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Pentagon to Redesign Missile ‘Kill Vehicle’

by Brendan McGarry on March 6, 2014

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The Pentagon’s proposed budget for fiscal 2015 would provide funding to redesign a key part of the nation’s missile-defense program.

The Defense Department’s spending plan released on March 4 requests more than $1 billion for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) System made by Chicago-based Boeing Co.

The system maintains a fleet of 30 rocket-like interceptors in underground silos at the Army’s Fort Greely, Alaska, and the Air Force’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., to knock down incoming threats such as nuclear missiles.

The research and development funding would be used to expand the fleet of interceptors to 44, including 40 at Greely and four at Vandenberg, and to redevelop the so-called kill vehicle that sits atop the interceptor and destroys a projectile on impact, among other initiatives, according to the budget overview.

Specifically, the Pentagon recommended “redesign of the GMD exo-atmospheric kill vehicle for improved reliability, availability, performance, and productivity,” the document states.

An interceptor launched from Vandenberg last year missed its target, becoming the latest in a series of failed tests of the system. Afterward, some lawmakers criticized the military’s plans to increase the number of interceptors despite problems with the technology.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, at the time cited among his concerns the system’s record of hitting targets in only 8 of 15 attempts; the high cost of testing, which runs about $215 million per exercise; and the fact that many of the interceptors aren’t operational.

During a conference on the defense budget last week at the Newseum, Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, said the increased funding is designed in part to address the problems.

“We’ve got to fix those,” he said. “We’ve got to get some more reliable systems.”

Kendall said the interceptors have failed in part because they were designed and fielded too quickly, without the proper system engineering. While Chicago-based Boeing is the program’s prime contractor, Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. builds the interceptor and Waltham, Mass.-based Raytheon Co. builds the kill vehicle.

“We’re seeing just a lot of bad engineering, frankly, and it’s because there was a rush, there was a hurry to get something out,” Kendall said. “Just patching the things we already have is probably not going to be adequate.”

The funding includes about $100 million to begin developing a new kill vehicle, according to an article by Andrea Shalal and Phil Stewart of Reuters. In addition to Boeing and Raytheon, Lockheed Martin Corp., based in Bethesda, Md., is also reportedly working on new designs.

Overall, the defense budget would include more than $8 billion for missile-defense programs.

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