WASHINGTON, July 14, 2009 – The layers and diversity of the U.S. missile defense program are its biggest strengths, the Missile Defense Agency’s director said here today.

Army Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O’Reilly told the Defense Writers Group that the program was conceived as a layered defense with boost, mid-course and terminal phases.

Each layer contributes to the overall missile defense effort, he said. “What has emerged is for the layers to interact with each other,” he said.

The general compared missile defense to a football game. The defensive backfield plays a zone defense, trying to bat down the ball or intercept it.

“What we’re re-emphasizing now is the part of defense where you have the ability to blitz and interrupt the quarterback when he’s trying to throw the ball,” O’Reilly said. “We still have the zone, but we’re taking advantage of opportunities to stress the other parts of defense.”

Defense officials have pumped up missile defense capabilities and continue to improve the process, he said.

“If we know where the threats are likely to come from … and we know what we are trying to protect, you can put your interceptors in the right place at the right time so that you can intercept much earlier,” he said.

The layered defense puts the offense at a disadvantage, O’Reilly said.

“If you want to defeat a layered system, you have to defeat every aspect of the missile defense system,” he explained. “Our diversity of weapons systems is our strength.”

Most of the Missile Defense Agency’s $7.8 billion budget is earmarked toward defeating the most likely threat for the next 10 years, the general said. “If you look at our threat projections, the growth area is going to be 3,000-kilometer threats and shorter,” he said.

In many places in the world, U.S. forces would be outnumbered by the offensive missile threat. The budget request will give American servicemembers three times the capability they currently have, O’Reilly said.

Other promising avenues of research include using unmanned aerial vehicles to find and track enemy launches, O’Reilly said. The pilotless aircraft are so accurate they can be tied into the missile defense command-and-control apparatus.

“There is very little modification that we see to the UAVs themselves, but there will be work on the ground system,” he said. The agency is teaming with the Air Force to develop the capability.

The agency will continue to field a viable mid-course homeland defense against long-range threats. American long-range capability has been significantly enhanced, he said, but the problem is time. If North Korea launched a missile against the western United States, it would take about 30 minutes from launch to impact.

“It takes about eight minutes to let the missile finish its burn and predict where its track is going to go,” O’Reilly said. “Interceptors fly for about four minutes and then coast for another two minutes, so six minutes have gone by, and this missile is approaching the United States.”

If the interceptor malfunctions and fails to hit, that is six minutes lost. “That’s a significant impact on our ability to fire another set of interceptors up there, and it’s a real concern to the operational commanders,” the general said. “We want to ensure we have the latest-configuration missile and the most operationally ready silos.”

President Barack Obama has given the agency the order to prove the missile defense system works. The agency has 144 tests scheduled between now and 2016, 63 of which are flight tests.

O’Reilly said talks continue with Russia about European missile defense. Russia has opposed NATO’s push for the program that bases interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic. The program is designed to defend the continent against a rogue state — such as Iran — launching a strike.

“Discussions continue with Russia on the missile threat and how it is a threat to the United States and their country,” the general said. He also has discussed different opportunities for the two countries to work together on missile defense.

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WASHINGTON, July 14, 2009 – The layers and diversity of the U.S. missile defense…