Breaking a string of four straight successes, the Pentagon’s ground-based midcourse missile defense (GMD) system failed to intercept its target December 11 when the missile interceptor malfunctioned shortly after its launch. The system’s record now totals five hits and three misses.
The missile interceptor is comprised of two key components—a booster and an exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) designed to seek out a target in space and maneuver into its path for a shattering collision. About 150 seconds after the interceptor is launched, the EKV is supposed to separate from the booster, but the two stuck together in the latest test, foiling the intercept attempt. The same problem also caused a July 2000 test failure. (See ACT, July/August 2000.)
A spokesperson for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which manages U.S. missile defense programs, said the test failure would not affect or alter plans for the system since the Pentagon already intended to devote the coming year’s missile defense efforts to developing a new booster for the interceptor. MDA Director Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish said last October that 2003 would be “the year of the booster.”
Work on the new booster is more than two years behind schedule. “I don’t like where we are in terms of being developed with the boosters,” Kadish admitted December 17.
Pentagon plans during the Clinton administration called for the new booster, which will accelerate much faster than the surrogate booster currently used in testing, to be ready for intercept testing by early 2001, but that is not expected to happen until late 2003 at the earliest.
The Pentagon will not conduct another intercept test until the new booster is ready. The MDA spokesperson explained that the testing program has reached a point where there would be a limited utility in carrying out any additional intercept tests with the surrogate booster.
Two companies, Orbital Sciences Corp. and Lockheed Martin, are developing competing versions of the new booster. Both companies are expected to conduct flight tests, in which no targets are involved, of their proposed boosters early this summer. MDA will then select one or both for use in future intercept testing.
Despite the test failure and the delay in developing the booster, the GMD system is a central element of the Pentagon’s planned 2004 and 2005 missile defense deployment announced December 17. (See ACT, January/February 2003.) Sixteen interceptors are to be fielded at Fort Greely, Alaska, and four more at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
MDA estimates that another five to seven intercept tests could be conducted by the end of 2004.
The December 11 test marked the first time that the Pentagon launched the interceptor at night. During the Clinton administration, the Pentagon’s Office of Operational Test and Evaluation advocated testing at night because the target is heated less by the sun, possibly making it more difficult for the EKV, which relies in part on infrared sensors, to seek out the mock warhead. Because of the EKV’s failure to separate from the booster in this test, however, the Pentagon was unable to determine how well the EKV would work at night.
Also for the first time, the Pentagon sought to track the target missile with radars from two theater missile defense systems under development, the Airborne Laser (ABL) and Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). The ABL aircraft, which is not yet fitted with a laser, was flying near San Francisco, while the THAAD radar was located at Vandenberg, where the Pentagon launched the target missile. The MDA spokesperson said both radars performed well, obtaining data as planned.