The problem-plagued missile defense system designed to protect the United States from potential attacks from North Korea and Iran successfully intercepted a target missile last month, clearing the way for the Obama administration to move ahead with its plans to expand the system.
In the June 22 test, a ground-based interceptor (GBI) missile launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California collided with an intermediate-range ballistic missile target launched from the Army’s Kwajalein Test Site in the Marshall Islands, according to a Missile Defense Agency (MDA) press release.
This was the first successful intercept test since 2008 and the first using the Capability Enhancement-II (CE-II) kill vehicle, which sits atop the booster rocket and is intended to collide with a target in outer space.
The CE-II failed its two previous tests in 2010, after which the MDA told the manufacturer, Raytheon, to stop delivery. By that time, 10 CE-II kill vehicles were already deployed, along with 20 copies of the CE-I, an older kill vehicle, at Fort Greely in Alaska and at Vandenberg. The CE-I also failed its most recent test in July 2013.
Efforts to correct these problems and retrofit the fielded interceptors will cost more than $1.3 billion, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in April. Each intercept test costs about $200 million.
Acknowledging the system’s past problems, Navy Vice Adm. James D. Syring, director of the MDA, said in the June 22 press release that the test that day was “a very important step in our continuing efforts to improve and increase the reliability of our homeland ballistic missile defense system.”
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, said in a June 24 e-mail to Arms Control Today that the test was “a critical success to rebuild the reliability of the only system currently deployed to defend our country from the threat of ballistic missile attack.”
Obama to Expand System
The Obama administration announced in March 2013 that, after a successful CE-II test, it would expand the number of interceptors from 30 to 44 by the end of 2017 in response to previous North Korean missile and nuclear tests. Buying 14 additional GBI missiles, each of which costs about $75 million, would cost more than $1 billion. (See ACT, April 2013.)
MDA spokesman Richard Lehner said in a June 24 e-mail to Arms Control Today that “there has been no change to this plan” to field the additional GBI missiles.
The June test “certainly paves the way,” Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale told Reuters on June 24. “If we had had continued failures, we would have had to rethink. But I think our plan now remains to buy the original 14 interceptors.”
But Hale said the MDA needed to conduct more tests before U.S. officials could have full confidence in the system. “It’s got to work several times. We’ve got to demonstrate it under various conditions before we’d have…full confidence in the system,” Hale said. “That is the ultimate accountability.”
‘Good Money After Bad’
Some observers have urged the Obama administration to halt plans to field 14 more interceptors to allow for additional tests.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said she does not see the justification for expanding the GBI system, according to a June 22 report in the Los Angeles Times.
“They don’t work right now,” Sanchez said, referring to the 30 fielded interceptors. “I would prefer to put something out that works.”
Philip Coyle, former director of weapons testing for the Defense Department, noted in a June 23 interview that the GBI system overall has one success in four tries since 2008. The CE-II kill vehicle has one success in three attempts.
“The idea of deploying 14 more of the existing flawed interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska as proposed by the Obama administration would be throwing good money after bad,” Coyle said. “We need to make sure we have a system that works, not expand a system we know to be deeply flawed.”
Rather than deploying additional copies of the current kill vehicle by 2017, Coyle said the administration should redesign the kill vehicle to make it more reliable and effective. The MDA plans to make major changes to the kill vehicle, but not until 2020 or later.
There have been serious concerns about the missile interceptor system since it was hustled into service by the Bush administration in 2004. At a June 11 Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said that the “design, engineering, and reliability problems…were largely caused by the rush to field this system without properly testing [it]. We are now paying dearly for some of those decisions.”
“We recognize the problems we have had with all the currently fielded interceptors,” Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, said in February. “The root cause was a desire to field these things very quickly and really cheaply.”
In response to these concerns, the MDA announced in March that it would make significant changes to the kill vehicle and plans to spend $740 million over the next five years to do so.
Syring testified at the June 11 hearing that the new kill vehicle will be “more producible, testable, reliable, and cost effective and eventually will replace the [kill vehicle] on our current GBI fleet.” The new kill vehicle could be fielded around 2020, Syring said.
However, the MDA does not plan to wait for the redesigned kill vehicle to expand the system, according to congressional staffers, and intends to use the modified CE-II on the 14 additional GBI missiles to be fielded by 2017.
Despite the administration’s plans to resume production, the CE-II is still in development. Cristina Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the GAO, said at a June 4 Brookings Institution event that “[t]here’s a whole series of tests to fully prove out the [CE-II] capability that go into the early 2020s as planned. So, we’re still just in the early stages of proving this thing out.”