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Lieutenant General Henry A. Obering III
Director, Missile Defense Agency
Lieutenant General Henry A. Obering III entered the Air Force in 1973 after completing the University of Notre Dame’s ROTC program as a distinguished graduate. He received his pilot wings in 1975 and flew operational assignments in the F-4E. Later assigned to the Space Shuttle program, he participated in 15 space shuttle launches as a NASA orbiter project engineer and was responsible for integrating firing room launch operations.
Obering’s other assignments include tours with the Air Force Inspector General, the Defense Mapping Agency and Electronic Systems Center. Prior to his assignment at MDA, he planned and programmed 68 joint, Air Force and international programs with a $28 billion budget as mission area director for information dominance on the Air Staff.
Obering was interviewed by MAT Editor Harrison Donnelly.
Q: What do you see as the most significant achievements of the MDA in the past year?
A: Clearly, our most significant achievement is the fact that we have deployed an initial capability into the field. We now have eight interceptors, six in Alaska and two in California, that we have combined with four modified Aegis ships capable of supporting a ballistic missile defense mission, along with a completely upgraded and checked-out Cobra Dane radar, the command and control centers associated with the entire system, and the C2, battle management and communications structure and networks to support all of that. We have been in a shakedown period since October 1, 2004, with the system, in which we have brought the system up, had it in a “launch ready” state, with the interceptors being recognized by the fire control system. (We still have safeguards in with respect to that.) That’s been our most significant achievement of the year.
We also have done quite a bit with respect to our development program. We have been working very hard on the Airborne Laser system, achieving “first light” of that aircraft on November 10 and “first flight” a couple of weeks later. That portends quite a bit for our boost-phase capability. We also have made significant progress on our Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, and we expect that that will make it into flight in 2005.
Q: What problems or challenges in ballistic missile defense technology would you most like to see overcome in the coming year?
A: We have conclusively proved that the hit-to-kill technology works. We reached that threshold of confidence back in 2002. Since then we have been working through a very exhaustive quality control program, because it is a very complex system with a lot of different elements and components that need to work in unison. So the biggest challenge that we’re going to have in the coming years is to work through the minor problems that we’re going to have as a result of quality control. We really do have a focus on how we assure ourselves of quality control and mission assurance in the various components and elements. So we’ve moved, in terms of the Ground-Based Midcourse system and Aegis and others, from the question, “Can we do it?” to “Can we do it reliably?” That’s where we are with respect to that.
In terms of the Airborne Laser, we have proven again that we can generate the photons and power necessary to have an effective directed energy capability. We’ve also just begun to make sure that we can achieve the optical and beam control that we need. Marrying those two together over the next several years is a major technical hurdle that I feel confident we will be able to overcome. In our other programs, such as our Kinetic Energy Interceptor, we have set up a first-flight program so that we can assure ourselves that we can achieve the high accelerations that we need for a kinetic energy boost-phase type of intercept. That brings up an insight into how we’re going to do these programs. We’ve set up a series of milestones—in the case of ABL, the first flight and first light, and in the case of the KEI, having the first flight of that booster—a series of milestones that the programs have to achieve. They are continuously reviewed for termination, truncation or acceleration. That’s the way we operate, and what it allows us to do is come up with options within our tradespace in the various phases of defense, and move our resources as we need to, based on demonstrated progress.
Q: One of the most frequent criticisms of missile defense is that it could be rendered ineffective by deploying decoys or other countermeasures. What is your current thinking about this issue and the best methods for overcoming it?
A: Often when we get that criticism, the critics are talking about a specific aspect or component of the system. What I think is one of the most significant shortfalls of our critics is that they are not looking at the system in total, or from an attacker’s perspective in terms of what they have to overcome in order to be successful. The best way to overcome decoys and countermeasures is to build a layered defense system. You have a boost phase capability that forces a series of challenges to an attacker on one plane, and if they can get past that, they have to face the mid-course and terminal defenses that you have. Not only that, but also, if you have a successful countermeasure to a boost phase defense, you may play right into the defense that you have set up for the mid-course. So there is not only defense in depth in this system, but also the creation of synergy between the various defenses that allows the disadvantages of one to play into the advantages of another.
In addition, we have and will continue to roll out a series of sensors and radars that we will net together, that we can fuse and generate a lot of information about the threat suites coming over the horizon or even in the boost phase. So by the fusion of information, along with a layered defense, it really does begin to present a challenge for an attacker to overcome.
Q: Critics have also called for the BMDS to be tested more before deployment. The recent terminated IFT-13C played to their charges that the drive to an initial limited deployment may be more political than practical. How do you respond?
A: I agree that you should have sufficient testing before you deploy a system. But what is unique about this system is that, when you have no defense whatsoever, it changes the criteria of what you might want before you start fielding. Since we have not had a defense against a ballistic missile with a weapon of mass destruction from any rogue nation or terrorist group, we wanted to begin to field a capability as soon as you had enough confidence that we could do something about that threat. It doesn’t mean that it is perfect or 100 percent reliable, but it does mean that you have something that is technologically effective against that threat.
In fact, that is even in the statute, the National Missile Defense Act of 1999, which says that as soon as it is technologically possible to field an effective defense, then we have to do that. That’s recognition of the fact that, in this unique area, where we were totally defenseless, we needed to start bringing something out. So the testing that we did, through 2002, proved to us that we had a basic capability with hit to kill technology. That’s why we began to field the system in 2004.
The recent test proves again exactly what we said. While we had a failure, an abort of the interceptor in the silo, the system actually worked the way it was designed. What we have discovered is that the root cause of that abort was that we had a very minor software parameter that was set too stringent for the interceptor. As the interceptor prepares to launch, it does a health and status check of the various components. We had a parameter that was set too high, which caused it to abort. So the fix to that is going to be one line of code change, and that’s it. So we may continue to have these kinds of small glitches as we work through the improvement. But if we had waited until we fully tested the system in a very stringent, completely operational end-to-end mode, and then just begin to start a fielding, we would be three to five years behind where we are today. That is just not acceptable in my mind when, as we have seen in 9/11 and other times, we’re trying to connect the dots, regarding the threats we face, before we have a problem instead of after.
Q: MDA has been asked to take a cut in upcoming budgets. How much will you cut back in the fiscal 2006 budget, and where do you envision the cuts being made?
A: We have been asked to cut back about 15 percent of our budget in the ‘06 timeframe. We understand the rationale and reason for that, and are looking at a series of options—we like to retain as many options as we can as we roll out our layered defense system. So we’re looking at potentially terminating or truncating some programs, or slowing some programs down in order to meet the budget. Also, we are scrubbing very hard the efficiencies in our system, going after overhead and infrastructure that, while important to the program, is not as critical as other aspects. So we’re trying tighten our belts to see if we can do this. I believe that between the efficiency that we can gain in the overhead and infrastructure reductions and slowing some of the progress in some of our programs, we will be able to achieve the top-line guidance.
Q: What are the current plans for declaring the system operational, and what criteria will be used in making that determination?
A: First of all, my responsibilities are to ensure that I feel confident that we have a system, a capability that can meet the threat over the next couple of years. I’m also responsible for making sure we have no critical problems or safety issues associated with the operation of that system. I held a series of reviews last September, and recently in December, to convince myself that we do have that type of capability today. And in fact, it can be used if conditions warrant. What we declare and want to release publicly about the system and its capabilities is strictly up to the secretary of defense. From a capabilities and limitations perspective, I feel confident that we can operate the system and that it will provide an effective defense against what we anticipate the threat to be in the near future.
Q: What are the current plans for the equipping and deploying of the Aegis warships as part of missile defense?
A: We’re going to have four ships that were outfitted in 2004, and we’re going to continue to grow that number over the next several years, to where we’ll have a total of 18 ships—15 destroyers and three cruisers that will be modified. Over time, beginning this year, we’ll also add the ability of those ships to actually engage missile threats with a short and intermediate range missile capability, with their Standard Missile 3. We will roll this out in 2005 as well. That’s going to give us an added capability in the mid-course, against those ranges of missiles, and also give us an added ability to protect our deployed forces and allies and friends in various regions. We will conduct three intercept tests of the Aegis system in 2005, and that program is being very well managed and is very much on track.
Q: Effective missile defense depends on timely and accurate detection of threats. What do you see as the most promising recent developments in this area, and what are the biggest challenges?
A: We have a mixture of modified existing radars, like the Cobra Dane, the Beale radar in California and the Fylingdales radar in the United Kingdom, which we are going to finish up this year. We’ll be rolling out new radars that will be forward deployed, X-band radars that we can use as the eyes-forward base, along with a very powerful sea-based X-band radar. That is a radar that is so powerful that, sitting in the Chesapeake Bay, it would be able to detect a baseball-sized object over San Francisco in space. So when you begin to net those sensors together, and you recognize the power that that brings, you see why we can begin to feel confident in the ability to make an attacker’s proposition very problematic.
The sea-based X-band radar will be ready this year, and it will be ported in Alaska. It will provide us not only with the ability to get increasing complexity in our test bed, in terms of intercept geometries and other things, but also with respect to an operational capability against threats from the direction of Asia, in terms of the inherent operational capability. So we’re very pleased, and I think that, of all aspects of the program, that is one of the areas that I’m most comfortable with the progress we’ve made.
Q: What missile defense lessons have you learned from operations in Southwest Asia?
A: We set up a command, control and communications network there for the missile defense systems, and learned quite a bit in terms of the operation of those and the fact that it is good to crawl, walk and run, in terms of making sure that you set it up, test and continue on, set it up, test it and continue on. We did that in setting up the combination of the Arrow and Patriot systems as part of the defense in OIF. We also reaffirmed that hit to kill works, and the fact that every single engagement that was directed for the Patriot systems and was a threat coming into their defended area, the system worked to take out those missiles. So they have been combat proven in that regard. Not only has the hit to kill technology been proven technologically, but also operationally from a combat perspective.
Q: Another concern expressed by those skeptical about missile defense is that it would not be effective against “suitcase bombs.” Has the rise of the asymmetrical terrorist threat from adversaries generally not seen has having access to missile technology altered your views on the role of national missile defense?
A: It hasn’t altered it, but what it has done is reinforced a recognition that we’re on the right track in terms of multi-level defense. For example, let’s consider your question of a suitcase bomb as opposed to a ballistic missile. One of the lessons learned from 9/11 is not how you’re going to be attacked—that is up to the means of the attacker. What it is, is the will to attack. If we abandoned a missile defense capability for this nation, you are telling the attacker that you don’t have a means against this threat, and you are inviting that axis of attack.
We also know that since 1972, when the United States signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union, there were only about eight nations in the world that had ballistic missile technology. In spite of that treaty with the Soviet Union, and in spite of the missile technology control regimes that many nations around the world have signed, we now have upwards of 20 countries with ballistic missile technology. So the arms control environment, while it is necessary, is certainly not sufficient with respect to ballistic missiles. The ultimate arms control is the ability to knock down a weapon if it is fired at you.
Moving to the asymmetric portion of that, if I know that I can achieve the same effect by having a ballistic missile that is totally under my control, until the time I light the ignition and launch it, and let physics take over, as opposed to somehow having to put a weapon into a port or city through a series of exchanges—and having to go through another type of layered defense—I would think it would be easier to do something that I have totally under my control until I let it go. If I know that that nation has no defense against that type of weapon, I have a much better chance of being successful. That’s why we worry.
Q: How would you assess the overall technological development of the Airborne Laser program?
A: We have proven the basics of the laser technology and are in the process of proving the beam control/fire control system on the aircraft. The next major challenge is to marry those two together, over the next year and a half, and then to effect a lethal shoot-down of a boosting missile, which we plan to accomplish in the 2008 timeframe under the current schedule.
We still have some technical challenges, but what I’m pleased with is that a year ago, I would have said that the program was unstable in terms of schedule, and we were not making the progress that we needed to make. We restructured that program last spring, and got it refocused on what I mentioned earlier—achieving near-term milestones, which is critical to program success. When they focused their energy on doing that, that’s when we began to see real progress and the demonstration of first light. So we’ve made significant progress, but still have a ways to go. But the promise of that technology is so revolutionary and disruptive that it is worth being patient and the investment.
Q: The Government Accountability Office last year issued a report raising a number of questions about the ABL’s cost and military utility. What is your response?
A: Obviously, the program has been expensive. But some of the points that were raised did not completely recognize the kind of spiral development mode that we’re in with that program, because as I said earlier, I do believe that the benefits are worth the cost in that regard. In terms of the military utility of that program, based on the testing and demonstrations I have seen so far, I think it will have a significant military utility against not only a long-range missile, but also a short-range missile.
Q: What are some of the most important C4I issues facing missile defense?
A: We have two major issues with respect to command and control—one of geography and one of time. I don’t know of another mission area that faces the challenges we do in those areas. What I mean by that is that, in order to achieve this integrated, layered defense, we are tying commanders across as many as nine or 10 time zones, and we’re doing it in real time, trying to achieve a synergistic effect against a threat. We have wide geographic areas that we have to cover, we have command and control structures that have been set up in those areas that we’re tying together in a very integrated fashion, and we have to do it in a very demanding timeframe. All of those factors combine to present a significant challenge. The good news is that the technology is there to do that. We have the processing, communications and networking capabilities that allow us to do that. It’s a matter now of putting it together and shaking it out, not unlike what we do on ships in shakedown cruises. That’s what we have been doing since October.
Q: Congress last year called for more oversight of your agency. Do you have any concerns that this will interfere with the agency’s work, and how are you preparing to respond?
A: We have more oversight than almost any program in the department. I sit down on a quarterly basis with [acting Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Michael] Wynne, and we walk through our programs with him in detail in terms of the cost, schedule and performance of the various components. We have non-traditional oversight, that is for sure. But in terms of a lack of oversight, I would disagree. We work very closely with the principals and the program evaluation office and the other shops in the Pentagon. They’re aware of what we’re doing, and we brief them regularly. We work very closely with STRATCOM and General [James E.] Cartwright’s folks, and they understand what we’re doing. We work with them very closely, and with the operational testers. We have more than 100 DOT&E folks embedded in our programs. They help us, and we meet with them on a weekly basis at the senior level, and we have them help us develop and sign off on our test plan. I don’t believe that we have any lack of oversight with respect to the MDA.
Q: What are the current plans for integrating Europe into the U.S. missile defense system?
A: We laid out plans last year to build a third interceptor site—to begin to study what we could do in Europe to provide protection against a long-range threat. We also have been working very closely with NATO. There is a missile defense project group that has been set up, and I would anticipate that sometime this summer it will turn into a missile defense program office, which will begin to address that issue with NATO.
We also have memorandums of understanding signed with the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia, to expand the missile defense partnerships. We see a very widespread interest in this program across the international spectrum. Last summer, we co-hosted a conference in Berlin, with the [American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics], that had over 850 delegates from more than 20 nations, and all of them are very interested in being able to protect themselves from what they see as a proliferating threat around the world.
Q: Are there any other thoughts that you would like to cover?
A: I don’t quite understand sometimes why people are so forceful in their criticisms of an agency that is trying to provide a protection to the American people where they have none. So when people ask me, as I have been asked recently after the minor glitch with the interceptor, “Aren’t you embarrassed by that?” I tell them, no, I’m not embarrassed at all about trying to provide for the defense of the nation. The tens of thousands of people across the nation who are working on this program are hard working, dedicated and doing a good job. You’re going to look back in history and find this to be a turning point in which we closed off a major axis of threat to the United States, which may prove to be decisive in the future.