Defense Business Brief: Missile downed in test; Anti-drone kit for Ukraine; Northrop’s rocket bet; and more.

The Pentagon shot down an intermediate-range ballistic missile during a test of an updated interceptor and new type of radar, the Missile Defense Agency said Monday. It was the first live-fire intercept test in almost five years of the Ground Based Interceptor, the missile shield that protects the United States.

The interceptor in the test has a new mode that allows it to shoot down missiles at closer ranges.

“This capability gives the warfighter greater flexibility in executing the defense of the homeland while significantly expanding the battlespace for successful threat engagement,” the missile defense agency said in a statement.

Ground-based interceptors have three stages, but operators programmed the GBI to use only two, which gives the military “additional shot opportunities to negate an incoming threat missile,” MDA said. “This new capability, known as a 2-/3-Stage selectable GBI, will be deployed in the next [Ground-Based Midcourse Defense] capability delivery to the warfighter.”

Monday’s test used a Raytheon “Capability Enhanced-II Block 1 Exo-Atmospheric Kill Vehicle” to down a ballistic missile tracked by an AN/TPY-2 radar and an updated Sea-Based X-band Radar.  

An aircraft flying over the Pacific Ocean launched the threat-representative missile, while the interceptor was fired from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, according to Boeing, the lead contractor for the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system, or GMD. The majority of the United States’ Ground Based Interceptors are based in Alaska; and a handful are at Vandenberg.

The GMD system is made up of interceptors and radars that protect the United States from the types of ballistic missiles possessed by North Korea and Iran.

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More VAMPIRE counter-drone systems are heading to Ukraine. The U.S. Navy said it will deliver 10 of the systems this month. The Pentagon pledged the Vampire counter-drone systems to Kyiv in August 2022, and the Navy has already delivered four. L3Harris said it gave all 14 of the Vampire systems to the Pentagon on time.

“Early customer reports say VAMPIRE is already having a positive effect in Ukraine thanks to the U.S. Navy’s ability to respond with ‘unprecedented speed and agility,’” Jason Lambert, president of L3Harris’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance business, said in a statement. “As adversary tactics evolve, our customers rely on us to anticipate, design, and rapidly deliver reliable mission capabilities. We’ll continue partnering with the Department of Defense to field critical capabilities that will help save lives.”

Audrey sends: Northrop Grumman has launched a campaign to design, build, and test a new solid rocket motor each year. Dubbed SMART Demo, the effort comes as startups promise to build rocket motors faster and cheaper than legacy providers.

In the first iteration of the campaign, Northrop successfully tested a rocket motor Friday, which showcased new technologies, including a “low cost” propellant that can operate across a wide range of temperatures, said Ben Case, principal investigator for SMART Demo. Components of the motor’s nozzle structure were also constructed with additive manufacturing, Case told reporters.

“The demonstration of these technologies helps us work toward preparing them, maturing them, so that they’re ready for onboarding to new programs or even existing programs,” Case said.

The company is working on nine new solid rocket motors for five programs, including hypersonics, missile defense, Sentinel ICBM, and space launch initiatives, said Wendy Williams, vice president of propulsion systems at Northrop. The company’s GEM 63XL motor will be used for the first time on ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, which is set to launch within the next month.

To support Northrop’s goal of doubling its rocket motor production within the next 10 years, Williams said the company is constructing 11 new buildings in its Utah facility, which will be up and running around early 2025.

“This expansion and advancement of our existing facilities is driven by increased solid rocket motor demands across multiple existing programs as well as the addition of new programs,” she said.

While on the subject of rocket motors, startup Ursa Major recently announced that it closed $138 million in its latest funding rounds. Among the investors: RTX Ventures. Ursa Major has previously said a large defense company was one of its investors, but had not disclosed it was RTX. The startup will use the money to “continue to develop Lynx, the company’s innovative new solid rocket motor (SRM) program, while scaling production capacity and advancing multiple propulsion programs.” 

Don’t write the obituary for the Black Hawk helicopter just yet. The Army might have chosen the Bell V-280 tiltrotor to replace the bulk of its Black Hawk utility helicopters, but one year later, the service announced it is considering buying up to 255 more. The possible buy was disclosed in a Dec. 7 contracting document, which cites potential customers as the Army, other Defense Department agencies, foreign militaries, and other U.S. government agencies. The aircraft would be delivered between 2027 and 2032. The Army last placed a five-year order for up to 255 Black Hawks in June 2022.

Congress is expected to vote this week on the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act. The $886 billion defense policy bill is considered a must-pass piece of legislation. Here’s some of our coverage:

An U.S. State Department advisor to Ukraine’s Ministry of Strategic Industries was among the pledges last week during a meeting of more than 350 U.S., E.U. and Ukrainian companies in Washington. The advisor will “support and accelerate Ukraine’s transition to an interoperable military force, combat corruption, and attract foreign investment in critical industries.” The goal of last week’s meetings: “institutionalizing relationships, processes, and dialogue between industry and government partners.” More here.

Meanwhile, funding to replace weapons sent to Ukraine is nearly gone. Also, the Wall Street Journal has a deep dive on the decline of NATO’s militaries and Europe’s weapons industry.

This Week:

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks is in Silicon Valley this week, where one of her stops includes the Defense Innovation Unit, the arm of the Pentagon that’s working to adopt commercial technology into the military. “She will also meet with a wide range of industry leaders to discuss the Department’s Replicator initiative, discuss innovation across the Department, and see demonstrations of AI-powered and autonomous technologies,” according to Hicks’ spokesman Eric Pahon.

Making Moves

  • Sasha Baker, assistant secretary for strategy, plans, and capabilities, who also has been performing the duties of deputy undersecretary for policy, is leaving the Pentagon for a job in academia.
  • Boeing named Stephanie Pope executive vice president and chief operating officer, effective Jan. 1. Pope is the head of Boeing Global Services. A successor to her current job has not been named.
  • L3Harris Technologies named Kirk Hachigian and William Swanson to its board, effective immediately. The board intends to appoint an additional independent director in 2024. 
  • Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin appointed Lisa Disbrow as chair of the Reserve Forces Policy Board. Disbrow, a retired Air Force colonel and undersecretary of the Air Force, succeeds Arnold Punaro, who has been chair since 2011.

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Marcus Weisgerber