U.S. Army Could Build an Integrated Air and Missile Defense Now

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There are two problems with the Army’s current acquisition system. The first, which is well-recognized and commented upon by senior Service leaders, is that the system is too slow and tends to create massive programs with too many, often unrealizable, requirements. Even as the acquisition system plods its way forward, alternative solutions are developed to meet urgent warfighter needs.

However, and this is the second problem, because these are generally one-off solutions, they are rarely incorporated in a program of record, much less adopted as a workable and cheaper alternative. The result too often is multiple parallel investment streams to address the same capability gap.

The Army’s efforts to integrate and improve its existing air and missile defense capabilities demonstrate both of these problems. There is a program of record, begun in 2006, the Integrated Battle Command System (IBCS), that seeks to network the Army's entire suite of air and missile defense systems: Patriot, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), Integrated Fire Protection and eventually short-range air defense.

Frankly, IBCS is overly ambitious and too expensive. It was conceived during the period of Army acquisition hubris that produced such debacles as the Future Combat System. IBCS has already missed its original goal of 2018 for an Initial Operating Capability (IOC); the new IOC is 2022. The system won’t be fully operational until increment 3 is fielded in 2025.

While IBCS has had three successful tests to date, the fiscal year (FY) 2018 Army budget suggests that IOC will be delayed at least an additional four years. There are concerns that this timeline will be further extended due to ongoing software problems. Meanwhile, the cost of the program has nearly doubled to more than $7 billion. For an Army whose leaders rail against a system that takes 15 or 20 years to put capabilities in the hands of the warfighter, this should be unacceptable.

More significantly, IBCS may be unnecessary. As air and missile threats loomed larger in U.S. defense planning, investments were made in a series of sensible and achievable upgrades to existing systems and networks that could achieve most of what IBCS promises to deliver and do so years sooner and at much lower cost.

For example, the Army has already fielded the Dismounted Patriot Information Coordination Central (D-PICC) that allows individual Patriot batteries to be operated in distributed mode without the need for a battalion headquarters. The D-PICC has been characterized as “the Information Coordination Central in a box,” because it consists of a Reconfigurable Table Top Trainer system, a map interface card and a portable beyond-line-of-sight computer that all fits into five handheld cases. The Army budgeted for five D-PICCs in FY 2018 and at least five more in FY 2019.

One of IBCS’s critical performance requirements was interoperability between the Patriot and the THAAD systems. Once again, the needs of the warfighter have trumped the Army’s acquisition system. Earlier this year, in response to an operational need statement from U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), the Missile Defense Agency demonstrated that it could get Patriot and THAAD to communicate and share data. The Army’s current plan is to make the two systems fully interoperable by 2020.

Some in the Army have pointed to these initiatives as examples of the service’s new way of thinking about acquisition. According to Brigadier General Randall McIntire, the head of the Air and Missile Defense Cross Functional Team (CFT):

Some of the things that we were doing to integrate THAAD and Patriot were four and five years away, but we kind of magnified the problem and were able to reprioritize three significant capabilities that we thought would be game-changers with those and actually bring them in about two years to 18 months sooner.

In truth, the Army has left it up to others, USFK in particular, to provide the impetus for new and creative thinking on integrated air and missile defenses.

USFK has generated several additional Joint Emergency Operational Needs Statements (JEONS) that once addressed will result in a more integrated Army air and missile defense. One JEONS asked for a launch-on-remote capability against theater ballistic missiles. This capability would connect Patriot, THAAD and, possibly, the Navy’s Aegis missile defense with a forward-deployed AN/TPY-2 radar.

Another JEONS seeks a common man-machine interface for Patriot units at battalion and battery. According to U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Samuel Greaves, Director of the Missile Defense Agency which is paying for these upgrades, they will “increase integrated missile defense system interoperability and expand the defended area.”

Only a few additional investments are required to give the Army near the full capability promised by IBCS, but years sooner. One is to upgrade the AN/MPQ-64 Sentinel, a short-range radar designed to detect and track air-breathing threats, including unmanned aerial vehicles and integrate it with the network already created for other Army air and missile defense weapons and sensors.

Another initiative would expand the network even further by providing missile defense batteries with Link 16, the widely available communications system which allows for real-time transfer of targeting data and other information between many widely dispersed units.

Unlike IBCS, for which the Army is paying the entire bill, some of the cost of these upgrades would be offset by the 14 U.S. allies that operate Patriot and/or THAAD. Partners have helped pay for D-PICC, enhanced displays for Patriot units and the effort to achieve launch-on-remote.

I would have more confidence in the Army’s claims that it had found religion when it comes to acquisition reform if it canceled even one major program. To date, the Army’s eight CFTs seem to have embraced all of the big programs begun under the ancient regime. Air and missile defense is a modernization priority where the Army could show it is committed to a new way of doing business by not doing something.

Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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