Next generation of Navy missile defense under development in Moorestown

Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Navy are working together at a joint facility in Moorestown, developing and improving Aegis ship defense technology. In this photo, traffic on Hartford Road races past the Navy's Command Systems Engineering Center, nickamed "The cornfield carrier." (Ed Hille/Inquirer)
Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Navy are working together at a joint facility in Moorestown, developing and improving Aegis ship defense technology. In this photo, traffic on Hartford Road races past the Navy's Command Systems Engineering Center, nickamed "The cornfield carrier." (Ed Hille/Inquirer)
Posted: March 31, 2013

If North Korea were to launch a ballistic missile at the United States, the Aegis air-defense missile system designed and built by Lockheed Martin Corp. for ships could detect and strike it down within minutes.

Not just hit the missile, but destroy the warhead and determine whether the threat was conventional explosives or chemical, biological, or nuclear in nature.

For 40 years, Lockheed Martin in Moorestown has been the Navy's contractor for the Aegis system, which uses radar, sensors, and computers to detect, track, and guide weapons that can intercept enemy threats.

Since the first Aegis  ship, the USS Ticonderoga, was commissioned by the Navy in 1983, the government and industry have updated Aegis technology. The latest $100 million contract to develop a next-generation system was announced Thursday in Moorestown.

The combat system has been outfitted on 84 U.S. Navy ships and 16 vessels used by the naval forces of Japan, Norway, Spain, and the Republic of South Korea. Australia is building the ships.

Though the Aegis technology is constantly tested by the Navy and is poised for deployment - should Iran fire a missile into Israel, or if North Korea launches an air attack against Japan - it has not yet been needed to intercept a hostile ballistic missile. Here is how the system works:

Aegis ship radar continuously searches 360 degrees for in-bound missiles, from the horizon into the atmosphere, said Jim Sheridan, Lockheed Martin's director of Navy Aegis programs in Moorestown.

When a missile is detected, the system computes the best trajectory and intercept point, what type of missile to send from the ship to counter the threat, and when to fire it.

"Not only do you have to hit the missile, you want to hit the payload - the front end of the missile where the bad stuff is, be it chemical, biological, or a nuclear weapon," Sheridan said.

"The system calculates the appropriate time to launch the outbound missile, so these two bullets can hit each other. The system figures out how fast the other guy is going, what direction it is going, how high it is."

Depending on distance to the target, the flight time for an Aegis missile could be three or four minutes, or up to 10 minutes.

"Maybe you let the target get a little closer before you fire," Sheridan said.

Twenty-six of the Navy's 84 Aegis ships have ballistic missile defense capability. The others perform more typical Navy missions at sea: anti-submarine warfare, targeting cruise missiles and airplanes, bombardment of land targets, Sheridan said.

"Without getting classified, the Navy is pretty smart about knowing where these threats are potentially coming from and positioning the ships in locations such that they could deal with a rogue nation threat," Sheridan said.

In February 2008, the Aegis-equipped cruiser  USS Lake Erie shot down a faulty 5,000-pound defense-intelligence satellite over the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii.

The satellite, about the size of a school bus, would have fallen on its own in early March 2008. It had malfunctioned immediately after it was launched in December 2006, and had a full tank of frozen, toxic hydrazine, similar to chlorine or ammonia.

The Navy said the fuel tank would have dispersed harmful, even potentially deadly, fumes had it fallen on land. The satellite was struck just before it reentered the earth's atmosphere.

On Friday, U.S. Rep. Mike McCaul (R., Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said North Korea's latest belligerence illustrated why the United States needed to expand its missile defense capabilities.

"We must remain vigilant against this escalating enemy by expanding our missile defense systems and by using sanctions to discourage these open displays of aggression," he said.


Contact Linda Loyd at 215-854-2831 or lloyd@phillynews.com.

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