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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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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Joe Boyum June 12, 2014 at 11:46 am

This is a much needed capability. Get it in place then retire land based ICBM's. Develop a weapons package for the X-37, rods from god, then man it with military pilots. Give global strike command a proper mission and capability.

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rtsy June 12, 2014 at 11:51 am

And violate a bunch of international treaties in the process…

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Atomic Walrus June 12, 2014 at 12:52 pm

Which treaties? The Outer Space Treaty bans nuclear weapons in orbit, not weapons. The ABM treaty is defunct.

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rtsy June 12, 2014 at 1:56 pm

The outer space treaty bans all weapons of mass destruction being deployed in orbit or on a celestial body.

A 9 ton tungsten rod dropping from orbit carries enough kinetic energy to be equivalent to small nuke and could destroy a small city.

Theres also issues of how to target such a weapon with any accuracy, and still contested issues of weather passing over a country while in orbit qualifies as a violation of airspace.

In short, how would you feel if the Russians or Chinese put a weapon like that in orbit?

You'd probably call it a weapon of mass destruction or at least a first strike weapon.

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I had to ask June 12, 2014 at 2:55 pm

then how can we trust the assurance of such treaties with the countries you mentioned.

Thomas L. Nielsen June 13, 2014 at 2:10 am

"A 9 ton tungsten rod dropping from orbit carries enough kinetic energy to be equivalent to small nuke and could destroy a small city."

A very small nuke, and a very small city.

The predicted impact speed that I've seen referenced for the Thor kinetic bombardment projectiles was approx. Mach 10, or around 3 400 m/s. 9 tons impacting at this speed gives you 12,4 tons (0,0124 kT) of TNT equivalent.

Regards & all,

Thomas L. Nielsen
Luxembourg

Pete June 12, 2014 at 12:12 pm

The minute you violate the treaty other can do it too. Good point.

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ssgtnelson June 17, 2014 at 10:02 pm

The OST of 1967 only limits WMDs. And China has already field tested several space weapon systems.

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dogfighter June 12, 2014 at 12:15 pm

hell yeah! frig the treaties, make china tremble!!!

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Dr. Horrible June 12, 2014 at 4:15 pm

Poe's law?

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OriginalK June 14, 2014 at 2:02 am

This forum is the only defense forum I've seen where a large percentage of the posts conform to Poe's law.

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hibeam June 12, 2014 at 12:28 pm

Well, we didn't do a damn thing while the mangy varmints went an built themselves up some six shooters. Now the sheriff is busy practicing shooting bullets out of the air.

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TonyC. June 12, 2014 at 2:21 pm

The mid-course interception of the reentry vehicles is the most difficult task for missile defense. They are most vulnerable in the boost phase, but that would require interception over the enemy territory. The terminal phase interception is more predictable, but too close to the target for comfort. These interceptors are the best chance to kill the ICBM at the greatest distance we have. There are too few of them for any of them to fail to intercept the target. This system has proven to need serious work to get it reliable.

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hibeam June 12, 2014 at 3:01 pm

Why do we need a missile defense system? Why don't we simply announce that we will never allow North Korea to launch an ICBM in our direction? EVER! And this time we mean it.

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Rob June 13, 2014 at 12:51 am

I surely hope the Pentagon has a team that evaluates our defense from a China/Russia perspective. I believe it is more then being able to intercept a missile long range. Short range launch's are the biggest threat. Concepts of diverting and or disabling the warhead are needed. 20 mile sea borders to international waters when much of our population is on coastlines.

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anthony June 13, 2014 at 6:21 am

Aim them at Irak since its falling back in hands of taliban. You should start firing them now before it escalates again .Or do we send troops back again??

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anthony June 13, 2014 at 6:24 am

Isnt the present missile system on guard any more? The more we send our troops across the seas the less accuratewe can use the ICBMs.

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Sev June 13, 2014 at 11:17 am

Space is another battlespace and its weaponization is inevitable. What makes space so special? Human nature doesn't stop on Earth, it continues into space. You expect that no nation will weaponize space eventually (stealthfully or declared). Wel you're dead wrong!

I have enough confidence in the decency of the people of the USA to not use these weapons for tyranny unlike states such as Iran or Russia or CHina, all the totalitarian regimes which hold no regard for basic humanity. They slaughter their own people on whim so I would never trust them to have weapons in space. But the fact is that one of them (certainly CHina) WILL weaponize space. How is it any different from weaponizing the seas or the air or the ground? Weaponizing space gives us the ability to strike anywhere in 90 minutes, basically what we're trying to achieve with hypersonic missiles.

Seriously though, lets play to win here and make sure that if anyone dominates space that it is US and not the totalitarian bad guys in the East,. The US had nuclear dominance for years before russia and in that time we couldd've taken the world ransom for what we wanted. We didn't.

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rtsy June 14, 2014 at 6:53 am

Space is different because the rules there are different. Things like no air, no gravity, and no geography make it more than dangerous enough on its own. Weaponizing space endangers all lives on the planet, not just our enemies.

As an aside, America did pretty much take the world hostage with the threat of nukes. We took over Great Britain's spot as the worlds global empire and set up a number of institutions and rules to keep us on top (The UN, IMF, GATT, NATO) . We got away with it because we had manufacturing, oil, and the threat of destroying anyone who fought back. We've lost two of those since the end of WWII, but at least for now we still have our military.

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John Deere June 17, 2014 at 12:18 am

If we choose to weaponize space, there's nothing to stop others weaponizing space, that is the point. How would you feel about a Chinese nuclear missile battery located in geostationary orbit 35km above your house?

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Mystick June 13, 2014 at 7:53 pm

So you have three different companies building components for this system, each component needing(presumably) to "talk" to the other, all in parallel development, and you wonder why the system as a whole doesn't work? Do what Raytheon does with the Standard and keep everything other one roof… define the requirement, test it, if it works – buy it. None of this "We'll take 10000 of that neat idea your guy came up with. Take my money!"

Seems to me lie we've already made down-payments on these things, without a fieldable weapon.

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majr0d June 13, 2014 at 11:04 pm

I wouldn't go as far as saying the system isn't fieldable. First it's actually in the field and while kill reliability isn't what we'd like we could fire more than one interceptor per enemy missile.

This system isn't designed to counter a major missile strike but the rogue regime firing a couple.

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OriginalK June 14, 2014 at 1:59 am

The fact that Sen. Durbin, D-Illinois has anything to do with the defense of the US against nukes has me shaking in my boots. Durbin has done for defense what Frank and Dodds did for housing.

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Steve Jenkinson June 15, 2014 at 12:20 pm

When Conspiracy Theories and Capslock Goes Wrong, next on FOX.

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Brian B. Mulholland June 16, 2014 at 9:23 pm

Given the pervasively poor engineering to which Kendall and others have referred, I wonder if we might not be better off simply using up the missiles on hand as test subjects and generating data with which to work for a new system, designed from the ground up, without the haste to deploy ("haste to announce to the voters" might be more appropriate) that has led to such poor results with the current system. $215 million per test is expensive, but frankly the system has demonstrated that it's not ready for deployment. The more critical points we identify, the better off we'll be. This is the most demanding form of "rocket science" there is, and there'sa reason why that phrase is a synonym for things that are difficult to achieve.

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papadeltagolf June 19, 2014 at 9:53 pm

If we listen to people like Dick Durbin, we would have never landed on the moon either, or other accomplishments this great country has made.

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Paul Dean June 20, 2014 at 5:36 am

Well, our current strategy for defense seems to be pretty good. If someone bombs us then we turn their country into a sheet of glass. That sort of deterrent is very good, but as an above comment stated our biggest risk isn't from ICBMs. Someone could send us a nuke in a shipping container and we wouldn't have a clue. Someone could launch one from a boat in international waters. The real danger is anonymity in the attack, because we wouldn't know who to retaliate against. That being said, I would think that throwing a baseball at another baseball is always going to be hit-or-miss. We should be developing a high powered laser that could disable or detonate incoming missiles. That could protect against two of the three mentioned threats. I'm not sure if we have the technology to do that yet, but with the amount of money invested into this program, or even a fraction of it, we certainly could have it shortly. I'm not certain on the details of how this system we are working on actually functions, but I'm sure it could be better. We could, for instance, have a type of "cluster-bomb" go off in the path of the incoming projectile. To me, that would seem to be the mostly likely way to be sure of a "hit." But I'm sure that there's a lot I haven't consider/don't have knowledge of so I will leave it to the incredibly smart people in the defense industry. I am, after all, just a 25 year old guy with asperger's. Sadly, it seems to me that I have better ideas on how to handle these threats then many of our "top-scientist." Really, today's scientist is just glorified engineers, but that's beside the point. The point is that we need to consider other options besides this costly and sporadically effective system.

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Lee Jensen June 22, 2014 at 4:14 pm

This is an outrage billions of the taxpayers money going to a American Company for a systems that shown time after time that doesn’t work while they ship much needed jobs overseas! What is there power over our
Politicans?

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anthony June 13, 2014 at 6:27 am

Yes you are correct,politics wont listen no wonder we were in dbt and stay that way testing every newbie missile.Thanks for Info.

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Jacob June 18, 2014 at 2:28 pm

Well,if this happens to be a new type of ODIN (CoD ghosts reference) and something like the federation pops up (the Middle East or china/North Korea) for instance,we are all screwed.

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rtsy June 13, 2014 at 9:09 pm

Diplomatic basics: by not violating them ourselves for starters. And if they do, THEN we bomb the shit out of them.

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Juramentado June 16, 2014 at 9:27 am

"And if they do, THEN we bomb…"

Umm. And if the weapon they use is a sufficient "overwhelming first-strike" capability, what makes you think we'll be intact enough to launch a counterstrike? At the best, we'll have the same weapons and in a MAD moment, have to make a 30-second decision whether we believe the sensors are telling us the "truth" (historically not a good record) or we pick up the hotline and wait to ask "WTH?"

That's the real dilemma folks. Letting ANYONE build a weapon of that quality and DEPLOY it automatically puts the game in MAD. Period.

The real diplomatic basics is to agree that NO ONE deploys the weapons. You can build it, tinker with it, but the moment you put in space or on an operational launcher, all bets are off. In the meantime, try to come to terms with what you and the Other Guy are arguing over.

Building the next great weapon is awesome technically but gives everyone the heebie-jeebies until there is parity. And then the next technological plateau is sought. And we're back to where we started.

This is why the other side is really peeved about Prompt Global Strike and Hyper Kinetic Weapons. Trust is not earned when the other guy is holding an axe over your head.

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Jacob June 18, 2014 at 2:29 pm

Learn to spell please.

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