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$400m US space interceptor deal inked

Last orders at the Missile Defence saloon?

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Rumour suggests that some parts at least of the controversial US missile-defence programme are doomed, with the axe set to fall as soon as President-Elect Obama takes office. Nonetheless, the last days of 2008 saw a $400m contract award to one of the most controversial missile-defence weapons of them all - the Groundbased Midcourse Defence (GMD) rocket interceptors.

The contract award was announced by the US Missile Defence Agency (MDA) on 30 December. The MDA stated that the freshly-inked deal was on a "cost plus" basis, though not to exceed $397,900,000. Under the contract, American aerospace goliath Boeing will "continue development of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program; including Block 3 development and fielding activities for six months until a long-term, Core Completion contract for development can be awarded".

The existing GMD systems are large, triple-stage rocket stacks designed to lob a single "exo-atmospheric kill vehicle" up into the path of objects travelling on ballistic trajectories beyond the Earth's atmosphere. Such objects would normally be "threat clusters" made up of warheads and decoys launched by enemy intercontinental ballistic missiles. They would smash into the US kill vehicles, destroying themselves as much by their own kinetic energy as that of the interceptor.

Such extra-atmospheric kinetic kill vehicles can also be fired into space by the Standard SM-3 missile from suitably-equipped US Navy warships. However, according to the MDA the Standard can't lob kill vehicles high enough to reach threat clusters thrown by serious, long-ranging ICBMs on the midpoint of their arc: only the bigger, landbased GMD rockets can do this. Standard naval jobs would need to be nearer the beginning or the end of the enemy warheads' trajectory, or be dealing with less puissant enemy launchers - perhaps so-called "theatre range" missiles, rather then real intercontinental ones.

Despite their potentially greater capability, the expensive GMD rockets don't have the same reputation for reliability and efficiency as the Standard SM-3. Critics of the US missile defense effort would normally mark the GMDs - and the equally controversial raygun jumbo jet, the Airborne Laser - for the chop ahead of the Standard. Many people are expecting some such announcement shortly after Mr Obama takes up power in Washington.

The MDA seems unfazed for the moment, however, based on the blithe words above regarding long-term contracts. The new Block 3 developments, according to previous statements, will add 14 new GMD rockets in Alaska, and will see "more sophisticated sensors and algorithms" across the whole GMD system, designed to pick out enemy missile warheads from their accompanying cloud of decoys and launcher debris. In particular, much of the new warhead-sniff tech would be implemented at the long-range radar warning stations at Fylingdales in the UK and Thule in Greenland.

The following stage, Block 4 - should it come to pass - is intended to develop a new two-stage GMD rocket to be emplaced in Poland, offering some defence to "allies and deployed forces" in the region. The MDA is also pressing ahead with its "multiple kill vehicle" initiative, designed to put more than one kill vehicle aboard each rocket and so perhaps go some way towards dealing with the fact that a modern ICBM can easily send multiple warheads and decoys into space, overwhelming basic one-shot-one-kill defences. Initial "hover testing" of a multiple kill vehicle carrier module was carried out last month, as was a successful intercept test of a normal, singleton kill vehicle shot from a GMD rocket.

We'll soon know whether last week's announcement was a routine bit of business for the GMD programme - or the last major event before the fat lady switched on her mike. ®

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