WASHINGTON -- A recent string of interceptor test failures in the U.S. missile defense system could mean that multiple salvos must be launched in the event of an actual attack against the nation, to ensure that at least one would destroy an incoming weapon, a top commander said on Wednesday.
“Every time we have a flight failure, that factors into the reliability calculations that go into the fire-control system,” Gen. Robert Kehler, who heads U.S. Strategic Command, said regarding the 26 Ground Based Interceptors fielded today in Alaska and the four additional GBI systems deployed in California. “Whatever it takes to prosecute the intercept is what we would do.”
Translation: If an adversary tries to nuke the United States, the Pentagon may have to fire off a number of the troubled GBI darts in the hopes that at least one would hit its bull’s eye.
The general was speaking with reporters at a Defense Writers Group breakfast. His military organization would command U.S. forces in any strategic nuclear conflict or missile defense operation.
Kehler’s admission may seem extraordinary on Capitol Hill, where some Democrats want to restrict funds for what they see as a defective missile defense system. By contrast, a number of Republicans are calling for the Pentagon to invest yet more in defending against missile attacks, to include building an additional interceptor site on the East Coast by 2018.
The GBI interceptors are part of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, which is aimed at defending the United States from limited attacks by long- or intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Defense leaders recently announced a move to add 14 interceptors to the defense architecture, citing a heightened threat from North Korea.
A so-called CE-1 version of Ground Based Interceptors currently on deployment failed to intercept a test-target in a July 5 flight trial when the weapon’s “kill vehicle” did not separate from its third-stage rocket booster, as intended. The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency is studying the test disappointment and has played down the severity of the suspected cause, but has not publicly confirmed media reports of a battery problem.
A more updated CE-2 version of the Ground Based Interceptor -- some of which are also fielded today as part of the GMD system -- was successfully test-flown in January. However, that trial assessed only the interceptor's flight characteristics and did not test its capabilities against an incoming dummy target. Two previous intercept attempts using the CE-2 model resulted in failure.
The Ground Based Interceptor is based on so-called "hit-to-kill" technology, which to be successful must hit and penetrate its target precisely, rather than use explosives.
For intercept flight tests staged since October 1999, the GBI test scorecard shows a success rate of just 50 percent: eight hits and eight misses.
Looking at the history of GBI tests, “I am still confident that the system will perform in its limited defense role,” Kehler said. “But I’m concerned with the recent test failure and I would like to see more testing done.”
The Missile Defense Agency had not conducted a GBI flight test for two and a half years prior to the trial earlier this month. Going forward, the commander said he would like to see such demonstrations occur at least once a year.
Noting that the Defense Department fields a combination of the two different kill vehicles, Kehler added, “We need to make sure, I believe, that we are testing both. And for some time into the future, I think we’re going to have to test both.”
James Miller, the Pentagon’s top policy official, told reporters last week that the Defense Department might reshuffle its test schedule for the coming year to ensure that the CE-1 model interceptor can promptly demonstrate its capability for successful intercept.