US considers Extended Range THAAD, enhanced BMS to defend against attacking hypersonic gliders

THAAD ER is currently in a company funded concept phase. The Missile Defense Agency has supported the study with approximately $2 million in FY14 funding to study the potential concept of operations.

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THAAD interceptor seen here launched on its tenth test flight. Photo: MDA
Lockheed Martin's air and missile defense systems - Patriot PAC-3 (upper), enhanced version (MSE) and the THAAD (lower), shown on a missile display at Lockheed Martin's display.
Lockheed Martin’s air and missile defense systems – Patriot PAC-3 (upper), enhanced version (MSE) and the THAAD (lower), shown on a missile display at Lockheed Martin’s display.

The US Missile defense Agency (MDA) is seeking future missile defense measures that will be able to defeat hypersonic glide vehicles, similar to those being developed by China, Russia and India. A Chinese hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) tested in January 2014 demonstrated China’s technological ability to fly such vehicles at a speed 10 times the speed of sound (Mach 10). While interceptors can deal with targets flying at such speed, the less predicted flight path and the friction with upper atmosphere make it more difficult for intercept, at least from the ground, analysts suggest.

On its third test in December the Wu-14 HGV successfully flew at a speed of Mach 8. In previous test last January a similar glider reached a speed of 12,359 km/h (about Mach 10). Another test conducted in August failed. Experts believe the Chinese hypersonic glide test vehicle was clearly designed as a weapon delivery vehicle meant to break through U.S. defenses. Analysts suggest the HGV is more suitable for delivering a conventional weapon rather a nuclear one, given the high precision and extended range it can achieve over ballistic missile delivery system.

Among the possible solutions, Lockheed Martin is evaluating an extended range variant of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD ER) that could be used to intercept such ultra-fast gliding warheads. THAAD ER is a concept that Lockheed Martin is recommending to the Missile Defense Agency as a way to evolve the THAAD program. Similar effects could also be achieved with other exo-atmospheric interceptors designed with high divert capability.

Illustration: South China Morning POst (SCMP)
Illustration: South China Morning POst (SCMP)

Current missile defense systems are designed to defeat ballistic missiles flying in predictable, high trajectories. More advanced interceptors currently in development are designed to deal with maneuvering targets, but hypersonic gliders flying just above the edge of earth’s atmosphere would pose extremely difficult targets to beat, due to the combination of flat trajectory and high speed (8-10 Mach) which would challenge the limited maneuverability interceptors can develop in that boundary layer, where aerodynamic maneuvering (in the atmosphere) is limited and reaction control thrusters, used to divert the interceptor toward its target in space are not brought to their full effect.

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[/nonmember] [ismember]Mike Trotsky, vice president for defense missiles and fire control at Lockheed Martin, the upgraded THAAD ER will have a larger booster to provide the missile with extended range while the interceptor stage will also have a ‘kick stage’ accelerating the interceptor to a higher speed toward its target. That ‘kick’ will provide the missile the higher energy level to gain speed and maneuverability to chase hard to catch targets such as those hypersonic gliders.

Another challenge the hypersonic threat poses to missile defenses is battle management. While the launch of such missile is detectable by infra-red and radar sensors, current sensors cannot track it continuously through its flight. Lockheed Martin is working on a software that will integrating sensor data collected from both multiple sources – both space based IR satellites and surface (ground and naval) based radar sensors. “Such sensor fusion could provide better sensing of this particular type of threat.” J.D. Hammond, Lockheed’s director of command and control battle management systems explained.[/ismember]

THAAD ER is currently in a company funded concept phase. MDA has provided us with approximately $2 million in FY14 funding to study the potential concept of operations.

[ismember]The US itself has been testing HGVs since the 1960s under several scientific programs, but weaponized versions of such vehicles have yet to materialized. Boeing and Lockheed Martin are both working on conventional hypersonic weapon delivery system known as ‘Prompt Global Strike’, relying on hypersonic delivery of conventional warheads, anywhere in the world within 60 minutes of launch. Both Boeing and Lockheed Martin are working on weapons to provide such capability.

While delivery vehicles have been flown at hypervelocity speeds, these flights were relatively short and most vehicles have not survived the full duration of the test. To transition from technology demonstration to weapon system, researchers have yet to develop robust and stable hypersonic payload delivery vehicles, long duration hypersonic Thermal Protection System (TPS), flight controls and terminal guidance systems to achieve precision strike, along with responsive infrastructure, and streamlined mission planning.[/ismember]

THAAD interceptor seen here launched on its tenth test flight. Photo: MDA
THAAD interceptor seen here launched on its tenth test flight. Photo: MDA