By John Liang / April 5, 2011 at 3:55 PM

Even though unmanned systems have their limitations when it comes to using them as platforms for infrared sensors in a missile defense mission, the former head of the Missile Defense Agency said this morning that they could still be useful.

"You cannot get enough sensors," retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Trey Obering said at a missile defense briefing on Capitol Hill that was sponsored by the Marshall Institute and Aerospace Industries Association. "You just can't. Being able to provide birth-to-death tracking is really critically important for missile defense."

Additionally, unmanned systems "won't be a stopgap measure," the former MDA director said. "They won't be persistent, they're not going to be flying 24 hours a day, seven days a week . . . but in heightened tensions, that kind of thing, having additional sensors, especially -- and again a lot of this happened after I left the agency, but apparently they've had pretty good development in terms of ranges of the infrared sensor capabilities on the [RQ-1] Predator; being able to provide that initial information in the sensor I think is very important."

That said, Obering does not "believe you're going to be able to use those [UAV-borne sensors] for discrimination. I don't see that occurring. But certainly I think that it could be a valuable asset to be able to handle larger raid sizes of missiles, that type of thing, in a more robust system."

Inside Missile Defense reported in January that MDA was looking for new ideas on how to use unmanned systems to detect ballistic missile launches. Specifically:

According to a Dec. 23 Federal Business Opportunities notice, MDA is "interested in obtaining information on new concepts to support the potential development of an airborne advanced sensor to improve acquisition, tracking, and discrimination in large raid scenarios.

"This concept notionally consists of a pod configuration that is mountable on multiple unmanned airborne platforms," the notice continues. The agency "is interested in obtaining information on concepts, subsystems, and components that might comprise an advanced sensor to support a potential 2-3 year development program that culminates in a rigorous test campaign to support a production decision in late [fiscal year 2016]." MDA wants responses by Feb. 10.

In its fiscal year 2011 budget request, MDA proposed the creation of a program that would build a new infrared sensor to be carried by unmanned aircraft to help detect missile launches aimed at European allies.

According to MDA's FY-11 budget overview submitted in February, the agency asked Congress for $112 million for FY-11 and $501 million over the next five years for the new "Airborne Infrared" (ABIR) program element. This effort would fund "the development, testing and fielding of ABIR sensor platforms to support tracking large ballistic missile raid sizes for Phase 2 of the Phased Adaptive Approach," the document states.

MDA Director Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly said in October that the sensors that may be carried aboard unmanned aerial vehicles for BMD missions might not necessarily be infrared.

However, "we may not go with infrared even though that's in its title . . . because we're looking at advanced sensors and [how] they can help us do discrimination and handle, again, very large raid sizes on unattended air vehicles or remotely piloted vehicles," O'Reilly said at an Oct. 12 Atlantic Council-sponsored conference.