Getting testy

Intercept1_T.jpgBack in the mid-1990s, the Clinton Pentagon pursued a missile defense strategy that emphasized short-range or "theater" defensive systems much more than the national shield commonly known as "Star Wars." Theater systems, like the Patriot, are used to defend troops on the battlefield, cities and other targets. The much-debated performance of the Patriot system in the first Iraq war led to a push for more robust technologies like the Theater High Altitude Area Defense system, which began a series of flight tests beginning in 1995.I covered missile defense pretty closely in those days, and I was often able to get THAAD test results before they were announced. My colleagues would eagerly await the news, but because the results were usually the same, I'd try to spice up the delivery: I'd ask one fellow scribe to pick up a pen and throw it in my direction; then I'd throw my pen at his. And, naturally, I'd miss. (Try it sometime; it's fun.)THAAD had a lot of high-profile misses back then -- enough to put the program in serious jeopardy. It also became a kind of touchstone for general criticism of missile defense.But after a couple of hits in 1999, the Pentagon essentially declared victory and put the program into its next phase, where the missile was basically redesigned. Not much has been heard since.Now, though, THAAD -- renamed the "Terminal" High Altitude Area Defense system -- is on the cusp of returning to the test range for real-live intercept attempts.This week, the Missile Defense Agency released a statement touting the success of a recent test involving only the THAAD radar and two target missiles -- no actual THAAD missile, no intercept attempt. (The test itself was held back in June -- MDA is not usually forthcoming about its test results, even when they're good.) MDA called it a "confidence-building milestone" on the way to intercept tests later this year.The more interesting THAAD development in recent months, however, was the revelation (reported in May by Jason Sherman and yours truly of that the Pentagon was mulling the use of advanced Patriot missiles, or THAADs, on fighter aircraft.

A Navy and Missile Defense Agency study of missile defense options includes a new, unorthodox alternative with ramifications beyond the Navy -- equipping fighter aircraft with interceptors like the most advanced version of the Patriot. MDA is investigating launching various missiles off of aircraft, including THAAD and PAC-3, said an industry source. Those missiles could be assisted by organic fighter radars or the Aegis radar in shooting down ballistic or cruise missiles, according to sources and Navy briefing charts describing the assessment. In theory, the source said, you could put two THAADs on an F-15.
THERE'S MORE: The AP broke some news on the status of the national missile defense testing program this week.-- posted by Dan Dupont

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