Defense Speak Interpreted: The Missile Defense Agency

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The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has its roots in the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), known as “Star Wars” in the 1980s as proposed by President Ronald Reagan. This was at the heart of the nuclear arms race when the USA anticipated Russia might launch intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at the U.S. mainland.

The MDA was set up as a “fast track” agency to blend technologies from the three service branches—Army, Navy, and Air Force—into a very rapid response organization to detect, intercept, and destroy these long-range attack weapons. The mission of the MDA has been broadened and shaped over the years of Defense budgets in the last 30 years, but the official mission statement for MDA is “to develop and deploy a layered missile defense system to defend the United States and its deployed forces, allies, and friends from missile attacks in all phases of flight.”

The key to the MDA is the development of a ballistic missile defense system (BMDS). The term “ballistic” is important here. Thirty years ago, it was clear that long-distance missiles were guided in their launch into high altitudes (space) and then descended by gravity onto their long-distance targets. This definition was blurred a bit by the cruise missiles of the last 20 years, which are powered continuously at low altitudes, all the way to their targets.

Cruise missile distances are limited by the amount of fuel they can carry and the size of the warhead they carry. Cruise missiles tend to be one target-specific, while ballistic missiles have been shown to be capable of multiple warheads spread over greater geography. Recently, the distinctions have been further blurred by the hectic development of “hypersonic” missiles. These are atmospheric, not ballistic, and fly at least five times the speed of sound. Reportedly, these can also evade counterattack and defeat the currently known anti-missile defenses.


Further, the currently implemented Defense budget establishes a “Space Force,” which is supposed to grow into a full military service that is equally capable as the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Certainly, there will be sorting out of all these missions in the near future.

Since ballistic missiles have four phases, the MDA has different intercept and destroy strategies for each phase.

  1. Boost is the initial launch phase to push the ICBM into space. This phase is pretty well known from the similar satellite launches that are on television. The MDA is most sensitive to detecting the launch of dangerous missiles during the boost phase.
  2. Ascent is the acceleration of the ICBM against reduced gravity after the engine boosters have stopped, and the missile has not reached maximum altitude.
  3. Midcourse is the travel of the ICBM in outer space. This is an excellent place to intercept and destroy the ICBM, as little surface damage would be done by a nuclear explosion if an ICBM is detonated by the intercept.
  4. The terminal phase is when the ICBM re-enters the earth’s atmosphere and accelerates to its target.

How big is the MDA? Recently, the missile defense has been budgeted at about $10 billion a year. This is pretty small compared to Navy/Marines, Air Force, and Army, which each have a budget of around $200 billion. Compared to the total Defense budget of over $700 billion, the MDA is only 1.4%. It’s no wonder their profile is not so great.

How does missile defense maintain effectiveness? By working with other service branches and using/modifying their existing weapons systems. Consider the following three examples.

  1. Navy: The MDA integrates its ship-based deterrence with the Navy’s Aegis integrated combat system. This integration involves radar detection, the launch of several possibly different sized missiles, and the direction of these missiles to the target. While the initial Navy intent of the Aegis Combat System was both offensive and defensive against enemy missiles and ship targets, and this system has been upgraded to function against ICBMs.
  2. Army: The MDA functions on land with the cooperation of the U.S. Army. This is particularly true of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor system. The Army designates this as the Air Defense Artillery Brigade.
  3. Air Force: One of the key MDA locations is at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. This is in conjunction with the Air Force’s Space Wings, which will be involved in the newly formed Space Command Service Branch being stood up in the 2020 Defense budget.

The MDA conducts research against other missile threats using various strategies, including:

  • Hypersonic missile defense
  • Cruise missile defense
  • Interface with Israeli Defense programs (e.g., Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Arrow)
  • Laser defense weapons (i.e., surface or airborne)
  • Basic research into directed energy, better radar systems, sensors, etc.

Lastly, the MDA works with USA Allies on their defense systems as well, such as:

  • NATO countries: Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Spain, Turkey, and the U.K.
  • Middle Eastern countries: Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates
  • Asian/Pacific countries: Australia, Japan, and the Republic of Korea

In short, the MDA is a busy place, trying to stretch the Defense dollar, all the while protecting us from long-range missile threats.

Dennis Fritz was a 20-year direct employee of MacDermid Inc. and has just retired after 12 years as a senior engineer at (SAIC) supporting the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana. He was elected to the IPC Hall of Fame in 2012.



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