Tulane Launches Missile-Defense Research

July 27, 2002

Arthur Nead

The world's unsettled political climate has heightened the U.S. government's interest in creating defenses against ballistic missile attacks. And while missile-defense technology is still in the development phase, many of its first and essential steps will take place here on campus, thanks to a $2.46 million contract awarded to Tulane by the U.S. Department of Defense's Missile Defense Agency.

"We work on fundamental research," says Bill Buckles, professor of computer science in the engineering school's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Tulane's missile-research project leader. Tulane researchers will produce abstract solutions and methods of operation, largely in the form of algorithms, which are step-by-step solutions to problems.

Tulane's partners in this project include several defense contractors. Tulane will provide these companies with mathematical information, and the companies will apply them to specific components of a missile-defense system, such as interceptor sensors, satellite sensors and radar systems. Although the university will not be working directly on missile or sensor hardware, its research results will be applied to interceptor systems intended to shoot down missiles that are in their final approach to a target.

The project, which is currently in the planning phase, is slated to last five years and will involve the efforts of some 15 Tulane faculty members, research assistants and at least one postdoctoral researcher. Tulane's contract spells out an interrelated set of six tasks on which the research group will focus.

"We're basically working on a set of projects," says Buckles, "that would result in methods that would increase the time available to make engagement decisions. "If an interceptor currently has, say, 30 seconds to pick out a threat among debris, we would hope that the work we are doing would increase that to 40 seconds," says Buckles. "We would provide better information earlier, allowing more time for decision-making in the period of the engagement."

Three of the tasks are geared to maximizing the effectiveness of sensors aboard missile interceptors in satellites and on the ground. In particular, these tasks involve improving sensor performance in a debris-filled environment where a previous engagement, harmless boost-stage hardware or decoy objects produce a cloud of debris.

Other tasks will focus on the fusing or combining of optical or infrared radar images to provide better target identification and tracking and the fusing of a sequence of images to produce a higher quality image of incoming missiles. Another task concerns developing methods to compress data to accelerate a missile-defense system's communications network.

Tulane's industry partners will lead the remaining two tasks. One is the development of automated battle management aids, which will coordinate the total set of responses to an attack. The other is a materials-assessment task studying the effects of high energy directed at a variety of aerospace structural materials. Tulane has been involved in missile research going back to the 1980s, when the Strategic Defense Initiative program was under way, according to Buckles.

The university also carried out small-scale research for the U.S. Department of Defense in the 1990s. The current research contract is bigger and will involve more people than any that Tulane has worked on up to now, says Buckles, who has participated in ballistic missile research since his graduate student days at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. Buckles sees a bright future for Tulane's missile-defense project.

"I would hope this becomes a stimulus for more research that is Department of Defense and NASA-oriented," he says. Buckles anticipates the Missile Defense Agency and related agencies will begin to look upon Tulane as a prime people resource. He expects that "they will send young officers here for a period of time, and they'll send civil servants who plan a career path in this area."

The result of this will be, says Buckles, "a complete educational and intellectual community, where we will have people coming in from other institutions, teaching short courses, and our people going elsewhere to teach short courses, spreading the word about Tulane and its faculty and students."

To some degree, that's already happening, Buckles says. When he proposed a tutorial session later this month that would bring speakers to Tulane to talk about the basics of missile defense and the fundamentals of radar, the Missile Defense Agency jumped at the opportunity and offered to send its own experts to Tulane, and they have spread the word about the event to other agencies and institutions.

"What started out as a small tutorial session for my group has become a national event for the missile-defense community," says Buckles.

Arthur Nead may be reached at

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