Engineers, scientists and analysts of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Missile and Space Intelligence Center provide high-confidence assessments of foreign missile and space systems and other critical intelligence products that help to keep warfighters from harm.
Spread out over some of the 38,000 acres of the Army’s Redstone Arsenal in the Appalachian highlands of northern Alabama are the laboratories, high-performance computing operations, test areas and hardware storage spaces that make up MSIC’s vast engineering complex.
“The work itself is pretty detailed and geeky,” MSIC Director Pamela McCue explained during an interview with American Forces Press Service. “We’re a bunch of engineers and scientists, and by nature we love to figure out how things work.”
McCue, an electrical engineer, said the work involves looking at all sources of intelligence and figuring out the characteristics, performance and operations of threat weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank guided missiles, ground-based anti-satellite systems and short-range ballistic missiles.
Service members who conduct operations anywhere in the world are likely to encounter a variety of weapons, McCue said.
“Our job is to understand the threat weapons and push intelligence to the military so they will be prepared,” she added. “Hopefully, we can do it so our service [members] won’t even encounter the threat weapons, but if they do, we want them always to come out on top.”
MSIC engineers and scientists focus on how a weapon works, how well it works, and how it’s vulnerable or how it can be defeated, she said. Air and missile defense is a key mission.
“These are surface-to-air missiles primarily that fire at our aircraft, … so anywhere that we have an air operation going, we are likely to face these kinds of systems,” McCue noted.
The missiles range from air defense systems that a person can carry and fire from the shoulder to long-range air defense systems that can engage targets over hundreds of miles.
The director said millions of “man-portable” systems are in use around the world.
With the knowledge its scientists and engineers gain, MSIC works with those in the services who design air survivability equipment, the director said, “so if you’re carrying that on an aircraft, it will detect that a missile has been launched against it, and it will take action so the missile, hopefully, will not hit the aircraft.
“It can do that either with some kind of countermeasure,” she continued, “usually a laser-based countermeasure, or perhaps even [by] dropping flares, which are electro-optical infrared devices [designed to] distract the missile and pull it off course. These are techniques that we can equip our military aircraft with — and especially our helicopters, which have to operate in harm’s way — so even if they are engaged, they won’t be hit.”
Another important area for MSIC includes ground-based weapons that fire missiles or directed energy at platforms in space. These include anti-satellite missiles and directed-energy weapons.
“We in the United States haven’t had a lot of [directed-energy weapons] programs for a while, [but] others around the world are still developing directed-energy weapons — Russia and China are the two big ones,” she said.
Very-high-energy weapons include laser systems, she added, and such weapons either would damage sensors on airplanes or satellites, or as technology evolves, physically destroy a platform in air or space.
The other important mission area for MSIC involves short-range ballistic missiles — those that can engage targets from tens of miles out to 600 miles out.
“These systems are important because they’re the weapon of choice for a lot of [nations] to reach beyond their borders, … and they can be fitted to carry weapons of mass destruction, so they’re a big concern for us and our allies,” McCue said. “They’re certainly a big player in the Middle East and North Korea.”
Today, MSIC helps to defend against ballistic missiles on the same ground where, in 1950, German rocket developer Wernher von Braun and his team of top rocket scientists began working with the Army to develop the Jupiter ballistic missile and others.
The work was done as part of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, which von Braun headed, and McCue said the organization had a small intelligence cell that was “taking a look at what was going on around the world in similar developments.”
MISC began then as an Army research and development center, the director added, and in the 1990s, it became part of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
“We’ve had some of our missions since the very first days, like looking at those threat missile developments to compare them to what we were doing on this side,” McCue said. “We picked up additional missions as weapons evolved and new things came online, like the ground-based anti-satellite mission.”
In the beginning, the weapons were pretty basic, she said. “For instance, a surface-to-air missile would be capable of tracking a single aircraft at a time,” she explained. “It would have a very tightly controlled process for controlling the missile to the target, and it would be very straightforward.”
Now, the director said, there’s a lot more flexibility.
“On the surface-to-air missile side, you have systems that can track many targets at one time and send many missiles to different targets at the same time,” she added, and on the ballistic-missile side, a simple ballistic trajectory may be replaced by extreme maneuvers and countermeasures.”
“A lot more complexity in the weapons has come from having more capability, more technology and more computers,” the director observed.
Computers have boosted capability on the analysis side, McCue said. “It makes the weapon systems harder to figure out,” she said, “but it makes our analysis a little easier and more capable.”
The center also has put more emphasis on command and control, as the processes and communications surrounding the launch of a rocket or missile become more computer-driven, she said.
MSIC now has fewer people than it did during the Cold War. But amid the geopolitical instability of much of the world today, MSIC’s scientists, engineers and analysts have many more kinds of weapons to deal with. Computer power helps keep the pace, along with a good priority system, McCue said.
“We don’t have more people, but we do what I like to call ‘risk management,’” the director said. “Every weapon system out there in the world doesn’t have an equally high probability of being in an engagement at any given time, so we’re constantly assessing priorities and putting the resources we have on the most important weapons, knowing that we can’t cover everything.”
Over time, major developments in technology could drive changes in MSIC’s work, but McCue said she believes being an engineering organization gives MSIC an advantage.
“We tend to keep up with technology, because we use it in our analysis techniques. The folks in the … labs we work with and the national labs across the country also keep up with technologies, and we’re well-linked there,” she said. “So … we have the right mindset, and we are following the technology as a matter of course. The trick is anticipating how that might play into threat weapons.”
Technologically, she added, one game-changer could involve people who do unexpected things with weapons, driven by conflicts such as the unrest in Syria or North Korea’s use of missiles.
Along with keeping up with evolving technology, working with partners is an important aspect of the work at MSIC these days.
“We are very integrated into the whole intelligence system,” the director said, adding that MSIC also works closely with the services and with U.S. allies and partners.
Each service has aircraft they have to fly, she added, “so they have to worry about surface-to-air missiles, [and] they’re all what we call customers of ours. We make sure we understand what they need [and] we understand what kind of intelligence they need to put the right things on their military systems, … and we push intelligence to them in the right form.”
Where international partners are concerned, McCue said, “with virtually every partner that the United States has, we work with our counterparts in those countries.”
The budget problems plaguing the nation and the Defense Department present a challenge that McCue said the center’s scientists and engineers will have to tackle.
“In my observation over the years,” she said, “there’s a lot of innovation that can come from tight times — when you’re really focused on getting the job done and you’ve got to figure out some way to do it. We’re adaptive and we’re flexible, and we’re going to keep putting those priorities up there and making sure we get the important things done.”
By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
Disclaimer: The appearance of hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by the Department of Defense of this website or the information, products or services contained therein. For other than authorized activities such as military exchanges and Morale, Welfare and Recreation sites, the Department of Defense does not exercise any editorial control over the information you may find at these locations. Such links are provided consistent with the stated purpose of this DoD website.