What Is a Robust National Missile Defense Capability? (May 20, 2015)

In looking back at a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report from last July, I was struck by its statement that, as part of its Ground Based Midcourse (GMD) national missile defense system, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) planned “to deliver a robust defense capability in 2019.”[1]  I hadn’t noticed such a statement before, and it immediately raised two questions: In the context of the GMD system, what does a “robust defense capability” mean?  And what happens in 2019 to mark the “delivery” of this robust capability?  As discussed below, I have been unable to uncover an answer to either question, so if anyone knows the answers, I would be interested in hearing from them.

The GAO Report itself does not answer these questions.  All it says is that in order to reach 44 operationally deployed interceptors by 2017 and to deliver this robust capability by 2019, “many concurrent efforts must be completed including successful testing, restarting CE-II production, and developing and acquiring interceptors with new components.”  However, all of these steps are necessary to achieve the 44 deployed interceptors by 2017 alone.

The word “robust” is often used in discussions of missile defenses, frequently in the context of steps that are said to make defenses “more robust.”  It is much rarer to see the word used to denote a specific capability of a defense system, and in particular when that system is the GMD system.  But I have found two examples, both from 2011.

In March 2011, then MDA Director Lt. General O’Reilly, speaking in the context of both the GMD systems and regional defenses, told Congress that: “Our objective is to a field a robust missile defense by providing at least two intercept opportunities, by two or more different interceptor systems, against every threat missile in flight by the end of this decade.”[2]

The MDA’s 2011 Program Update, in a section headlined Developing the BMDS Over the Next Decade: Robust Homeland Defense Against Limited Attack, similarly stated that: “By the end of the decade, we will have in place a two-layered ICBM defense consisting of the GMD system. BMDS sensor network, and the Aegis system with the SM-3 IIB to provide multiple intercept opportunities of potential ICBMs targeting the United States by current regional threats.”

These two statements seem to be clearly defining a robust defense as one that provides multiple intercept opportunties by at least two different types of interceptors, specifically the GMD system’s GBI interceptors and the Eurpean Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA)’s SM-3 IIB interceptors.  The apparent idea here is that not only does having two different types of interceptors in two different locations provide more possible intercept opportunities, thus reducing the risk of a failure due to reliability issues, but also that the different nature of the two interceptors (and the different parts of the target’s trajectory at which they attempt to intercept) might allow one type of interceptor to succeed even if the other type failed (for example, due to an unexpected countermeasure).  The latter argument does not seem very convincing in this case, as both types of interceptors work in basically the same way.  In any event, the SM-3 IIB was cancelled in 2013.  While GMD system can still make multiple intercept attempts, they would all use GBIs with very similar kill vehicles (and all the intercept attempts would occur in roughly the second half of the target’s trajectory).

More recently, in his presentation to the 2014 Space and Missile Defense Conference, MDA Director Admiral J.D. Syring showed a slide with the title: Robust Homeland Defense (2020-2025 Timeframe).  This slide shows a number of planned GMD improvements that are planned for 2016 onwards.  Thus this slide appears to be arguing that the GMD system will gradually become more robust as capability enhancements are made rather than indicating that a specific defined “robust defense capability” will be achieved at some point between 2020 and 2025.


Is there anything planned for 2019 that could significantly enhance the GMD’s systems capabilities?  The slide “Ground-Based Midcourse Defense Fielding” also shown by Admiral Syring at the 2014 SMDC Conference, does not show any new GMD capability being deployed in 2019.

GMD PlannedFielding

As far as I can tell, the most significant events currently planned for the GMD system in 2019 are two tests:

— The first intercept test for the new Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV).

— The first intercept test using the two-stage GBI booster.

The year 2020 could see a number of new capabilities added to the GMD system, such as the deployment of the Long-Range Discrimination Radar, and the possible first deployment of both the RKV and the two-stage version of the GBI.  However, there does not seem to be anything happening in, or even by, 2019 that would justify labeling the GMD system’s capability as robust.


[1] Government Accountability Office, “Missile Defense: MDA Report Provides Limited Insight on Improvements to Homeland Missile Defense and Acquisition Plans,” GAO-14-626R, July 17, 2014, p. 4.

[2] Lieutenant General Patrick J. O’Reilly, House Armed Services Committee, Strategic Forces Subcommittee, March 31, 2011.

When is “Fly Before You Buy,” Actually “Buy Before You Fly”? When it’s the MDA’s Acquisition Process for New Ground Based Interceptors (GBIs). (May 10, 2015)

Everyone seems to agree that “fly before you buy,” is a good idea, particularly for complex military systems.  The failure to follow such an approach by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is now widely acknowledged as a primary cause of the many problems that have befallen its Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) program.  Nevertheless, as a recent GAO Report shows, MDA appears determined to continue to with its “buy before you fly” approach for the GMD system.

Some claims on “fly before you buy.”

The current MDA Director, Vice Admiral J.D. Syring, told Congress in March 2015 that for the GMD system, “We will adhere to our “fly before you buy” approach…”[1]   Similarly, during the February 2, 2015 press conference on the release of the MDA FY 2016 budget, he stated that for the GMD system “So the way I have structured the test program is to fly before you buy…”[2] (I’ll give you the rest of these two sentences below.)

Such claims are not new for MDA. In April 2010, Syring’s predecessor as MDA Director, Lt. General Patrick O’Reilly, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “We have submitted a comprehensive integrated master test plan — signed by Dr. Gilmore, the services’ operational test agencies and the commander of U.S. Strategic Command — to ensure we fly our missiles before we buy them.”[3] (Somewhat amazingly, at the time O’Reilly made this statement, MDA was deploying GBIs equipped with the new CE-II kill vehicle, which had failed its only flight and intercept test.)

In 2008, Gen. O’Reilly’s predecessor at MDA, Lt. General Henry Obering III, told Congress that: “Our capability-based acquisition model actually follows a “fly-before-you-buy” construct.”[4]  However, he practically contradicted himself with his next sentence: “We have in place a disciplined process to deliver early, partial, and full capabilities, with significant developmental and operational testing events throughout.”

At least Gen. Obering’s predecessor at MDA, Lt. General Ronald Kadish, seemed to get a correct description of MDA’s GBI acquisition process when in March 2004 he told Congress that: “The idea of fly before you buy is very difficult for this system.” Instead, he described the GBI procurement process as: “Fly as we buy is basically the way we have done that.”

Fly Before You Buy and the CE-II Block I interceptor

There are two versions of the Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) currently deployed on GBIs, the CE-I and CE-II. (CE stands for “Capability Enhancement.”)  Both of these began deployment years before they were successfully intercept-tested.[5]  See my post of April 26, 2015 for a description of the various versions of the EKV.  The buy before you fly approach used for the CE-I and CE-II is widely acknowledged to be a major reason for the problems these weapons have caused the GMD system, in particular the more than six year delay and more than $1.7 billion cost overrun in demonstrating a successful CE-II intercept.[6]

The next version of the EKV is the CE-II Block 1.  The Block 1 is intended to be an improved version of the CE-II, with greater reliability.  It will include the fixes for the problems encountered in the failed FTG-06a and FTG-07 intercept tests, as well as the alternate divert thrusters to be tested in CTV-02+ in late 2015.  The CE-II Block 1 GBI will also include the new C2 upgraded booster, which has avionics upgrades and is also intended to increase reliability.

Currently the MDA plans to conduct intercept FTG-15 in fourth quarter of FY 2016.  This test will be the first flight test and intercept test for both the CE-II Block 1 EKV and the C2 booster. Following this test (assuming it is successful), MDA plans to deploy ten CE-II Block 1 GBIs by the end of calendar year 2017.  The rapid deployment of these CE-II Block 1 GBIs is necessary if MDA is to meet the politically-established deadline of deploying 44 operational GBIs by the end of 2017.

While the process of testing and deploying the CE-II Block I GBIs might appear to be a fly before you buy approach, since the intercept test precedes the first deployment, in fact this deployment plan requires buying the CE-II Block 1 GBIs long before they are tested.

A 2014 GAO Report states that GBI production “must begin at least 2 years before delivery” and a 2015 report by the same agency says that MDA “planned to start production of CE-II Block I interceptors for operational use almost two years before it conducts Flight Test GMD (FTG)-15.”[7]

In fact, production of these GBIs started much earlier.  MDA budget documents show that acquisition of the eleven Block 1 interceptors began in fiscal year 2012.[8]  Specifically, acquisition of GBIs 48-52 began in FY 2012 and acquisition of GBIs 53-58 began in FY 2013, with GBIs 48-57 designated for deployment as CE-II Block 1s and with GBI 58 specifically designated for the CE-II Block 1 intercept test.[9]  Some of the components for these GBIs were purchased even earlier.  The topline budget numbers for the midcourse defense segment of MDA’s RDT&E budget show a very similar picture, with five GBIs being bought in FY 2012, five in FY 2013, one in FY 2014, and none in the following years.  (MDA will start acquiring 2 GBIs per year in its procurement budget starting in FY 2018 and is separately developing the new Redesigned Kill Vehicle under the Improved Homeland Defense Interceptors budget item.)

Block 1 purchases

From the FY 2014 budget materials.

Moreover, MDA has stated that by the time the FTG-15 test takes place, production and assembly of two of the CE-II Block 1 GBIs intended for deployment will have been be completed.[10]  If the test is delayed, as often happens with GMD tests, than it is likely that even more of the Block 1 GBIs will be completed before the test occurs.  MDA argues that waiting until after FTG-15 to complete the manufacturing and assembling of these GBIs would “unacceptably increase the risk to reaching the Secretary of Defense Mandate to reach 44 emplaced interceptors by the end of CY 2017.”[11]  However, MDA argues that it can “ensure a sound acquisition approach” simply by not putting these interceptors into their silos until after a successful FTG-15 test.[12]

Fly Before You Deploy

Here are the full quotes from Admiral Syring that are given partially at the beginning of this post:

“We will adhere to our “fly before you buy” approach, testing elements of the system to demonstrate they work before we commit to their fielding in order to ensure the warfighter will have cost-effective and reliable weapon systems.”


“So the way I have structured the test program is to fly before you buy, and each test has a purpose, and there is development that needs to go on so you can’t just rush to it test to test; that in our constrained resources and everything else we’re constrained by, I think it’s important the structure of the program on this pace to inform fielding for a — with successful intercept test.”

Both of these quotes make it clear that the current MDA commitment is only not to deploy (“field’) new types of GBIs until after a successful intercept test.  But such a commitment has little meaning if it only limits the last step in deploying the interceptors – lowering them into their silos.  The discussion above shows CE-II Block 1 interceptors have already been bought and MDA will be deep into their production and assembly process by the currently planned time of the FTG-15 intercept test.  This is far from a knowledge-based process advocated by the GAO in which “testing is conducted before production.”[13]

When the GAO sent the draft of their May 2015 report to MDA for review in March 2015, it recommended that MDA “delay production of CE-II Block I interceptors intended for operational use until the program has successfully conducted an intercept flight test with the CE-II Block I interceptor.”[14] While the MDA labeled its response as “partially concur,” it said that it would continue to produce and assemble the CE-II Block 1 GBIs before conducting FTG-15 (MDA also argued that it had or would test some Block 1 components on earlier flights), leading the GAO to simply repeat its recommendation in its final report.[15]

However, it’s already too late. The CE-II Block 1 GBIs are already under production and MDA cannot stop this process without endangering its mandate to deploy 44 GBIs by the end of 2017.

[1] Prepared Statement of Vice Admiral J.D. Syring, Director, Missile Defense Agency, House Armed Service Committee, Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, March 19, 2015. http://www.mda.mil/global/documents/pdf/ps_syring_031915_hasc.pdf.

[2] “Department of Defense Briefing by Vice Adm. Syring on the Fiscal Year 2016 Missile Defense Agency Budget request in the Pentagon Briefing Room,” February 2, 2015. Available at: http://www.defense.gov/Transcripts/Transcript.aspx?TranscriptID=5584.

[3] Senate Armed Services Committee, April 10, 2010.  Available at: http://www.mda.mil/global/documents/pdf/ps_sasc042010trans.pdf.

[4] Lieutenant General Henry A. Obering III. Director, Missile Defense Agency, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee, April 30, 2008.­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

[5] The first CE-I equipped GBI was deployed in July 2004.  However, the first flight test for a CE-I was more than a year later, in December 2005 (FT-1) and the first intercept test was more than two years after deployment began.  (In the wacky world of missile defense test scoring, MDA claims this intercept test, FTG-02 in September 2006, as a successful intercept even though it says hitting the target was not an objective of the test and DOT&E says that while the kill vehicle may have hit the target, it did not “kill” it.  See my post of October 18, 2012.)  The first CE-I intercept test that actually scored a kill was FTG-03a in September. For CE-II, deployment see the next footnote.

[6] According to the GAO, the first intercept test of the CE-II, FTG-06, was originally scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2007.  This test was eventually conducted in January 2010 and the intercept attempt failed.  The GAO estimated that FTG-06 cost $0.236 billion.  A successful CE-II intercept was finally achieved in FTG-06b in June 2014.  The GAO estimated that the additional cost (beyond that of conducting the original FTG-06 test) of demonstrating a successful CE-II intercept was $1.745 billion, a figure it believes may continue to increase.  Government Accountability Office, “Missile Defense: Opportunities Exist to Reduce Acquisition Risk and Improve Reporting on System Capabilities,” GAO-15-345, May 2015, p. 63.

[7] GAO-15-345, p. 22; Government Accountability Office, “Missile Defense: MDA Report Provides Limited Insight on Improvements to Homeland Missile Defense and Acquisition Plans,” GAO-14-626R, July 17, 2014, p. 4.

[8] By budgetary materials, I mean the annual MDA RDT&E Budget Justification Books available on the Department of Defense’s Comptroller’s website.  For example, the FY 2016 materials are at: http://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2016/budget_justification/pdfs/03_RDT_and_E/MDA_RDTE_MasterJustificationBook_Missile_Defense_Agency_PB_2016_1.pdf.

[9] The FY 2014 budget materials list under FY 2012 accomplishments: “Initiated acquisition of 5 Interceptors (GBIs 48-52) that are supported by the completion of the booster and EKV component purchases.” It also states that acquisition of GBIs 53-57 is to be initiated in FY 2013 and the “Addition of 1 GBI (58) for testing of Capability Enhancement-II (CE-II) Block I GBI per Integrated Master Test Plan (IMTP).”  The FY 2015 budget materials confirm that acquisition of GBIs 53-58 began in FY 2013.  The FY 2016 budget materials confirm that these GBIs are the CE-II Block 1 interceptors, listing as an FY 2014 accomplishment: “Continued acquisition of CE-II Configuration 2 (C2) integrated boost vehicle with Consolidated Booster Avionics Upgrade (CBAU) and CE-II Block I Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicles (EKV)) GBIs 48-58 to support both operations and testing, including a flight test to demonstrate the capability of the CE-II Block 1 EKV with C2 CBAU booster GBIs.”

[10] GAO-15-345, p.35.

[11] GAO-15-345, p.35.

[12] GAO-15-345, p.35.

[13] GAO-15-345, Highlight Page.

[14] GAO-15-345, p. 29.

[15] GAO-15-345, pp. 30, 35.

Estimating the Composition of the 44 Deployed GBIs in 2017 (May 5, 2015)

Under current plans, the total number of deployed Ground-based Interceptors (GBIs) of the U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system will reach a total of 44 by the end of 2017.  Three different types (and likely several sub-types) of Exo-Atmospheric Kill Vehicles (EKVs) will be deployed on these GBIs.  These are the original Capability Enhancement-1 (CE-I) version, deployed between 2004 and 2007, the follow-on CE-II version deployed between 2008 and 2015, and the new CE-II Block 1, which will be deployed starting in 2017.  The differences between these types of EKVs are described in my post of April 26, 2015.

In this post I try to estimate the composition of the deployed GBI force when the 44th GBI is deployed in 2017.

It seems clear that ten of the deployed GBIs will be the new CE-II Block 1 version. This assumes that the first flight and intercept test of a CE-II Block 1, currently scheduled for the third quarter of calendar year 2016, is successful. The MDA currently plans to deliver eleven CE-II Block 1s by the end of 2017, one of which will be expended in the intercept test  — FTG-15.

According to the Department of Defense’s Inspector General, through 2015, the U.S. has bought a total of 33 CE-I and 24 CE-II EKVs, for a total of 57.[1]  This numbers appears to be the final totals for each of these EKV versions, because by 2016 production will have switched over to the CE-II Block 1.  Under current test plans, by the end of 2017, seven CE-Is and six CE-IIs EKVs will have been expended in test flights.[2]  These tests will reduce the number of remaining EKVs to at most 27 CE-I and 18 CE-IIs.

According to the 2015 prepared statement of MDA Director Admiral Syring for Congressional committees, “Four previously fielded CE-II GBIs will be used for flight and Stockpile Reliability testing.”  Removing these four GBIs  leaves 16 deployable CE-II GBIs, since two of the CE-IIs (CTV-02+ and FTG-11) to be withdrawn for testing were already subtracted out of our count in the previous paragraph.

A total of 16 deployed CE-IIs is consistent with Admiral Syring’s statement in his 2015 prepared testimony that eight new CE-IIs would be deployed in 2015 and that eight currently fielded CE-IIs would be upgraded in FY 2016.

With sixteen CE-IIs deployed, the breakdown at the end of 2017 would be:

10 CE-II Block-1s

16 CE-IIs

18 CE-Is

Thus at that point more than half of the deployed GBIs would be CE-Is.

An alternate method of attempting to count the number of deployed CE-II GBIs is included at the end of this post.


Continuing out past 2017:

The further out one goes in time, the more speculative attempts to estimate the EKV stockpile become. However, several general points can be made:

(1) MDA budgetary materials suggest that few if any new GBIs will be deployed using funding from its RDT&E account from 2017 to 2020.[3]  All the currently deployed GBIs as well as those planned for deployment through 2017 have been bought through the MDA’s RDT&E account.  GBIs usually require several years from initial procurement to deployment, and there are no indications in the RDT&E budget materials of plans to procure additional GBIs for deployment in the near future.

Specifically, in the Ground Based Interceptor Manufacturing budget element for FY 2016, MDA cites only three projects:

— Completing the planned deliveries of CE-II equipped GBIs.

— Continuing the manufacturing of the eleven CE-II Block 1 GBIs planned for deployment (and use in a test) by the end of 2017.

— Beginning acquisition of two new GBI boosters.  These are likely the two boosters that will be used in the flight and intercept tests of the new Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV) planned for FY 2018 and FY 2019.

(2) Beginning in FY 2018, MDA will begin procuring two GBIs per year under its Procurement account.  These GBIs are needed to provide additional GBIs to support flight testing, stockpile reliability, and spares requirements associated with the increase from 30 to 44 deployed GBIs.  Under previously announced plans, a total of ten GBIs will be bought over five years for these purposes.  Initially, these GBIs will likely be equipped with CE-II Block 1 EKVs and be deployed to free up older deployed GBIs for testing.  Thus by about 2019-2020, the numbers of deployed CE-1s will likely to begin declining in favor of CE-II Block 1s.  It is possible that starting in 2020, these GBIs will start to be equipped with RKVs — if not, then it seems that both CE-II Block 1 EKVs and RKVs would have to be in production at the same time.

(3) Under current plans, MDA plans to begin deploying RKV-equipped GBIs in 2020.  There has been no public indication of how rapidly such new GBIs might be deployed.  One possible factor might be that the EKV-equipped GBIs are said to have a twenty-year lifetime, and the last CE-I equipped-GBIs were deployed in 2007.  Replacing all of the deployed CE-Is by 2027 would only require an RKV deployment rate of somewhat over two per year.  Of course, if it was decided to establish an East Coast interceptor site, the rate of RVK production would have to increase very significantly.

An alternate attempt estimate of the number of CE-II GBIs at the end of 2017:

Another way to try to estimate the number of deployed CE-IIs is by the numbers assigned to individual GBIs in MDA budget documents.  These numbers are the same as those used in the slide entitled “GBI Fleet Deployment History,” in Admiral Syring’s 2015 SMDC Conference presentation, as shown below (click on image for larger version).  As Admiral Syring’s slide shows, the first twenty four deployed GBIs were CE-1s that were deployed before the end of September 2007.  These GBIs were designated GBI 1 through GB 24.  The slide makes clear that at that time only GBIs intended for deployment are included in this numbering scheme.


Deployment of GBIs resumed with the first CE-II GBI — GBI 25 – in October 2008.  The first six CE-II GBIs – GBI 25 through GBI 30 – were deployed into empty silos, bringing the total number of deployed GBIs to the objective total of thirty.  Admiral Syring’s slide shows three additional CE-II GBIs (GBI 31 to GBI 33) were deployed by the end of FY 2010.  These three GBIs replaced existing deployed CE-I GBIs.  Thus at the end of FY 2010, there would have been twenty one deployed CE-I GBIs and nine deployed CE-II GBIs.

In addition to the nine deployed CE-IIs, by the end of 2010 there appear to be two or three CE-II EKVs that were outside of this numbering scheme.  These are the EKVs used in intercept test FTG-06, which took place in January 2010, and one or both of the EKVs intended for intercept test FTG-09, which was a salvo test (two interceptors against one target) scheduled for FY 2011.  Following the failure of FTG-06, FTG-09 was cancelled in order to conduct FTG-06a, which also failed.

Following the failure of FTG-06a, deliveries of CE-II EKVs were suspended.  MDA budget documents show that the first of the suspended deliveries was GBI 34.  Thus at the time of this suspension, there would have been nine deployed CE-II GBIs (GBI 25 – GBI 33) and two CE-IIs expended in intercept tests.  However, the GAO has stated that, at the time of the suspension, twelve CE-II GBIs had been delivered and ten of these had been deployed.  The reason for this discrepancy is unclear (to me).  One possible, although speculative, resolution to this discrepancy would be that the both of the interceptors for the planned FTG-09 salvo test were CE-II GBIs (as opposed to what is now planned as the first salvo test, FTG-11 in FY 2017, which will use one CE-I and one CE-II).  Both of these CE-II GBIs would be outside the GBI numbering scheme, and the EKV not expended in FTG-06a could have been subsequently deployed, bringing the total number of deployed CE-II GBIs up to ten.

In 2013 and 2014, two CE-II EKVs were expended in the flight test CTV-01 and the intercept test FTG-06b.  According to MDA budget documents, both of these CE-II EKVs were pulled from the ones that had already been deployed, bringing the number of deployed CE-IIs down to seven or eight.

Following the successful intercept test FTG-06b in 2014, MDA once again began accepting deliveries of CE-II-equipped GBIs.  According to MDA budget documents, the next batch of eleven CE-II GBIs (GBI 34 to GBI 44) will be delivered before the end of FY 2016, bringing the total to eighteen or nineteen deployed.  Taking into account the four deployed CE-II GBIs that in 2015 MDA Director Syring said would be withdrawn from deployment, the total number of deployed CE-II GBIs would then be fourteen of fifteen.

This counting scheme only totals twenty three CE-II EKVs.  Given that the DoD Inspector General reports total of twenty four CE-IIs were delivered, and the conclusion above that sixteen CE-IIs will be deployed by 2017, it appears likely that there is one more CE-II GBI that is for some reason outside the GBI numbering system. (In addition, there is no reference to GBIs 45, 46 and 47 in the MDA budget documents.)

Production and delivery of GBIs will subsequently continue with eleven CE-II Block 1 GBIs (GBIs 48-58).  This Block 1 numbering of GBIs appears to differ from the previous GBI numbering scheme in that it includes GBIs both for deployment and testing, and in particular it includes the GBI for the FTG-15 intercept test, scheduled for 2016. This would leave ten CE-II Block 1s for deployment by the end of 2017.

[1] Inspector General, U.S. Department of Defense, “Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle Quality Assurance and Reliability Assessment – Part A,” DODIG-2014-111, September 8, 2014, p. 7. Available at: http://www.dodig.mil/pubs/documents/DODIG-2014-111.pdf.

[2] For the CE-Is, these are FT-1 (2005), FTG-2 (2006), FTG-3a (2007), FTG-5 (2008), BVT-1 (2010), FTG-07 (2013), and FTG-11 (2017). For the CE-IIs, These are FTG-6 (2010), FTG-6a (2010), CTV-01 (2013), FTG-06b (2014), CTV-02+ (2015) and FTG-11 (2017).

[3] By budgetary materials, I primarily mean the annual MDA RDT&E Budget Justification Books available on the Department of Defense’s Comptroller’s website. For example, the FY 2016 materials are at: http://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2016/budget_justification/pdfs/03_RDT_and_E/MDA_RDTE_MasterJustificationBook_Missile_Defense_Agency_PB_2016_1.pdf.

EKVs, RKVs, CKVs, MOKVs and More. (April 26, 2015)

There have been at least as many acronyms and designations assigned to current, past and future kill vehicles of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) national missile defense system as there have been successful intercept tests of such kill vehicles.  Below I summarize the most important of these kill vehicle designations.

EKV CE-0: This designation covers the kill vehicles used in the first seven GMD intercept tests, from 1999 to 2002, as well as the IFT-1a and IFT-2 fly-by tests in 1998-99.  The first, and so far only, place I have seen this designation is on the slides used by MDA Director Admiral Syring during his August 13 presentation at the 2014 Space and Missile Defense Conference.  (These slides were obtained via FOIA by Laura Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists.)  These kill vehicles are sometimes referred to as “prototypes” although this term is sometimes also used for the later CE-I and CE-II kill vehicles as well.  The “CE” stands for Capability Enhancement, so the CE-0 designation seems to be both a retroactive designation as well as a catch-all for all the early GMD kill vehicles, as indicated by its use for both the fly-by tests, which used two completely different competing kill vehicle designs.

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The Long Range Discrimination Radar at S-Band? (April 20, 2015)

It appears likely that the Ground-Based Midcourse (GMD) Defense’s new Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR) will operate at S-band instead of at X-band. This raises the question of whether the better range resolution that would have been available at X-band is being sacrificed in order to keep the initial cost of the LRDR down to about $1 billion. Or is there some other reason?

Although the current Ground-Based Midcourse (GMD) national missile defense system nominally provides coverage of all 50 states from limited intercontinental ballistic missile attack, it is well known that the system is severely lacking in its discrimination capabilities. In particular, the primary sensor infrastructure (aside from the infrared seekers on interceptor kill vehicles) for the GMD system consists of five radars — seven within a few years — in the United States, Greenland and Britain that were originally built for ballistic missile early warning purposes.[1] These radars date to the 1970s-1980s, but have subsequently received (or will soon receive) relatively minor upgrades that allow them to detect and track incoming missiles as part of the GMD system.[2] However, the relatively low operating frequency of these radars (about 440 MHz, corresponding to a wavelength of about 0.68 m) limits their bandwidth, resulting in a minimum range resolution of no less than about 5 meters.[3] This low resolution limits these radars to at best being able to only classify objects as potentially threatening (warheads, decoys, booster stages, etc…) or non-threatening (small pieces of debris).[4]

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Update on Future Ground-Based Midcourse (GMD) Flight Tests (April 12, 2015)

An updated description of planned GMD flight tests (last update was post of April 17, 2013) as best as I can figure them out:

FY 2016: GM CTV-02+ (1Q FY 2016). This test replaces FTG-09, which was previously planned as an intercept test with a CE-II kill vehicle. The “+” indicates that the kill vehicle has the fix to the vibration problem that was demonstrated in the June 2014 FTG-06b test.[1] One purpose of the test is to “demonstrate the performance of alternate divert thrusters” that might be used in future kill vehicles.[2] One reason for developing the new thrusters is to reduce further the vibration problem involved in the failure of test FTG-06a in December 2010. The test is also intended to demonstrate “the end-to-end discrimination of a complex target scene including countermeasures.”[3] Although officially not an intercept test, the presence of a target raises the prospect that the interceptor might actually hit the target, as happened in FTG-02 in 2006, without running the risk of failing an intercept test.

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The Track Gate Anomaly: Does it also Affect CE-I Kill Vehicles? (August 15, 2014, revised 8/18/2014)

On Wednesday August 13, at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium, MDA Director Vice Admiral James Syring was one of the featured speakers. As Admiral Syring started to go through his slides, Aviation Week reporter Amy Butler began to photograph the slides. Even though the the slides were clearly marked “Approved for Public Release,” meeting organizers quickly stopped her, saying photographing of the slides was not permitted. However, before she was stopped she managed to photograph twelve of the slides and subsequently posted them on twitter (she tweets as @ABAviationweek). You can read her account about the slides and her (sucessful) attempt to ask Admiral Syring a question here:

The twelve slides that were posted are actually more detailed and interesting then those in your typical MDA briefing. Hopefully they will all soon be publicly available.

The slide that struck me as the most interesting was one titled “Track Gate Anomaly (TGA)” shown below:


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“Informational Handouts” from MDA Environmental Impact Meetings Posted. (August 9, 2014)

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has begun holding a series of required public meetings as part of the Environmental Impact Review process for the proposed eastern U.S. Ground Based Midcourse (GMD) defense system interceptor site. The first meeting was held on Tuesday (August 5) in Ravenna Ohio. Apparently it was sparsely attended. You can read a description of the meeting here.

A number of other meetings will be held through August. The full list is here.

The MDA has posted its informational handout from the meeting here,

Two points from the handout struck me as noteworthy. First as the slide below suggests, MDA apparently believes that a few 10,000 km ICBMs now exist in the third world.


Second, the sites are being sized for up to 60 interceptors per site (3 x 20 launch silos). Given calls for expanding missile field 1 at Fort Greely Alaska from six to twenty silos, (which would bring the total in Alaska and California to 58 launch silos silos), this could indicate that we are headed for a total deployment of roughly 120 GBI interceptors in the not-too-distant future.

Lying Down on the Ground. It’s Almost as Effective as Iron Dome. And a Lot Cheaper. (July 24, 2014)

According to the Israeli Government, Iron Dome has been 85% effective (or perhaps a bit more) in destroying threatening rockets fired at its territory. However, each Iron Dome interceptor costs roughly $50,000-100,000, which adds up fast when there are a lot of rockets coming in. Moreover, a recent article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists by Theodore Postol challenges this claim, arguing that the evidence indicates that Iron Dome’s success rate in destroying the rockets is actually quite low.

On Sunday (July 20), another perspective on the threat posed by these rockets came out in the course of a hearing before the Israeli Supreme Court. The Court was ruling on a petition from several Bedouin and human rights organizations requesting that the Israeli government provide mobile bomb shelters to Bedouin villages in the Negev Desert. The court rejected the request, saying that the number of mobile bomb shelters was limited and that the government had prioritize where these were deployed.

A key argument made by the Israeli state attorney at the hearing was: “Bomb shelters are a last resort from a security perspective. Lying on the ground reduces danger by 80%.”

Imagine how effective an actual shelter would be.

(Actually, it is not clear how much either bomb shelters or lying down on the ground would actually help the Bedouins, since the warning sirens telling people to seek shelter apparently cannot be heard in many of the Bedouin villages.)

A Closer Look at the CBO’s Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) System Cost Figures (July 23, 2014)

The Congressional Budget Office has just released a very short report on the Missile Defense Agency’s future spending plans for its Ground-Based Midcourse (GMD) national missile defense system.[1] This Report, titled “Historical and Planned Future Budgets for the Missile Defense Agency’s Ground-Based Midcourse Defense Program” was released as a letter to Senator Jeff Sessions and is based on MDA’s budget request projections out through fiscal year 2019. It compares these GMD budget projections with actual GMD spending going back to FY 2008.

The main conclusions people seem likely to draw from the Report are that spending on the GMD system is expected to decline by more than a factor of two from its 2008 level and that by FY 2019 it will fall below $1 billion.[2] Specifically, the Report shows that GMD Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) and GMD Procurement spending will total $789 million in FY 2019. Another $169 million for Operations and Maintenance (O&M) will bring the total FY 2019 GMD spending to $958 million. For comparison, the Report shows that in FY 2008 the total GMD spending was $2,093 million. (None of the $ figures in the Report have been adjusted for inflation.)

Several points should be made:

First the GMD budget falling below $1 billion is not a particularly significant benchmark (nor does the CBO Report say it is). According to the Report’s figures, actual FY 2013 spending on the GMD system was only $923 million.

Second, the actual planned spending on the GMD system will be significantly higher than shown in the CBO Report.[3] To illustrate this, I will focus on the planned GMD spending for FY 2019, the last year considered by the Report. As noted above, the Report says the currently planned GMD spending for FY 2019 is $958 million. However, if we look in more detail at the MDA’s planned budget we see that there are some significant omissions in what the CBO includes. For example, neither the Sea-Based X-Band (SBX) Radar ($63.0 million in FY 2019) nor the Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR) ($189 million in FY 2019) is included.[4] The FY 2019 GMD Test line item (Project MT08) included in the CBO cost figure is only $61.6 million.[5] Since each GMD test now costs $200 million or more, this suggests that roughly another $100-150 million for GMD testing should be included in the CBO’s FY 2019 GMD cost estimate figure.[6] A number of other projects that are intended to at least partially to contribute to the GMD system, such as the Common Kill Vehicle Technology Project ($54.3 million in FY 2019) are also not accounted for in the CBO figures.  Taken together, these omissions suggest MDA’s total planned spending for FY 2019 is much closer to $1.5 billion than the $958 million in the CBO Report.

Third, the numbers in the CBO Report are based on MDA plans that do not include a third interceptor site in the eastern United States. If this third site is not built, then by FY 2019, if everything proceeds according to plan, the GMD system would be nearly complete. All 44 planned GBI interceptors would be deployed, the Clear and Cape Cod radars would have been upgraded and incorporated into the system, and the LRDR would be nearly complete (with about $910 million spent on it through FY 2019). While there would certainly be significant ongoing costs, such as for operations, for testing (including buying new interceptors for this purpose) and for technology development and upgrades, one would certainly expect the GMD annual funding to be significantly less that it was FY 2008, when the system was in the midst of being built.

On the other hand, if a decision was made to proceed with a third interceptor site, the future GMD spending situation could look quite different.  The environmental impact statement for the proposed third site location will assess the deployment of between twenty and sixty interceptors at potential sites. If each interceptor cost the same as a current GBI interceptor, about $75 million, then the total cost just for the additional interceptors would be about $1.5-4.5 billion, which would require a large increase in GMD funding over current plans.

[1] Congressional Budget Office, “Historical and Planned Future Budgets for the Missile Defense Agency’s Ground-Based Midcourse Defense Program, letter to Senator Jeff Sessions, July 12, 2014. Available at: http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/45546-GMD_Program.pdf.

[2] See for example, Jason Sherman, “CBO Traces Decline in GMD Spending From FY-08 To FY-19,” Inside Defense SITREP, July 23, 2014.

[3] The CBO Report (footnote a) states that the Report only includes funding in the Midcourse Defense program element and does not include “funding for other support activities that are contained in other program elements.”

[4] MDA’s planned budget can be found on pages 2a-xxi to 2a-xxiv of http://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2015/budget_justification/pdfs/03_RDT_and_E/2_RDTE_MasterJustificationBook_Missile_Defense_Agency_PB_2015_Vol_2.pdf.

[5] This is not just an FY 2019 budget anomaly, as the FY 2015-2019 five year average for the GMD Test line item is $67.4 million.

[6] Most of this other GMD testing funding is likely in the Ballistic Missile Defense Test ($413 million in FY 2019) and the Ballistic Missile Defense Targets ($429.8 in FY 2019) program elements, which are not included in the CBO GMD cost figures.


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