Booster for Missile Interceptor A Disappointment, Priority

December 2002

By Wade Boese

On October 31, the Pentagon official overseeing U.S. missile defense programs declared that work next year would be focused on developing and testing a booster for intercepting strategic ballistic missiles, an effort he described as disappointing to date.

Providing a survey of missile defense activities to reporters, Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), said, “One of my greatest disappointments has been not being able to produce a booster” for the Pentagon’s ground-based midcourse missile defense (GMD) system. But Kadish expressed confidence that fortunes were about to change, claiming 2003 “will be the year of the booster for GMD.”

The booster is more than two years behind schedule. Previous Pentagon plans envisioned using the booster for intercept testing in the first few months of 2001, but such testing is now projected to begin in late 2003 at the earliest.

In seven GMD intercept tests to date, five of which have resulted in hits, a surrogate two-stage booster has been used. The booster Kadish wants completed is to have three stages and will accelerate much faster than the surrogate booster.

An independent missile defense review headed by retired Air Force General Larry Welch in November 1999 warned that the more powerful booster might put too much stress on the interceptor’s exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV), which separates from the booster in space to seek out and collide with an intended target. “We are not certain that the EKV will be able to withstand these [greater shock] loads,” the report stated.

The Pentagon believed developing the three-stage booster would be relatively easy because it was mostly a matter of coupling existing rocket technology, but the project has proved more troublesome than expected. Kadish noted October 31 that the booster “has now turned out to be one of our higher risk items.” Although Kadish said the chief danger was that the booster problems would delay the GMD schedule—not that the booster technology would prove infeasible—an MDA spokesperson said that putting the existing technology together had been “difficult.”

Three flight tests of the more powerful booster, in which there would be no target or intercept attempt, were supposed to have occurred between February and July 2000. The first did not happen, however, until August 2001, and the second failed shortly after launch in December 2001.

Following the December failure, Boeing, the lead contractor on the GMD program and the company building the booster, awarded a contract to another company, Orbital Sciences Corp., to develop an alternative booster. Boeing subsequently allowed Lockheed Martin to assume work on the Boeing booster.

The companies are expected to have their separate boosters ready for flight tests before next summer, after which MDA is to select one for future intercept testing. Kadish said he is “very confident” about finding a booster that works since there are two options.

The next GMD intercept test, which might occur before the end of the year, is scheduled to be the last one employing the surrogate booster. After that test, GMD intercept testing will be put on hold while the new booster is developed and selected.

The Pentagon wants to deploy five interceptors in Alaska by September 2004. Ostensibly for testing purposes, Pentagon officials maintain the interceptors also could be used to defend against an unexpected, small-scale ballistic missile attack.