Simplicity as a Design Principle for Missile Defense

Simplicity as a Design Principle for Missile Defense

Simplicity as a Design Principle for Missile Defense

by Gordon Bate


“Yes, Virginia, Missile Defense is Rocket Science”.

MDA Flight Test 06b at Vandenberg AFB

MDA Flight Test 06b at Vandenberg AFB 22 June 2014 (DoD Photo. Mark Peterson)

The complexity of modern day ballistic missile defense is mind-boggling. Technologies have been successful in proving our ability to acquire, track, discriminate, and intercept ballistic missile attacks against our Homeland and abroad. The missile defense system-of-systems incorporate advanced sensors and seekers, interceptors, command and control, computing, and more. As of December 2016, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) now claims 74 successful hit-to-kill intercepts across all programs since 2001. Hit to kill meaning successfully hitting an incoming ballistic missile rentry vehicle with a kinetic kill vehicle at closing speeds in excess of 11km/sec. To give perspective to those speeds, most bullets travel no more than 800 m/sec. Hitting a bullet with a bullet means a closing speed of 1.6 km/sec or almost 1/7th as fast. This seems almost trivial in comparison. The engineering complexity has driven us to a system still in it’s technical infancy and more a series of prototypes than an operational system – particularly for GMD. But the threat has also required us to deploy a capability to protect us now – not some amorphous future date.

On 30 September 2004 the US stood up the 100th Missile Defense Brigade to operate the GMD system and protect the homeland from installations in Alaska, California, New York, and Colorado. As we move forward, we have an opportunity to move from a position of “proving the science” to an effective missile defense capability. As we continue forward with plans for the next generation of missile defense capability, perhaps it is time that we examine SIMPLICITY as an overarching concept.

Here are four areas we should consider using simplicity as a design principle, and how we’d be better off for it:


1. Simplicity In Operations

Army Old Guard

Army Old Guard demonstrating precision at Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Army Photo. D. Cullen)

The unfortunate reality in Missile Defense operations is that the adversary has the ability to choose so much. Offense can choose the time, the targets, and the intensity of the attack. Through selection of time, they can pick advantageous windows of weather, and other conditioning activities to tilt the odds in their favor. On Defense, we must be ready – at all times, in all conditions, to perform the mission. No exceptions. This means that operations must be perfect. Our systems must be reliable, and our operators must perform with precision their responsibilities.

As designers, we can ease the burden to operators by ensuring every step, every activity is both necessary and is as simple as we can make it. Here we can apply an axiom “Do Fewer Things, But Do Them Very Well”.

Over the last decade, DoD has applied hard-won lessons on focusing on essential capabilities and avoiding requirements creep. Ensuring a solid foundation of mission, operations, and capability first before venturing into expansion.

Simplicity in operations has another component, and that is while we seek to add simplicity to our operations, planning and execution, we should seek to ADD complexity to our adversaries. The underlying principal cuts both ways and if we can increase adversary operations, introduce uncertainty into their achievement of objectives, and enhance their risks, this benefits the exchange.


2. The Operator’s Brain: An Important Piece of System Capability

Col. Stanislav Petrov

Col. Stanislav Petrov 2006 World Citizen Award Winner in undated photo.

Operators understand context – something difficult for automated capabilities to replicate. In September 1983, Stanislav Petrov, a duty officer in the Soviet Air Defense Forces, questioned an automated, but erroneous, report of a nuclear strike of five incoming Minuteman missiles from the Soviet satellite missile warning system. Col. Petrov understood from context that the report didn’t make sense. Even though this was a period of elevated tensions, his training, other available information, and experience led him to refrain from calling this event the opening salvo of nuclear war. Unfortunately, reports suggest that in 1979 and 1980 US Missile Warning Systems have also reported false alarms. While we work to improve missile defense automated capabilities, we may be underestimating the flexibility, creativeness, and adaptability of human operators. C2, Planning, Attack Assessment, Sensor Interpretation and Discrimination are all areas of potential human capital exploitation. By leveraging operators, we can potentially simplify automated processing algorithms and enhance system performance.


3. Simplify the mechanics: Reducing the Parts Count

One of the leading indicators of system reliability is the parts count. The more parts, the more likely that one or more will fail. Reliability increases through simplifying designs. A Model T owner told me the story of Henry Ford and the original design for the carburetor. Ford was a big believer in simplicity as a design principle for reducing manufacturing times, reducing costs, and improving reliability. The story goes that some enterprising builders provided Ford with a carburetor prototype held together with 14 screws. Ford handed it back and told them “Too many screws”. The next iteration had 3 screws. Ford handed it back and told them “Too many screws”. The engineers came back with only 2 screws on the next iteration, and again Ford rejected it. The result of this ‘simplicity’ request ended with the “one screw” carburetor assembly, which makes fast work of installation and maintenance. While this tale may very well be apocryphal, it does emphasize a mindset we may wish to emulate; A single GBI consists of many thousands of parts, each may represent a particular point of failure. As we move to simplify, the Ford mantra of “Too Many Parts” may be one of our best aids in improving reliability.


4. Modularity and System Flexibility

JDAMS Equipped b-52 U.S. Air Force Photo. Senior Airman Carlin Leslie)

A design tenant of the Unix Operating System was the use of simpler commands that could be linked (e.g., piped) together for more capability. The system worked with simple, efficient, reliable, modular components that could be combined to provide additional capabilities and features. Several very successful weapons systems have evolved startling capabilities beyond original planned operations by doing a few things well and accommodating new things. The B-52 with a JDAMS loadout allows a single aircraft to use precision, GPS-guided munitions against multiple targets. The flexibility of the platform, the weapons, C2, and communications allow this incredible advance in warfare and keep the old BUFF relevant almost 100 years after its original development. In Missile Defense, these modularity points may be keyed to the payload (kill vehicle), seekers, sensors, and others that enable upgrade, enhancement, weapon/battlespace diversity, and other advanced concepts.


About the Author:

Gordon Bate is the Director of Southeast Operations for Summit Technical Solutions. With more than 30 years experience in capture management and operations, Bate is responsible for operations and capture management for ARMY Space and Missile Defense Command, Missile Defense Agency, and ARMY Material Command programs at Summit Technical Solutions.

Headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Summit Technical Solutions is a Certified Woman-owned, Veteran, and Small Disadvantaged Business. Summit Technical Solutions delivers services and solutions for advanced systems engineering and design, operations and maintenance including communications services, and logistics support for primarily Federal Government customers. Existing contracts and clients include the Department of Homeland Security, US Army, Navy, Air Force, and Department of State. The company maintains offices in Colorado Springs, Colorado; Huntsville, Alabama; Lee’s Summit, Missouri; Shreveport, Louisiana; Arlington, Virginia; and Ramstein, Germany.

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