Missile Defense Tester Calls for Redesign

Tom Z. Collina

The Defense Department’s chief weapons tester called in January for the redesign of a key component of the U.S. system intended to intercept long-range missiles launched from North Korea or Iran, raising questions about the department’s plans to expand the current system.

J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation, wrote in his annual report, released Jan. 29, that recent test failures of the U.S. ground-based interceptor (GBI) system raise concerns about the system’s reliability and suggested that the missile’s exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) be redesigned to assure it is “robust against failure.”

Echoing Gilmore’s view, Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, told a Feb. 25 conference in Washington, “We’ve got to get to more reliable [missile defense] systems.” Merely “patching the things we’ve got is probably not going to be adequate. So we’re going to have to go beyond that,” he said.

The EKV plays a central role in the missile defense mission. It is lifted into space by a booster rocket and then uses its onboard sensors to locate an incoming enemy warhead and destroy it on impact. U.S. officials have compared the task to hitting a bullet with another bullet.

The currently deployed EKVs, built by Raytheon, have missed in their last three tests. One model, called the CE-II, failed its only two tests, both in 2010. An older model, the CE-I, failed last summer. Nonetheless, these same EKVs are now operationally deployed on 30 GBI missiles in Alaska and California, and the Pentagon announced last March that it would add 14 more missiles armed with the CE-II by 2017, if the next test, planned for this summer, is successful. (See ACT, April 2013.)

Deployment Decision

Based on Gilmore’s report, some are now calling on the Pentagon to delay expansion of the system until the new technology is ready. “Not another dime should be spent on more bad GBIs at Fort Greely [in Alaska] or anywhere else. Instead, a new GBI/EKV must be designed, built, and successfully tested to replace the old design,” former Pentagon testing director Philip Coyle said in a Feb. 11 e-mail to Arms Control Today.

Although redesigning the system would likely take five years or more and delay the Pentagon’s plan to field more GBI missiles by 2017, missile defense supporters are reportedly worried that lawmakers might resist paying $1 billion to field interceptors with the troubled EKV on board.

Richard Lehner, a spokesman for the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) said in a Feb. 11 e-mail to Arms Control Today that “the 14 additional interceptors will have the second-generation [CE-II] kill vehicle. At this point in time I know of no changes to this plan.”

According to congressional staffers, it is no secret that the GBI EKV needs to be redesigned and that the MDA and Congress support that goal. They said that Congress fully funded the administration’s $70 million request for the Common Kill Vehicle program in the omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 2014. The aim of that program is to build a common EKV for the missiles in the GBI system and the more successful Standard Missile-3 (SM-3), built by Lockheed Martin and now deployed on Navy ships equipped with the Aegis missile defense radar system. According to the MDA, the Common Kill Vehicle program is a continuation of the effort to develop an EKV for the SM-3 IIB, which was canceled last March and was meant to have some capability against long-range missiles.

In November, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon each received a contract from the MDA to develop designs for a common EKV. Development of a new EKV will cost $560 million over the next five years, part of a $4.5 billion increase that is expected for missile defense funding over that period, Reuters reported Feb. 7.

The congressional staffers said that there is bipartisan agreement that the Alaska expansion should go forward with the CE-II if the next test is successful. As one staffer said, “You can only field what you have in hand” even if there are plans to make it better in the future.

Eastern Sites Announced

Meanwhile, the Defense Department announced Jan. 31 that it would conduct environmental impact studies for four possible missile defense sites in the eastern United States, as directed by Congress, but that no decision has been made to construct a new site.

The four sites are Fort Drum in New York, SERE Training Area at Naval Air Station Portsmouth in Maine, Camp Ravenna Joint Training Center in Ohio, and Fort Custer Training Center in Michigan. A site in Vermont was dropped from the original list released in September. (See ACT, October 2013.) The Pentagon said it would take about 24 months to complete the review process.