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U.S. Deputy Secretary of State
June 2, 2022
Key Missile Defense Test Delayed
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Tom Z. Collina

In the wake of a failed July 5 intercept attempt, the Defense Department has delayed an upcoming missile defense test that will help determine if it can move ahead with plans to field additional long-range interceptor missiles in Alaska by 2017. Originally planned for this fall, the trial launch will not take place until March, according to July 17 testimony from the director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA).

Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, MDA Director Vice Adm. James Syring said that the March 2014 test “must” be completed successfully before the Defense Department carries out its plans to increase the number of ground-based interceptor (GBI) missiles deployed in Alaska and California from 30 to 44 by 2017. That planned increase, announced March 15, was motivated by recent missile and nuclear tests by North Korea. (See ACT, April 2013.)

“We need to know these missiles perform as advertised, through rigorous intercept tests,” Syring said of the 14 new interceptors, which will cost $1 billion.

In July 30 comments to reporters, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who chairs the defense appropriations panel, also emphasized the need for further testing. “Before we go forward on missile defense, we need a successful test, period,” he said. “Before we expand the missile defense layout to include the East Coast, we need a pretty fulsome debate after a successful test,” he said, referring to Republican proposals to field a new missile interceptor site in a northeastern state. (See ACT, July/August 2013.)

Since 1999, according to the MDA, GBI missiles have hit their target in eight out of 16 attempts. This record falls short of other missile defense systems, such as the Aegis system based on ships, which has hit 25 of 31, or the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, which is 10 for 10. All of these tests are conducted in a “controlled, scripted environment,” Syring said.

The additional 14 GBI missiles for Alaska would be armed with a newer version of the system’s exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV), known as the Capability Enhancement-II (CE-II). The CE-II has never had a successful intercept test, having failed twice in 2010. Nonetheless, CE-IIs are already deployed on 10 of the 30 GBI missiles.

The EKV, a key part of the GBI system, is lifted into space by a booster rocket and is designed to use its onboard sensors to locate an incoming enemy warhead and destroy it on impact.

Surprise Failure

The subject of the failed July 5 test was not the CE-II, but the CE-I, which sits atop 20 GBI missiles and had not been flight-tested since 2008. Because it had successfully hit the target in three previous tests, this failure came as a surprise. In the latest test, which cost about $200 million, the CE-I did not separate from the booster’s third stage, Syring testified. The MDA is conducting a review, which is expected to take several months, to confirm the cause of the failure and has not determined when a retest might take place.

James Miller, undersecretary of defense for policy, said at a July 17 Capitol Hill forum that he “would like to see a test of both versions” of the EKV in the next 12 months and that he still expected to reach the goal of 44 deployed GBI missiles by 2017.

An MDA spokesman told Arms Control Today in a July 29 e-mail that the July 5 CE-I test failure was not directly responsible for the postponement of the CE-II test to March. He attributed the delay to the need for more time to fix issues arising from the last failed CE-II test in December 2010. But he said that the MDA wanted to wait for the review of the July 5 test to be completed before conducting any more GBI tests, as the two EKVs use the same rocket booster.

Schedule Pressure

At the July 17 hearing, Durbin said the GBI system had performed poorly because it had been rushed into deployment by the Bush administration in 2004. “There was deployment before development” for the GBI missile, which was not the case for Aegis, Durbin said.

Syring agreed, saying that the “schedule-driven pressure to get interceptors in the ground” led to “the decision to field what were prototypes” with the intent to improve them over time. That, Syring said, led to the development of the CE-II, which was an upgrade to the GBI system that was fielded “very, very quickly.”

According to the MDA, the Pentagon is spending more than $1 billion in remedial efforts to get the CE-II interceptor to work, including the two failed 2010 tests, failure reviews, a nonintercept test in January, and the test planned for March.