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Big Test Coming for Missile Defense System

by Brendan McGarry on June 12, 2014

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The Pentagon’s next big test of its multi-billion-dollar homeland missile defense system is slightly more than a week away, according to a news report.

The Missile Defense Agency plans to conduct the next test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System on June 22, according to an article by Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg News.

One of the Boeing Co.-made interceptors will be launched from an underground silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in an attempt to strike a dummy missile fired from a Pacific range, according to the article. The exercise is designed to gauge whether the system is capable of knocking out an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile.

The agency’s director, Navy Vice Admiral James Syring, described it as the agency’s “highest near-term priority,” during a hearing Wednesday before members of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, headed by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois.

An interceptor launched from the same site last July missed its target, the latest in a series of failures dating to 2008. Lawmakers, including Durbin, have criticized the military’s plans to increase the number of interceptors despite lingering problems with the technology.

Durbin has cited among his concerns the system’s mixed 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.

Syring touched on last year’s test failure during the hearing: The exoatmospheric kill vehicle, or EKV, which sits atop the interceptor and destroys a projectile on impact, “did not intercept the target because the kill vehicle on the GBI did not separate from the booster’s third stage,” he said in prepared remarks.

“The failure investigation is progressing toward a root cause,” he added. “Once the investigation is concluded, we will take steps to make any fixes to the fleet that need to be made.”

The Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, Frank Kendall, has blamed the failures in part on a rush to design and field the interceptors without proper testing and 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.

Durbin made the same point on Wednesday: “These are design, engineering and reliability problems that were largely caused by the rush to field this system without properly testing it first. We are now paying dearly for that decision.”

This time around, the warhead will carry “a redesigned inertial navigation unit and software upgrades,” according to the Bloomberg article.

The Pentagon’s budget request for fiscal 2015, beginning Oct. 1, includes more than $1 billion for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System, 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, California.

The funding would be used to expand the fleet of interceptors to 44, including 40 at Greely and four at Vandenberg, and redevelop the so-called kill vehicle, among other initiatives, according to budget documents. Some $100 million of the funding would go toward a “redesign of the GMD exo-atmospheric kill vehicle for improved reliability, availability, performance, and productivity.”

The system, which successfully tested a three-stage interceptor in January (see photo above),  is part of the larger Ballistic Missile Defense System estimated to cost almost $140 billion and the Pentagon’s second-most expensive acquisition program behind the F-35 fighter jet.

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