Ballistic Missile Tracking with UAVs: HALE, Well Met
Aug 5/11: The US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) announces a maximum $48.4 million indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity, cost-plus-fixed-fee contract to General Atomics Aeronautical in Poway, CA to develop and demonstrate “precision three-dimensional tracking of ballistic missiles from a long endurance, high-altitude unmanned air system.” This contract was competitively procured via a broad agency announcement, with “multiple white papers received in response,” and work will be performed in Poway, CA from August 2011 through August 2016. $11.8 million in FY 2011 research, development, test and evaluation funds will be used to incrementally fund the 1st task order (HQ0147-11-D-0013).
General Atomics has confirmed the identity of the HALE system as the MQ-9 Reaper UAV, whose technical maturity and 3,000 pound payload capacity make it a good test platform. This R&D effort is a logical follow-on to revelations that a June 2010 test flight of the F-35 fighter’s AN/AAQ-37 DAS 360-degree sensors successfully tracked a Falcon-9 heavy rocket launch that took place at the same time. The challenge will be turning that kind of capability into “precise 3-dimensional” coordinates, in a package that may be tested on the MQ-9, but could easily find itself loaded onto other long-endurance surveillance platforms: airships like LEMV or HAA; or high-end UAVs like Global Hawk, GA’s own jet-powered Avenger, or the X-47 UCAS-D. That could make the results of this research effort a key part of a networked surveillance system, or even part of the answer to a very difficult problem. Boost-phase acquisition and targeting is a defender’s most challenging task, especially when missiles are launched from defended airspace. On the other hand, a long-endurance UAV with this capability, that could survive in defended airspace, carrying a missile-killer like Raytheon’s NCADE, might offer a relatively low-cost solution. The MQ-9 Reaper isn’t that vehicle – but its successors might be.