Missile Defense Test a ‘Success’: Pentagon

Tom Z. Collina

In the most ambitious test to date of the Obama administration’s planned missile interceptor system for Europe, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) announced last month that it had conducted a “successful” intercept test of the Phased Adaptive Approach system. The trial essentially clears the way for the first phase of the system to be deployed this year, pending selection of a host country for the forward-based radar in southeastern Europe.

The test, which used the Aegis ship-based defense system and Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IA missile, was the first in which an intermediate-range missile was the target, as well as first to rely on remote tracking data, the MDA said in an April 15 press release. Previous tests of the system had primarily used the ship-based radar to track the target. In this test, the target missile was tracked by a radar based hundreds of miles away. The use of a forward-based radar to track a target greatly increases the area that can be defended by an Aegis ship, the MDA said.

According to the MDA, the test involved an intermediate-range (3,000–5,500 kilometers) target missile launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 3,700 kilometers southwest of Hawaii, which was tracked by an AN/TPY-2 X-band mobile radar on Wake Island. The radar sent target missile trajectory information to the command, control, battle management, and communications system, which transmitted remote target data to the Aegis destroyer USS O’Kane, located west of Hawaii.

The destroyer’s on-board AN/SPY-1 radar eventually detected the target missile and sent tracking information to the SM-3 IA interceptor, which was launched approximately 11 minutes after the target, the MDA said. The SM-3 maneuvered to a designated point in space and released its kinetic “hit-to-kill” warhead, which destroyed the target missile, the MDA said.

The first phase of the European system will involve Aegis-capable ships in the Mediterranean Sea armed with SM-3 IA interceptors to be guided by an AN/TPY-2 radar based in southeastern Europe. The first ship, the USS Monterey, was deployed in March (see ACT, April 2011), but the host country for the radar—initially planned to be Turkey—has not been announced. Turkish officials are concerned that the radar could complicate their relationship with Iran, which is the presumed target of the European systems. “In any political process, when we are weighing up options, we certainly take account of our relationship with Iran,” Turkish Ambassador to Iran Umit Yardim said, according to the April 26 Tehran Times.

After host-country details are worked out, the radar itself could be on-site in a matter of weeks, according to a U.S. Senate staffer.

With the success of the April 15 test, those details are likely to determine whether the European system’s first phase can be completed this year as planned. Subsequent phases, involving additional deployment sites and more-advanced interceptors and sensors, are planned for 2015, 2018, and 2020.

Concerns About Testing

This aggressive deployment schedule raises concerns that the system will not be adequately tested, according to April 13 Senate testimony by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). The 2015 phase, for example, calls for land-based interceptors, called Aegis Ashore, to be deployed in Romania and is dependent on next-generation versions of Aegis systems and the new SM-3 IB interceptor, all of which are currently under development. According to the GAO, the MDA plans to make production decisions for the Aegis Ashore interceptors to be deployed in Romania before conducting ground and flight tests. The GAO concluded that the MDA’s plans amount to “a highly concurrent effort with significant cost, schedule and performance risk.”

A Senate Democratic staffer countered that the SM-3 IB is essentially the same missile as the IA; the main difference is the new kill vehicle, a nonexplosive guided warhead. Although the new kill vehicle has been having problems with keeping out moisture (a challenge for sea-based systems), they should be resolved before 2015, the staffer said. Moreover, the Aegis Ashore components are essentially the same as those now on Aegis ships, which the Navy knows how to build and deploy, he said. The SM-3 IB is scheduled to have its first intercept test late this summer, and the MDA is building a test version of Aegis Ashore in Hawaii.

The GAO said it has similar concerns with the MDA’s Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, based in California and Alaska and intended to counter a limited North Korean or Iranian missile attack against the United States. The GAO testified that, in the MDA’s rush to meet President George W. Bush’s directive to field an initial national missile defense capability by 2004, assets were built and deployed before developmental testing was complete. As a result, GMD intercept tests conducted to date already have led “to major hardware or software changes to the interceptors—not all of which have been verified through flight testing,” the GAO said. As an example, the GAO cited a new version of the interceptor’s exoatmospheric kill vehicle, or EKV, called the Capability Enhancement II, which already has been delivered and fielded even though the last two GMD flight tests, which were the only ones to use this new EKV, failed to intercept their targets.

Deliveries of the new EKV, made by Tucson-based Raytheon Missile Systems, were halted after the kill vehicle failed to hit its mark in a Dec. 15 flight test, MDA spokesman Rick Lehner said April 5. Future deliveries depend on the results of a “failure review,” Lehner said, and the MDA is likely weeks or months away from releasing a final report. The December test failure followed a failed intercept in January 2010 that was blamed on the EKV and sensors. The next test is planned for late 2012.

In all, the GMD system has been successful in only eight of 15 intercept attempts since 1999, the MDA says. MDA Director Patrick O’Reilly testified to the House Armed Services Committee March 31 that he considers the 30 deployed GMD interceptors essentially to be prototypes.

Seeking to distance itself from the Bush administration’s controversial development strategy that led to GMD deployment before testing was complete, the Obama administration has stated that new capabilities “must undergo testing that enables assessment under realistic operational conditions” before they are deployed, according to the April 13 Senate Armed Services Committee testimony of Brad Roberts, the Defense Department’s deputy assistant secretary for missile defense policy. This commitment, said Roberts, “reflected our assessment that it is no longer necessary to pursue a high-risk acquisition strategy that simultaneously develops and deploys new systems.” Nevertheless, J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of operational testing, testified April 13 that the current test program was “success-oriented”—meaning it does not allow time for repeat tests in case of failure—and that “the ability to conduct comprehensive quantitative assessments” of U.S. ballistic missile defense system capability “remains a number of years away.”

Missile defense skeptics argue that the MDA should adhere to the principle of “fly before you buy” and that MDA should test both the U.S.-based and European systems against more realistic threats. They say that the United States has to expect that adversaries, such as Iran and North Korea, will respond to U.S. missile defenses by adding countermeasures—which are simple means, such as balloon decoys—to defeat the interceptors. They note that the U.S. intelligence community concluded a decade ago that any country capable of fielding long-range ballistic missiles can develop effective countermeasures. Both the U.S. and European systems are designed to intercept targets in space, where countermeasures can be particularly effective at fooling the defense.

The April 15 test of the phased approach did not include countermeasures, and the MDA has given no indication if such tests will take place.