China Threat Pushes US To Accelerate Next-Gen Interceptor Program; Expert Finds THAAD, Patriot & SM-3 ‘Ineffective’

The unprecedented success of Israel in neutralizing the Iranian missiles-attack seems to have helped the United States Missile Defense Agency (MDA) in advancing its selection of Lockheed Martin for the award of the contract to develop a new interceptor to defend the American homeland against intercontinental ballistic missiles coming from potential sources such as North Korea, Iran, China, and Russia. 

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In the process, the MDA has overruled the usual objections that the U.S. does not need them, that the current Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) systems as interceptors are good enough, and that the threat of nuclear retaliation is sufficient to deter adversaries.

The Interceptor is known as The Next Generation Interceptor (NGI).  Expected to be operational in 2028, it is part of a network system of radars, interceptors, and other equipment that is designed to protect the United States from intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Lockheed’s is worth a $17.7 billion contract, which it has won by axing competitor Northrop Grumman.

This win is said to be a huge morale booster for the company, given that the U.S. government has decided to reduce F-35 orders and that the Army abandoned the development of a Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft, a next-generation helicopter for which Lockheed had submitted a design in February.

The American government reportedly plans to buy 20 NGIs and deploy them at Fort Greely, Alaska. The Biden Administration, it may be noted, has requested the Congress $28.4 billion for missile defenses in its fiscal 2025 budget.

According to a Lockheed press release – “Lockheed Martin is proud to partner with the MDA on a revolutionary interceptor to advance our nation’s security. We are committed to delivering reliable interceptors that will seamlessly integrate with the current GMD system and can rapidly evolve with the threat. Our NGI solution is the solution the MDA requires, and we look forward to partnering with our customers on this new homeland missile defense interceptor for decades to come. With Lockheed Martin’s extensive understanding of the end-to-end missile defense mission, we are on the path to Critical Design Review as a trusted and transparent partner. We are committed to delivering the first NGI in advance of the warfighter’s needs”.

At present, there are 44 GMD systems, with the majority said to be located in silos at Fort Greely, Alaska, and the rest stationed at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. But these are not equipped to counter missiles that contain multiple kill vehicles or decoys, which can make the defeat process more complex. NGI is intended to fill this gap as soon as it is ready, it is argued.

According to experts, NGI would incorporate another “underlayer” capability in addition to the primary layer in the existing GMD systems. An underlayer is said to be a family of shorter-range missile interceptors, including Aegis BMD and Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense (THAAD), which can track and engage enemy warheads that evade the higher-altitude ground-based interceptors.

It is argued that since the effectiveness of such shorter-range interceptors has already been proven to be highly effective, both in tests against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and “real-world interceptions against various theater missile threats in Ukraine,” the NGI would strengthen America’s missile defenses by adding an underlayer to the current GMD architecture.

In fact, in October last year, a Congressional strategic posture report asked the Biden Administration to undertake additional measures to enhance homeland security.

It was suggested that  “The United States prioritize funding and accelerate long-range non-nuclear precision strike programs to meet the operational need and in greater quantities than currently planned.”

It had specifically emphasized :

  • The United States develops and fields homeland IAMD that can deter and defeat coercive attacks by Russia and China and determines the capabilities needed to stay ahead of the North Korean threat.
  • The Secretary of Defense directs research, development, test and evaluation into advanced IAMD(Integrated Air and Missile Defence capabilities leveraging all domains, including land, sea, air, and space. These activities should focus on sensor architectures, integrated command and control, interceptors, cruise and hypersonic missile defenses, and area or point defenses. The DOD should urgently pursue the deployment of any capabilities that prove feasible.
  • The Secretary of Defense and the Military Departments transfer operations and sustainment responsibility for missile defense to the appropriate Military Departments by 1 October 2024. This will allow the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) to focus on research, development, prototyping and testing.

The NGI program could be seen in the above context. Here, one may agree with Robert Soofer, a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy from April 2017 to January 2021.

Soofer argues that Missile defense works best when interceptor systems are layered. Multiple layers using different defensive technologies and weapons platforms can provide such a defense, also known as a defense-in-depth.  “Integrating short, medium, and long-range defense interceptors is not only more efficient and cost-effective but also more likely to intercept its targets”, he says, while pointing out the dangers from more complex Russian and Chinese ballistic missiles armed with penetration aids and decoys.

According to him, the other existing systems, such as SM-3 and THAAD, are not enough, given their smaller numbers, to guard the entire U.S. territory against Russian and Chinese missiles.

Artist Notional Rendering of NGI in flight. Photo credit: Lockheed Martin.

The SM-3 missile, generally deployed on a naval vessel, is designed to intercept medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles when they are outside the atmosphere. However, given its smaller size compared to the GBI, the Interceptor would not provide coverage for the entire United States, Soofer argues.

For him, THAAD may have some use against long-range ballistic missiles and perhaps hypersonic weapons in their terminal glide phase. But “the defensive coverage of THAAD would be smaller than the SM-3, and both are smaller than the reach of the Ground-Based Interceptors, which can protect the entire nation from its two locations in Alaska and California.”

It seems that arguments like that of Soofer, given the ever-rising threats from North Korea openly and China subtly, have won the argument for the day. So much so that MDA has advanced the  NGI program; otherwise, it was to choose the winning contractor for the NGI next year, not now.

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has commented on politics, foreign policy, and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. 
  • CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at)
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Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: