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US MDA Director Describes Threats and Countermeasures

“You Can’t Shoot What You Don’t See”

Speaking at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Washington DC on 4 August, Vice Adm Jon A Hill, Director of the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA), told delegates that the development of extremely fast and manoeuvrable advanced cruise missiles and hypersonic weapons by potential adversaries such as China and Russia have made for “a very tough environment for defense.”

In recent years, threats from new missile systems against the homeland, deployed forces and friends and allies have arisen from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. Though defence is a key part of deterrence, Hill said, “you can’t shoot what you don’t see.” Providing that sight are sensors and radars aboard ships, on the ground and in space.

Space-based sensors are the ultimate, he observed, because they can provide global coverage. Space tracking and surveillance systems collect data, intelligence and real-world missile testing, but that capability is not yet anywhere near where it needs to be.

Sensors start the kill chain by sending out a warning, then radars track the missile and fire control launches a defensive projectile. This projectile can come from a PATRIOT system or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, both operated by the Army, or the STANDARD Missile 3 Block IIA or the AEGIS Ballistic Missile Defense System, both operated by the Navy. In addition, ground-based interceptors are operated by the Army at Fort Greely, AK, and at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA. The command and control and battle management system, fully protected with cybersecurity measures, ties these systems together with the operators.

Many missile defence components are currently in the research, science and technology and demonstration phases such as, for example, the work being done on next-generation interceptors and long-range discrimination radar, as well as space-based sensors. “Where we live today is we don’t have everything we want deployed in space, nor do we have the terrestrial or mobile sea-based sensors where we want, where we need them at the right time,” the Admiral stated.

Besides new, cutting-edge systems, Hill noted that current systems such as AEGIS and command and control are receiving important upgrades as they become available. MDA is working with the Army to integrate the THAAD and PATRIOT systems so operators can communicate with both and shoot with either, depending on the scenario.

Allies and partners are developing their own missile defence systems or buying them from the US, he stated. Used by friends and partners, the systems further global security and DoD is working to better integrate those systems so they become even more effective.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges, Hill admitted, that has not affected MDA’s ability to perform its mission: “If you ask me where we took risk during the global pandemic, we never took any risk in supporting the warfighter,” he opined. “We continue to deliver capability, we continue to support major movements around the globe.” Delivery of systems caused some delay, he acknowledged, because assembly lines require people in confined and enclosed places.

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