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.
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Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
Jan. 29, 2014, 9:25 a.m.

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.”

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