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Global Security Newswire

Pentagon Test Czar Sees Possible Need for Interceptor Component Redesign

A U.S. Ground Based Interceptor, equipped with an Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, takes off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in a January 2013 flight test of the long-range missile defense technology. The Pentagon's testing czar in a Wednesday report said multiple test failures of the kill vehicle suggest a redesign may be needed.(U.S. Missile Defense Agency photo)

photo of Rachel Oswald
January 29, 2014

The Pentagon's testing czar on Wednesday said a critical piece of the U.S. missile-defense system may require a redesign following multiple test failures.

The Defense Department's operational test and evaluation office concluded in its fiscal 2013 annual report that repeated misfires of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense, or "GMD," system's Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle "raise questions regarding the robustness of the EKV's design."

The three most recent attempts at intercepting a dummy ballistic missile using the Raytheon-developed EKV component have all been unsuccessful. The last successful test intercept was in 2008.

 

The Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle is the front-end component of the missile-defense architecture's Ground Based Interceptor and uses kinetic force, rather than a detonating warhead, to destroy incoming missiles. There are two versions of the EKV component -- the CE-1 kill vehicle and a later-generation CE-2 model.

A successful non-intercept flight trial last January of a modified version of  the CE-2 vehicle made the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency hopeful the technology problems that caused the successive test-intercept failures in 2010  had been fixed. However, an unsuccessful July intercept attempt raised new problems with the Ground Based Interceptor when the CE-1 kill vehicle failed to separate from the missile's third-stage rocket booster.

North Korea's progress in developing long-range missiles -- and, to a lesser degree, Iran's such progress -- have made improving U.S. homeland missile defenses a major national security focus for the Republican Party, which is pushing for the creation of a third interceptor site somewhere on the East Coast. Currently there are two interceptor sites -- one in California and another in Alaska -- that field a total of 30 Ground Based Interceptor missiles. The Pentagon is planning on deploying an additional 14 interceptors in 2017 in Alaska, as a response to North Korea's nuclear and missile progress.

Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon testing director, in his fiscal 2013 report advised the department to "consider whether to redesign the EKV using a rigorous systems engineering process to assure its design is robust against failure."

MDA spokesman Richard Lehner in a Wednesday email said he had no information to share about whether the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle would be retooled.

"After the December 2010 GMD flight test failure, the Missile Defense Agency made corrections to the EKV to address the failure mechanism seen in the intercept test failure," Lehner wrote. "The EKV's performance was proven in the January 2013 non-intercept flight test in which the interceptor completed a stressing flight profile without experiencing the issues seen in the 2010 test failure."

However, the test czar's report concluded that "the performance of GMD during flight tests in [fiscal 2013] prevented any improvement in the assessment of GMD capability."

The Pentagon testing and evaluation office in its fiscal 2012 report concluded that problems with the EKV technology were preventing the United States from moving beyond anything but a limited capability to destroy a few incoming ballistic missiles. All intercept trials to date have involved only one target, whereas an actual ballistic-missile attack on the United States might well involve more than one incoming missile.

"It has taken [the Defense test director] a long time to reach the conclusion that the GMD kill vehicles may be too flawed to save," Kingston Reif of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation said in an email. "It is not clear whether Missile Defense Agency Director [Vice] Adm. [James] Syring -- or more importantly Secretary of Defense [Chuck] Hagel -- share this conclusion."

This article was published in Global Security Newswire, which is produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

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