US Air Force Brigadier General (Retired) Kenneth Todorov, Vice President for Missile Defense Solutions at Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, discusses a wide range of issues during an exclusive interview with Marty Kauchak, MONCh US correspondent. The dialogue’s content follows.
MONCh (M): How do you see the dynamic missile defence sector evolving, and in particular the threats against the US and its allies and partners around the globe?
Kenneth Todorov (KT): This is a great place to start. You used the word ‘dynamic’ and it truly is a dynamic and fast-changing domain. The threat is changing in three ways – these are some dramatic changes and have only accelerated in the last five, or so, years. First, it is changing in terms of quantity. The sheer numbers of missile threats at all ranges are increasing around the globe. The next way the threat is changing is quality. So, while the numbers are increasing for sure, the quality and lethality of threats continue to be on the rise – the ranges are longer, the lethality of the threats continue to be on the rise – more deadly – and the countermeasures they employ are tougher and tougher to overcome. You have this ‘storm’ of more of them, and not only more, but more lethal. But the most significant change to the threat in the last several years, and one accelerating at a far faster pace, is what I will place under the heading of ‘diversity’. The diversity of threats, and the way they have changed in nature, is presenting some challenges for our nation to deal with and overcome. By diversity, there’s a lot of discussion today on advancements like hypersonic glide vehicles, boost-glide vehicles, low radar cross section cruise missiles that are very, very difficult to detect – and then manoeuvring threats of all kinds and unmanned systems. And then you bring in the non-kinetic realm – electronic warfare and others, there are just so many more threats for the warfighter to be concerned with. When you couple quality and quantity, and then add diversity, this is a real watershed moment for those of us who are in the warfighting business or those of us in industry trying to come up with solutions.
M: You talk about the ‘watershed moment’ and such, and it appears you and your team at Northrop Grumman are taking a look at one solution, among many – the digital transformation needed to move the US’s missile defence capabilities forward.
KT: Yes, and we’ve been looking at this for a long time. One of the reasons I joined Northrop Grumman about two-and-a-half years ago was because of the philosophical approach that the company was taking toward this problem, not only in missile defence but in all other areas of defence and security. In my specific area, missile defence, we are, I believe, leading what I will call a ‘revolution’ in digital transformation. We made a conscious decision that we had to think of this problem differently, because of the nature of the changing threat; that the ‘old way of doing business’ – increasing capacity, buying more of the same systems and such – would no longer work. Because of the change of the nature of the threat and diversity, we knew we had to approach this in a different way. Enter digital transformation, allowing us to design and develop systems in a deliberate way that is software defined and hardware enabled. There are a lot of examples coming from the commercial space on this. The important thing to know is as the threat changes, digital systems allow you to make the systems that we provide to the warfighter more extensible and adaptable to the future. For example, we’re starting to think about artificial intelligence, to allow you to take data from these real-world events. The functionality of these system can then morph, change and grow over time, in effect ‘learn’ and adapt. We believe that through digital transformation, we have an exciting opportunity to provide those technologies to address the missile defence problem, and we also think there’s an element of affordability in it. First, digital systems that are fielded can change without completely changing the entire system. Second, there’s an element of speed – we can provide capabilities quicker to the warfighter. And third, there is an element of adaptability to the future, as threat changes and grows, those systems can change and grow and adapt to them.
M: Where do you see Northrop Grumman taking digital transformation in the next 12-18 months?
KT: I want to get to your question, but first want to tell you about a very significant enabler, the recent merger of our company with the former Orbital ATK, now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems. That was a deliberate and strategic, decision on our part. Innovation Systems brings to Northrop Grumman some very complementary capabilities to allow us to look at the missile defence problem from beginning to end – from ‘left-of-launch’ through intercept and assessment. More importantly we think a bigger, better, stronger company can leverage or scale technologies to deliver products faster and more affordably than our competitors.
M: And beyond this significant merger?
KT: One area that we are really focused on now, informed by digital transformation and enabled through the new Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, is this problem that you are going to hear a great deal about at this week’s Space and Missile Defense Symposium – the problem of the hypersonic glide vehicle and the challenges that poses. Over the next 12-18 months I believe that we at Northrop Grumman will focus like a laser on the hypersonic problem. We think that is a perfect area for us to bring in the new capabilities of Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, coupled with and informed by our digital transformation approach, to develop and deploy those end-to-end solutions. A lot of our work today and into the near future and beyond, is focused on that specific problem, and looking at everything from detection to track, and how we put those digital capabilities into a space layer that can see the hypersonic threat. Before you can hit it you must be able to see it, and discern it is, in fact, a hypersonic threat. And then what Innovation Systems brings to that part of the equation are the effector-based solutions we’ll be able to go after it with. The hypersonic threat is clearly one of the department’s [US DoD] top challenges to tackle, and that is our focus as well over the next 12-18 months and beyond.
M: Your thoughts on partnering and collaborating, with other companies in the US and overseas as Northrop Grumman moves forward with digital transformation and other adjacent efforts.
KT: That permits me to talk about some of our global initiatives. Before I took over the business unit I lead today, I was the director for global air and missile defence. We’re always looking for opportunities to partner with some great minds and leaders in the missile defence space who reside in some of the nations that are the US’s closest allies and partners. Clearly, the Five Eyes partners [Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States] are first on the list. We’re very, very plugged into the Australian Government’s Project Air 6500 [modernise Joint Battle Management and Integrated Air and Missile Defence System]. The capabilities that we provide coupled with a lot of really terrific Australian content will bring a great solution to meet their needs. And in Europe there is the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS) – the US Army’s enabler for its IAMD programme of record to allow the service to tie-in assets in the battlespace into the future – Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor on the IBCS programme.
M: The Government of Poland has decided that IBCS is what it needs to make itself relevant within NATO, and in conjunction with operating with US forces into the future against all the threats MONCh is well versed in. [Editor’s note: It was announced this 28 March that the Government of Poland signed a Letter of Offer and Acceptance for IBCS]. And this is another case in Poland where we’re working very close with Polish industry to provide some of those capabilities. And then beyond the AI space, we’re looking in the much broader missile defence context, to bring in capabilities from companies around the world. Further, we’re looking at small-to-medium size companies not only in the defence space, but the non-defence space – bringing in exquisite, high end technologies in the work of discreet and discriminating algorithms – to build and discern the missile defence picture to pick the reentry vehicle out of countermeasures and what not. There are some really good possibilities in defence and non-defence that we’re focused on – and always open to what we bring to the table with some complementary additions from team mates and partners.
M: Thanks once again for taking time to speak with MONS!
KT: You are welcome. And thank you for the opportunity.