test the upgraded MTS-C, which will incorporate a long-wave infrared detector into the system. Long-wave infrared is optimized for tracking cold bodies, such as missiles and warheads after booster burnout, or plumes and exhaust.

Ground testing will be conducted on the improved system in the next two months, Matlock said during a presentation at the 16th Annual Space and Missile Defense Symposium here Aug. 15. Flight testing is slated to start by the end of 2014.

Thus far, General Atomics Reapers equipped with the MTS-B (the standard payload used in Afghanistan and Yemen) have been used to observe missile defense tests. The MTS-B would expand the system’s capabilities. Ultimately, the MDA would like to see if stereo data collected from multiple high-flying unmanned aircraft could provide an off-board cue to launch an SM-3 from an Aegis ship. This capability was proven using the STSS satellites during a February flight test.

Though the MQ-9 Reaper has been used and will continue to be used in the agency’s tests, Matlock’s slide presentation included a picture of the Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk as a possibility for this application.

“We still have a little ways to go to get to 65,000 feet,” Matlock said of the UAV options. The Global Hawk, designed to fly higher than the Reaper, typically orbits under 60,000 ft. when fully loaded. It has not yet been used to carry such a payload or operate in this application in tests, he acknowledged.

While UAVs are viewed as a near-term option as MDA continues to eye a space-based system for discrimination and targeting, these long-dwell systems are the objective platforms for carrying a yet-to-be-developed laser designed for boost-phase kill.

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