By Wade Boese
The Pentagon may accelerate testing plans for a Navy theater missile defense system that scored its second straight hit of a ballistic missile target in a June 13 test.
In the test of the sea-based midcourse system, which is designed to destroy short- and medium-range ballistic missiles as they travel through space, a Navy ship launched a Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) at an Aries ballistic missile target. The SM-3’s warhead, a kill vehicle that seeks out the target on its own, collided with and destroyed the Aries missile at an altitude of about 160 kilometers.
A spokesperson for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) described the latest test as “identical” to the preceding one, carried out in January. Prior to that test, the Pentagon had described it as “not operationally representative” and predicted that an intercept was “probable” because the SM-3 would be “aimed directly at the target.”
The June test marked the fifth of nine planned in the current developmental testing series, but the Pentagon is thinking about dropping the final four and starting a new, more difficult round of testing because the series’ objective of two intercepts has now technically been achieved. MDA Director Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish is expected to decide in the next few months on whether to move ahead with tougher testing or to finish up the current series.
Regardless of the general’s decision, the next test is expected to occur in November.
A new round of flight testing might include target warheads that separate from their booster rockets. The current Aries target remains in one piece and presents a much larger target than what the sea-based system is expected to encounter in a real-world scenario.
No plans exist for testing the naval system against strategic targets. Kadish estimated last summer that the system might first attempt such an intercept in 2007 or 2008, but that test could happen sooner if he speeds up the program’s testing.
MDA is planning to check whether the sea-based midcourse system’s ship-based radar can track a strategic target in an upcoming August test of the ground-based midcourse missile defense system. The ship-based radar will observe the test but is not expected to provide information to assist the interceptor.
The August event will mark the first time that the Pentagon will test if a ship-based radar can track a long-range ballistic missile because the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, from which the United States withdrew on June 13, prohibited such activity.
Two Pentagon reports within the past three years, however, concluded that the ship-based radar is not capable of supporting a strategic missile defense engagement. Both reports—one conducted by the Pentagon’s office of operational test and evaluation and one by MDA’s predecessor, the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization—asserted the radar’s detection and tracking abilities are too limited for effective use against long-range ballistic missiles.
At a June 25 Pentagon briefing, Kadish said that upgrading the sea-based system to handle strategic targets would “require more work and potentially new hardware.” Philip Coyle, who used to head the Pentagon’s office of operational test and evaluation, says that the Pentagon would need a missile twice as fast as the SM-3 to achieve sea-based intercepts of strategic targets.
While Kadish declared the Pentagon was working hard to field systems as soon as possible, he also underscored that there were limits to what could be accomplished. “You don’t try to make a Cadillac when [you] basically have the knowledge for a Model T,” explained the general.