U.S. Ends Losing Streak with Successful Missile Intercept Test

A Ground Based Interceptor is launched on Sunday from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The interceptor successfully neutralized an intermediate-range ballistic missile target over the Pacific Ocean, the Pentagon said.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
June 23, 2014, 7:55 a.m.

The United States on Sunday in­ter­cep­ted a tar­get bal­list­ic mis­sile, end­ing a long los­ing streak of failed tests of its home­land an­ti­mis­sile sys­tem.

The test of the Ground-based Mid­course De­fense sys­tem took place Sunday over the Pa­cific and in­volved a stra­tegic Ground Based In­ter­cept­or fired from Vanden­berg Air Force Base, Cal­if., and an in­ter­me­di­ate-range mis­sile tar­get launched from the Re­agan Test Site in the Mar­shall Is­lands.

Con­sid­er­able polit­ic­al at­ten­tion has been fo­cused on the out­come of the test, giv­en that the three most re­cent in­ter­cept at­tempts all ended in fail­ure. Be­fore Sunday’s test, the last time a Ground Based In­ter­cept­or suc­cess­fully elim­in­ated a tar­get mis­sile was late 2008. Ad­di­tion­ally, Sunday’s event marked the first time that a second-gen­er­a­tion kin­et­ic kill vehicle moun­ted atop a GBI mis­sile per­formed cor­rectly. Both pre­vi­ous mis­sile in­ter­cept at­tempts us­ing the “CE-2” Exoat­mo­spher­ic Kill Vehicle were un­suc­cess­ful.

“I am very proud of the gov­ern­ment and in­dustry team con­duct­ing the test today,” Navy Vice Adm. James Syr­ing, head of the Pentagon’s Mis­sile De­fense Agency, said in a press re­lease. “This is a very im­port­ant step in our con­tinu­ing ef­forts to im­prove and in­crease the re­li­ab­il­ity of our home­land bal­list­ic mis­sile de­fense sys­tem.”

Syr­ing said the agency would con­tin­ue with its plans to de­ploy ad­di­tion­al Ground Based In­ter­cept­ors. The De­fense De­part­ment last year an­nounced plans to spend $1 bil­lion to field 14 more GBI mis­siles at Fort Greely in Alaska by 2017, but seni­or of­fi­cials have been cir­cum­spect in their re­cent state­ments about what would hap­pen to those plans if Sunday’s test had been un­suc­cess­ful.

The Mis­sile De­fense Agency said “ini­tial in­dic­a­tions” show that all com­pon­ents in the test — in­clud­ing the in­ter­cept­or, kill vehicle, an AN/SPY-1 radar on­board the USS Hop­per and a sea-based X-band radar sys­tem — per­formed as in­ten­ded. Over the next few months, pro­gram spe­cial­ists will use tele­met­ric in­form­a­tion and oth­er data col­lec­ted dur­ing the test to con­duct a more thor­ough ana­lys­is.

Re­ac­tions to the test were var­ied, with long­time pro­ponents of mis­sile de­fenses say­ing it val­id­ated the Ground-based Mid­course De­fense sys­tem.

U.S. Rep­res­ent­at­ive Mike Ro­gers (R-Ala.), chair of the House Armed Ser­vices Stra­tegic Forces Sub­com­mit­tee, in an emailed state­ment called the test “a crit­ic­al suc­cess to re­build[ing] the re­li­ab­il­ity of the only sys­tem cur­rently de­ployed to de­fend our coun­try from the threat of bal­list­ic mis­sile at­tack.”

“Yes­ter­day’s suc­cess­ful mis­sile in­ter­cept test is great news for our na­tion’s se­cur­ity,” said U.S. Sen­at­or Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) in a state­ment to Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire. “Ground-based Mid­course De­fense is crit­ic­al to our ef­forts to pro­tect the U.S. and our al­lies from rogue and un­pre­dict­able na­tions who seek to do us harm.”

Mean­while, pro­gram skep­tics ar­gued that one suc­cess­ful test did not fully as­suage con­cerns about the re­li­ab­il­ity and ef­fic­acy of the an­ti­mis­sile tech­no­logy.

“I think it means less than it ap­pears. This kill vehicle is only one hit for three at­tempts and that’s not enough to base a bil­lion-dol­lar de­cision to move ahead with ex­pan­sion,” said Tom Col­lina, re­search dir­ect­or at the Arms Con­trol As­so­ci­ation, in a Monday phone in­ter­view. “They need to do more test­ing to de­term­ine re­li­ab­il­ity” and move for­ward with plans to re­design the kill vehicle, he said.

The Mis­sile De­fense Ad­vocacy Al­li­ance in a press re­lease as­ser­ted that the suc­cess­ful test “re­duces the amount of in­ter­cept­ors re­quired to be fired at an in­com­ing long-range bal­list­ic mis­sile, thereby in­creas­ing the cap­ab­il­ity of the lim­ited num­ber of 30 in­ter­cept­ors and re­du­cing the cost of en­gage­ment.”

However, Philip Coyle, a former chief Pentagon weapons test­er and now a seni­or sci­ence fel­low at the Cen­ter for Arms Con­trol and Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion, poin­ted out that the Ground Based In­ter­cept­or has nev­er been tested against an in­ter­con­tin­ent­al bal­list­ic mis­sile tar­get even though the sys­tem is prin­cip­ally fo­cused on de­feat­ing a lim­ited-range ICBM at­tack.

“In ad­di­tion, giv­en the dif­fi­culties MDA has had with con­fig­ur­a­tion con­trol, and the changes it has made and is plan­ning to make to the [CE-2] kill vehicle, it is far from clear that the per­form­ance of the kill vehicle in [Sunday’s] test will be rep­res­ent­at­ive of oth­er con­fig­ur­a­tions already de­ployed and planned for de­ploy­ment in silos at Fort Greely,” he said in an emailed state­ment.

Of the 30 in­ter­cept­ors cur­rently fielded at bases in Alaska and Cali­for­nia, 10 mis­siles are equipped with the second-gen­er­a­tion kill vehicle. The 14 new in­ter­cept­ors slot­ted for de­ploy­ment in Alaska are to be out­fit­ted with the CE-2 ver­sion.

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