Aegis SM-3 Block IIA First Intercept Test Successful, but Testing Schedule Appears To Be Slipping (February 7, 2017)

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) recently announced the completion of the  first intercept test for the Aegis SM-3 Block IIA interceptor.[1]  The test was designated SFTM-1 (SM-3 Cooperative Development (SCD) Project Flight Test Standard Missile).    In two previous flight tests, no intercept was attempted.

The test took place at about 10:30 pm Hawaii Standard Time on February 3 (February 4 EDT).  The test had been planned for late January but was delayed due to bad weather.[2]  The MDA stated that the test was successful, specifically saying “Based on preliminary data the test met its primary objective.”[3]  The test was conducted jointly with Japan, which is co-developing the missile.

The SM-3 Block IIA missile is larger and much faster than the Block IA and Block IB interceptors currently deployed on U.S. and Japanese ships and at the Aegis Ashore site in Romania.  It also has a much more capable homing kill vehicle.  Relative to the current SM-3 Block IB, the SM-3 Block IIA kill vehicle has “more than doubled seeker sensitivity” and “more than tripled divert capability.”[4]  These performance improvements are intended to allow the Block IIA to defend much larger areas against longer-range missiles.

The Block IIA interceptor was launched from the U.S. destroyer John Paul Jones.  This is the first time the Block IIA missile has been launched from a ship.  The John Paul Jones was equipped with most recent version of the Aegis ballistic missile defense (BMD) system, the Baseline 9.2.C (BMD 5.1).  This was the first intercept test for this version, which is not only capable of conducting anti-air and anti-missile operations simultaneously, but also adds an engage-on remote capability.  However, the engage-on-remote capability was not demonstrated in this test.[5]

[Engage-on-remote means that the interceptor can be both launched and guided to intercept by sensors remote from the launching ship (such as a land-based TPY-2 radar).  Thus in engage-on-remote mode, the launching ship does not need to be able to detect or track the target.]

The SM-3 Block IIA is the centerpiece of Phase III of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) system, under which Block IIs are to be deployed at a new Aegis Ashore site in Poland by the end of 2018.  The MDA has insisted that the Block II interceptor will be developed under a “fly before you buy” policy.   In practice (see, for example, my post of February 2, 2017), however, their policy appears to commit them only to not operationally deploying the missile before completing a single successful intercept test.  Thus the successful test may have already fulfilled the “fly” requirement, thus clearing the way for deployment.  (However, MDA has stated that all the tests listed in Table 1 below will be used to inform production decisions on the Block IIA.)

However, if the Phase III EPAA deployment occurs as planned by the end of 2018, it appears it will do so with far fewer intercept tests than was originally planned.  Table 1 below shows that as of 2014, MDA planned to conduct six Block IIA intercept tests, including 3 operational tests before the end of 2018.  However, it now appears that there will be no more than three and none of them will be an operational test.


Test After April 2, 2014[6] ~ February 2015[7] ~ February 2016[8]  
CTV-1 1Q 2015 2Q 2015 2Q 2015 Non-intercept Test, Accomplished 2Q 2015
CTV-2 3Q 2015 4Q 2015 4Q 2015 Non-intercept Test, Accomplished 4Q 2015
SFTM-1 2Q 2016 2Q 2016 3Q 2016 Intercept Test, Accomplished 1Q 2017
SFTM-2 4Q 2016 4Q 2016 2Q 2016* Intercept Test
FTM-29 4Q 2017 4Q 2017 4Q 2017 Intercept Test
FTO-3 E1 2Q 2018 Operational Intercept Test
FTO-3 E2 2Q 2018 Operational Intercept Test
FTO-3 E3 3Q 2018 Operational Intercept Test

Table 1. Planned SM-3 Block IIA flights at several points in time (* = this is likely an error in the FY 2017 budget documentation).  All dates are calendar year.

Although Table 1 shows the first two, non-intercept, tests occurred on schedule, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicates that there were delays in them (which likely occurred before the dates listed in the “After April 2, 2014” column were published).  The GAO states that CTV-1 was delayed by about 5 months and that CTV-2 was originally scheduled for the 3rd quarter of 2015.[9]  According to the GAO, the CTV-2 delay was due to “delays in hardware deliveries.”[10]

Table 1 shows that the first intercept test, SFTM-1, had slipped by one quarter by early 2016 and by a total of three quarters by the time it occurred this month (relative to the 2014 plan).  The second intercept test, SFTM-2, will also be delayed relative to the 2014 schedule.  (Unfortunately, as noted by the asterisk in Table 1, the “~ February 2016” date for this test appears to be incorrect.)

Although Table 1 shows the third intercept test, FTM-29, on schedule for 4Q 2017, if the same 3Q delay for the first intercept test also applies to it, then it would slip to 3Q 2018, and another two quarters of delay would push it past the end of 2018 plan for deploying phase 3 of the EPAA. According to a 2016 GAO report, the Block IIA program has experienced “technical challenges and schedule delays, some of which are expected to continue to impact developmental efforts through 2017.”[11]

More interestingly, the three operational tests do not appear in the FY 2016 and FY 2017 budget materials (the 2nd and 3rd columns of dates), although FTO-03 E2 and FTO-3 E3 did appear in the FY 2015 budget materials. (FTO-03 E2 actually does appear in the FY 2017 budget, but as a test of the THAAD interceptor.)  It is possible that the three operational test have been given new designation, but the FY 2017 budget materials show that there are no Aegis BMD tests planned for either FY 2018 or CY 2018.

Thus it now appears that there will be no more than three SM-3 Block IIA tests before the end of 2018, and that this number could slip to two. (For comparison, MDA conducted six intercept tests of the SM-3 Block IB (five successful) before it was first deployed on ships and one more successful intercept test before it was deployed at the Aegis Ashore site in Romania).


[1] U.S. Missile Defense Agency, “U.S., Japan Successfully Conduct First SM-3 Block IIA Intercept Test,” News Release, January 30, 2017.  Online at

[2] James Drew, “First Intercept Test of Beefed-Up Standard Missile Imminent,” Defense Daily, January 3, 2017.

[3] MDA, “U.S., Japan Successfully Conduct.”

[4] Department of Defense, Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 President’s Budget Submission, Missile Defense Agency, RDT&E. Vol. 2a, February 2016, p. 2a-891.  Online at

[5] Sam LaGrone, “Lockheed: SM-3 Block IIA Missile Shot Next Month Will Also Test New Aegis Build,” USNI News, September 1, 2016.  Online at

[6] Written response by MDA Director Admiral Syring to a question by Senator Udall, April 2, 2014 at a hearing of the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Online at (pp. 170-171).

[7] Department of Defense, Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 President’s Budget Submission, Missile Defense Agency, RDT&E, Vol. 2a., February 2016, pp. 2a-839, 2a-840.  Online at

[8] Department of Defense, Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 President’s Budget Submission, Missile Defense Agency, RDT&E, Vol. 2a., February 2015, pp. 2a-891. Online at

[9] Government Accountability Office, “Missile Defense: Ballistic Missile Defense System Testing Delays Affecting Delivery of Capabilities,” GAO-16-333R, April 28, 2016, p. 46.

[10] GAO-16-333R, p. 46.

[11] GAO-16-333R, p. 46

Could FTG-15 Delays Prevent the Deployment of 44 GBIs by the End of 2017?  (February 2, 2017)

As of April 2016, the first intercept test of the U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) national missile defense system against an ICBM-range target, designated FTG-15, was planned for the last quarter of calendar year 2016.  An ICBM-range missile is defined as having a range greater than 5,500 km (3440 miles), although many ICBMs have much longer ranges.  According to Missile Defense Agency (MDA) Director Vice Admiral James Syring, in FTG-15, “…we’re getting now out to the long-range and closing velocities that certainly would be applicable from a North Korean or Iran type of scenario.” [1]

However, FTG-15 has not yet taken place.  In early January 2017, a Missile Defense Agency (MDA) spokesman stated that the test is now scheduled for “early this calendar year.”[2]  A few days later, MDA Director Vice Admiral James Syring was somewhat more specific, saying the next GMD intercept test is tentatively planned for the April to June time frame.[3]  If the test slips to June, it will then be three years after the last successful intercept test, FTG-06b on June 22, 2014.  Perhaps more interestingly, it will be only 6-7 months before the end of 2017 deadline for deploying a total of 44 Ground-Based Interceptors (GBIs) set by the Department of Defense in March 2013.  Could these delays in FTG-15 prevent MDA from achieving this objective?

FTG-15 also will be the first flight and intercept test of the new CE-II Block-I version of the Exo-Atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV).   The CE-II Block I EKV appears to be a relatively modest upgrade that eliminates some of the known problems with the CE-II EKV and is intended to provide improved reliability.  The MDA plans to build eleven CE-II Block I interceptors – one for FTG-15 and the other ten for deployment.  MDA needs to deploy at least some of these CE-II Block I interceptors (possibly as many as eight) before the end of 2017 in order to meet the objective of 44 deployed GBIs.[4] However, MDA has stated that it will not deploy any of these CE-II Block I interceptors until after a successful intercept test.

Although no reason for the FTG-15 test delays has been announced (at least none that I have seen), a May 2015 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report stated that “The GMD program is following a high risk approach for acquiring the CE-II Block I…”[5]  The GAO report went on to say:  “In addition, the GMD program has encountered issues with a number of the component modifications being developed for the CE-II Block I. The developmental issues have caused the program to delay necessary design reviews, generated significant schedule compression, and has pushed out the completion of CE-II Block I deliveries to the second quarter of fiscal year 2018.”[6]  Note that this assessment was made before the most recent 4-6+ months delay.

The GAO report concluded with the recommendation that: “For GMD, 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.”[7]  In other words, the GAO was recommending a “fly before you buy” approach to deploying the CE-II Block I interceptors.

The MDA has for the last several years insisted that it is now following a “fly before you buy” approach with the GBIs, and even claimed to partially concur with the GAO’s recommendation.  However, MDA’s approach to deploying the CE-II Block I GBIs is actually almost exactly the opposite: it is buying and assembling CE-II Block I interceptors before even a flight test.

This is clear from the MDA’s response to the GAO’s recommendation: “To ensure a sound acquisition approach, the DOD will delay emplacement 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.”[8]  MDA further stated that it had “two interceptors scheduled to complete integration before completion of the intercept flight test” and that “Delaying this integration would unacceptably increase the risk to reaching the Secretary of Defense mandate to achieve 44 emplaced interceptors by the end of CY 2017 to defend the homeland against the threat of limited ballistic missile attack.[9]

In fact, the GAO reported in 2015 that the MDA had been building CE-II Block I interceptors for deployment for the past two years.[10]  All MDA has committed to do is to not actually place then in their launch silos before a successful intercept test.

If the MDA was in fact following a fly before you buy approach, it would never be able to meet the deadline for reaching 44 deployed interceptors, even without the most recent testing delays.  On the other hand, MDA’s approach of buying and assembling interceptors before an intercept suggests that the most recent delays may not prevent MDA from achieving it objective of 44 deployed GBIs by the end of 2017.  What the delay means is that a greater number of CE-II Block I interceptors will be assembled and ready to deploy before the test then would have been the case without the delay.

Of course, if FTG-15 fails, then MDA will have substantially less time to respond.  However, even if the test had occurred in the 4th quarter of CY 2016, a failure would likely have resulted in missing the deadline.

Finally, it is worth noting the CE-II Block I kill vehicle is not the only untested system in FTG-15.  FTG-15 will also be the first flight test of the new C2 version of the Ground-Based Interceptor booster rocket, which has improved avionics and resolves some obsolescence issues relative to the current booster.  GAO has described the new booster as an “extensive upgrade.”[11]


[1] Vice Admiral James D. Syring, “Ballistic Missile Defense System Update,” presentation at the Center for Strategic  and International Studies, January 19, 2016.  Video available at:

[2] Marc Selinger, “Missile Defense Agency Nears Next GMD Intercept Test,” Defense Daily, January 4, 2017.

[3] Anthony Capaccio, “Stopping a N. Korea Missile No Sure Thing, U.S. Tester Says,”, January 10. 2017.  Online at

[4] As of early 2015, MDA planned to reach 44 deployed GBIs with the deployment of the 8th CE-II Block I in late 2017.  However, it may be possible for the MDA to reach the total of 44 with fewer CE-II Block I interceptors by retaining some CE-I interceptors longer than it had planned.

[5] Government Accountability Office, Missile Defense: Opportunities Exist to reduce Acquisition Risk and Improve Reporting on System Capabilities, GAO-15-345, May 2015, p. 22.  Online at

[6] GAO-15-345, p. 22.

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

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

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

[10] GAO-15-345, p. 28

[11] Government Accountability Office, Missile Defense: Assessments of DOD’s Reports on Status of Efforts and Options for Improving Homeland Missile Defense, GAO-16-254R, February 17, 2016, p. 4.  Online at


Did the Divert Thrusters Fail in the CTV-02+ Test?  (January 18, 2017)

On January 28, 2016 the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) conducted its most recent flight test of its Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) national missile defense system.  One of the key objectives of this test, designated CTV-02+, was to test a new alternate divert thruster (ADT) system.  Following the test, officials described it as completely successful.  However, in July 2016, The Los Angeles Times reported that, in fact, the ADT system failed in the test.  Following the Times report, MDA officials continued to insist that the test was completely successful.  So what’s going on here?  The 2016 Annual Report of the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, released to the public earlier this month, shows how, with some creative use of wording, both claims can be true.

The kill vehicle of the Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) uses four rocket divert thrusters to maneuver as it homes in on its target.  However, the divert thruster system used both in previous tests and on the currently deployed GBIs produces vibrations that can interfere with the kill vehicle guidance system.  These vibrations caused the failure of intercept test FTG-06a in December 2010.

Following the FTG-06a failure, deliveries of further GBIs was suspended until the problem that caused the failure could be identified and corrected.  Following the successful demonstration in intercept test FTG-06b in June 2014 of a repair to the guidance system to reduce the effect of the vibrations, deliveries of GBIs resumed.  However, these new GBIs still had the original divert system, and the vibrations produced by this system were still apparently enough of a concern that MDA decided to replace the original divert system in the last ten GBIs it planned to deploy.

These last ten GBIs to be deployed will be equipped with the new CE-II Block I kill vehicles, and will bring up the total number of deployed GBIs up to the total of 44 that MDA announced in 2013 would be deployed by the end of 2017.  These new kill vehicles will have the ADT system in place of the original divert system, and the most important objective of CTV-02+ was to demonstrate the effective performance of the ADT system before the first intercept test of the CE-II Block I kill vehicle.  This intercept test, designated FTG-15, was originally scheduled for the last quarter of calendar year 2016 but has not yet taken place.  The MDA has stated that it will not begin the deployment of the ten CE-II Block I interceptors until this test is successfully completed.

In CTV-02+, the kill vehicle did not attempt to intercept the target. Instead its modified CE-II kill vehicle was intended was intended to fly past it while making preplanned maneuvers to test the ADT system.  According to an MDA press release following the test: “Upon entering terminal phase, the kill vehicle initiated planned burn sequence to evaluate the alternate thruster diverters until fuel was exhausted, intentionally precluding an intercept.[1]

Following the test, all official sources indicated that the test had been a complete success.  The MDA press release went on to say that the test had succeeded in “successfully evaluating performance of alternate divert thrusters for the system’s Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle.”  In a  prepared Congressional statement from April 2016, MDA Director Vice Admiral James Syring stated that: “This past January we successfully executed GM CTV-02+, a non-intercept flight test involving the launch of a GBI from Vandenberg Air Force Base and an air-launched IRBM target over the Pacific Ocean. We were able to exercise fully the new Alternate Divert Thruster in the CE-II EKV in a flight environment…”[2]

However, a July 6, 2016 article by David Willman in The Los Angeles Times, based on interviews with several unidentified Pentagon scientists, reported that the ADT system actually had failed in the test.[3]  One of the scientists stated that “The mission wasn’t successful.” “Did the thruster perform as expected? No, it did not provide the control necessary for a lethal impact of an incoming threat.”  The scientists further stated that the fly-by distance from the target was twenty times greater than planned.

The day after the The Los Angeles Times article was published, the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance (MDAA) posted a report criticizing it.[4]  The MDAA report was largely based on a May 2016 classified MDA report to Congress and on additional information released by the MDA (the MDAA report did specify when and how this additional information was released).  According to the MDAA report, the classified MDA report stated that CTV-02+ had a 100% success rate on all of its primary objectives and 99% on its secondary objectives.  It also stated that one anomaly occurred, but that none of the test objectives were affected by it. The additional material released by MDA stated that “Performance data for all four thrusters has been evaluated and falls with expected parameters” and that the kill vehicle carried out “scripted burns as planned until the fuel was depleted.

Can these conflicting  reports be reconciled?

The 2016 Annual Report from the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation provides more specific information about CTV-02+ and in particular on the performance of the ADTs in the test.  It states that:

“The ADTs turned on and off as commanded and performed nominally.  One controller circuit board associated with one of the ADTs experienced a short and did not command the ADT to turn on for the latter part of the test.  This controller circuit board is contained within the GBI Guidance module and is not considered to be part of the ADT subsystem.”[5]

So this makes it clear that one of the ADTs did not fire as expected.  This would have caused the kill vehicle to deviate from its planned trajectory, consistent with the LA Times article.  However, the component that caused the failure was not considered by the MDA to be part of the new ADT system, and hence there was no failure of the ADT system.  Apparently the proper performance of the component that failed was not an objective of the test (unless it is the 1% secondary objective failure cited in the classified MDA report).  However, had this been an intercept test, it seems very likely that the failure would have caused a miss.


[1] Missile Defense Agency, “Ground-based Midcourse Defense System Conducts Successful Flight Test,” News Release, January 28, 2016.  Online at:

[2] Unclassified Statement of Vice Admiral J.D. Syring, Subcommittee on Strategic Forces of the House Armed Services Committee, April 14, 2016.  Online at:

[3] David Willman, “A test of America’s homeland missile defense system failed. Why did the Pentagon call it a success?” The Los Angeles Times, July 6, 2016.  Online at:

[4] Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, “Veering Off,” July 7, 2016.  Online at:

[5] Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, “Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD),” FY 2016 DOT&E Annual Report, December 2016, pp. 421-422.  Online at:

Chronology of MDA’s Plans for Laser Boost-Phase Defense (August 26, 2016)

The Missile Defense Agency plans to produce “in the 2025 time frame” an airborne laser capable of destroying ballistic missiles in their boost phase.[1]  As a start in looking at this program, I first have constructed the following chronology of MDA’s plans for laser boost-phase defense.

My focus here is on the output power (and weight required to achieve that power) achieved and planned.  I’ll consider other issues such as the airborne platform, costs, how the lasers operate, etc. in future posts.


Figure 1. The beam combiner of a fiber combining laser (FCL).  It seems likely that this is the system described under “2013” below, as it appears to combine 21 fibers.  Image Source: Missile Defense Agency, “Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 Budget Estimates: Overview,” online at:

About 2011:  MDA began to invest in several electrically-driven laser technologies.  According to its FY 2012 budget documents, in FY 2011 the MDA planned to “Develop and experiment with diode-pumped gas lasers, fiber lasers, solid state and advanced high-power laser optics.”[2]  The two main lines of laser development that ultimately emerged from this were a Diode Pumped Alkali Laser System (DPALS) and a Fiber Combining Laser (FCL).  The DPALS research was based at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and the FCL research at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and both have also been supported by DARPA.

By this time, it had long been clear that the Airborne Laser (ABL) program, with its large, complex and chemically hazardous Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL) on a Boeing 747 airplane, would never produce a viable operational system.  The ABL was finally completely cancelled in 2012, after at least $5.3 billion had been spent on it.[3]  In February 2010 tests, the ABL shot down three ballistic missiles (both liquid and solid fueled) with its mega-watt class laser, although only at ranges of “tens of kilometers.”[4]

2012: The MDA stated that in 2012, it “Demonstrated the architectural feasibility of the Diode Pumped Alkali Laser System (DPALS) and the combined fiber lasers for high power applications.”[5]  The FCL prototype at Lincoln Laboratory, which “exploits a novel technique for combining the output of individual fiber lasers,” achieved a power output of 2.5 kW.[6]  The LLNL DPALS demonstrated a threefold increase in power and a 50% increase in efficiency.[7]

2013:   The FCL, coherently combining 21 separate fiber amplifiers, reached an output power of 17.5 kW with near perfect beam quality.[8]  The MDA described this power as a “world record” for such a laser.  The MDA also demonstrated a power output of 1.5 kW from a single, combinable fiber amplifier.[9]  The DPALS at Livermore achieved a peak power of 3.9 kW (also described as a world record) and a laser run time of four minutes.[10]

2014: The FCL exceeded 34 kW.[11]  The DPALS reached 5 kW, and its hardware was subsequently redesigned and assembled “for the next step in power scaling.”[12]

2015: Lincoln Laboratory’s FCL, now combining 42 fibers, reached 44 kW with near perfect beam quality.[13]  This version of the FCL was described as “room sized” and with a weight-to-power ratio of 40 kg/kW.[14] [For points of comparison, the Airborne Laser’s Size Weight and Power (SWaP) was 55 kg/kW, Admiral Syring has stated that at least 5 kg/kW is needed to have any chance of workable boost-phase weapon, and MDA’s SWaP goal is 2 kg/kW.[15]]  MDA’s program also demonstrated a 2.5 kW combinable single fiber amplifier and achieved “excellent” beam quality with a 101 fiber low-power scalability demonstration.[16]  The DPALS at Livermore reached 14 kW and an accumulated run time of greater than 100 minutes without degradation of any system components.[17]

2017: In 2017, Lincoln Laboratory will demonstrate a 30 kW low SWaP 7 kg/kW fully packaged FCL.[18]  The same year, Lawrence Livermore plans to demonstrate a 30 kW average power DPALS with a beam quality of 1.5 times the diffraction limit and plans to complete a preliminary design for a 120 kW system.

2018: In 2018, MDA plans to improve the FCL design to a 50 kW system in a 5 kg/kW package.[19]  MDA will also conduct multiple laser studies on high power scaling and technology readiness of industrial laser concepts for use in a down select in 2019.[20]

2019: In FY 2019, MDA plans to demonstrate a 120 kW DPALS.  An MDA slide suggests that this may achieve a SWaP of about 3 kg/kW (see figure 2).  In 2019, MDA will select one of either the DPALS, the FCL or one of the other industrial concepts for further development as a boost-phase weapon.


Figure 2.  MDA’s laser Size, Weight and Power plans.  Source:  Vice Admiral James Syring, “Ballistic Missile Defense System Update,” Presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 20, 2016.  Video online at

By 2021: MDA plans to conduct a low-powered flight demonstration by 2021 “to determine the feasibility of destroying enemy missiles in the boost phase of flight.”[21]

2022: By 2022 MDA plans to produce a prototype 300 kilowatt class laser using the technology selected in FY 2019.[22]

2025 time frame: In the 2025 time frame, MDA’s goal is “to integrate a compact, efficient, high power laser into a high altitude, long endurance aircraft capable of carrying that laser and destroying targets in the boost phase.”[23]


[1] “In the 2025 time frame, our goal is to integrate a compact, efficient, high power laser into a high altitude, long endurance aircraft capable of carrying that laser and destroying targets in the boost-phase.”  Missile Defense Agency, “Advanced Technology,” Fact Sheet, July 28, 2016.  Online at

[2] Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 Budget Estimates, Missile Defense Agency, RDT&E, Defense Wide, Vol. 2, February 2011, p. 2-21.

[3] David Willman, “The Pentagon’s $10 Billion Bet Gone Bad,” Los Angeles Times, April 5, 2015.  Online at

[4] Missile Defense Agency, “Airborne Laser Test Bed Successful in Lethal Attempt,” News Release, February 11, 2011.  Online at  Vice Admiral James Syring, “Ballistic Missile Defense System Update,” Presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 19, 2016.  Video online at Transcript online at

[5] Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 President’s Budget Submission, Missile Defense Agency, RDT&E, Defense Wide, Vol. 2a, April 2013, p. 2a-27

[6] Statement of Vice Admiral James D. Syring, Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, May 8, 2013. Online at:;  FY 2014 President’s Budget, p. 2a-27

[7] FY 2014 President’s Budget, p. 2a-27

[8] Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 Budget Estimates, Missile Defense Agency, RDT&E, Defense Wide, Vol. 2a, March 2014, p.  2a-73

[9] FY 2015 Budget Estimates, p. 2a-73.

[10] FY 2015 Budget Estimates, p. 2a-73.

[11] Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 President’s Budget Submission, Missile Defense Agency, RDT&E, Defense Wide, Vol. 2a, February 2015, p. 2a-34.

[12] FY 2016 President’s Budget, p. 2a-34; Statement of Vice Admiral James D. Syring, Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, March 19, 2015. Online at

[13] Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 President’s Budget Submission, Missile Defense Agency, RDT&E, Defense Wide, Vol. 2a, February 2016, p. 2a-26;  Statement of Vice Admiral James D. Syring, Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, April 14, 2016. Online at

[14] FY 2017 President’s Budget, p. 2a-25.

[15] Syring, “Ballistic Missile Defense System Update,” January 19, 2016.

[16] FY 2017 President’s Budget, p. 2a-26.

[17] FY 2017 President’s Budget, p. 2a-26; Syring Statement, April 14, 2016.

[18] Syring Statement, April 14, 2016.

[19] FY 2017 President’s Budget, p. 2a-25.

[20]FY 2017 President’s Budget, p. 2a-26.

[21] Testimony of Vice Admiral James D. Syring, Senate Armed Services Committee, April 13, 2016.

[22] FY 2017 President’s Budget, p. 2a-26.

[23] MDA, “Advanced Technology” factsheet.

MDA’s Space-Based Kill Assessment (SKA) Experiment (August 9, 2016)

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) plans to deploy a Space-based Kill Assessment (SKA) system by about mid-2017. The SKA system, which MDA describes as an experiment, will consist of small sensor packages deployed on a number of commercial satellite hosts. It is intended to demonstrate a capability to rapidly determine whether or not an interceptor has hit and killed its intended warhead target.  Other than two Space News articles, the SKA system has received little public attention.[1]

MDA argues that a kill assessment capability can reduce the cost and improve the efficiency of a missile defense system by eliminating the need to fire additional interceptors at a target that has already been destroyed.  “The faster we can determine a threatening missile has been eliminated, the fewer the number of interceptors are need in the fight.”[2] The MDA goes as far as arguing that the SKA experiment “has the potential to change the economics of the defense of the American homeland from enemy ballistic missiles.[3]  This approach to reducing the number of interceptors fired — known as shoot-look-shoot – may or may not be possible depending on the timelines involved.  However, at a minimum, it is clear that this approach requires a rapid capability to assess the outcome of an intercept attempt.

Is There a Need for Additional Kill Assessment Capabilities?

The task of kill assessment is closely related to that of target discrimination.  Effective discrimination – the capability to identify the actual warhead from among other possible threatening objects such as deployment debris, rocket stages or decoys – is universally recognized as essential to the effective operation of a missile defense system.  And the current U.S. GMD national missile defense system is officially claimed to be very effective. But if a defense system is very effective at identifying the warhead from among other objects, shouldn’t it also be able subsequently to determine if the warhead has been hit and destroyed?  Why then is an additional kill assessment capability needed?

Read the full post »

The Sea-Based Terminal Program and the SM-6 Dual Interceptors (July 25, 2016)

Sea-Based Terminal

Most of the attention given the US Navy’s Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) program focuses on its various versions of the SM-3 anti-missile interceptor.  These missiles, the SM-3 Block IA, the SM-3 Block IB and the forthcoming SM-3 Block IIA, intercept their targets above the atmosphere and are intended to provide coverage over large areas (particularly the Block IIA).  However, this post discusses the Missile Defense Agency’s and the Navy’s Sea-Based Terminal (SBT) program, which is developing and deploying lower-altitude, within-the atmosphere ballistic missile defense interceptors.

An SBT capability offers several possible benefits.  First, it provides a second layer of ballistic missile defense for Navy ships and nearby areas, thereby potentially increasing the overall effectiveness of the Aegis BMD system.  SBT interceptors operate in a completely different way than the SM-3 interceptors.  The SBT interceptors home in on their target using radar, maneuver using atmospheric forces, and kill with a high-explosive fragmentation warheads, while SM-3 interceptors use infrared homing, maneuver using rocket thruster (divert thrusters), and kill using direct high-speed collisions.  These differences in operating principles may make it less likely that a countermeasure (or other circumstance) that defeats an SM-3 interceptor can also defeat an SBT interceptor.  Second, SBT interceptors can potentially intercept shorter-range missiles, such as Scuds (or longer range missiles on depressed trajectories) that do not leave the atmosphere (that is, rise above about 100 km altitude) and thus cannot be intercepted by SM-3 interceptors.  Third, SBT interceptors are likely to be much less expensive, by a factor of three or more, than SM-3 interceptors.  Finally, SBT interceptors can also be used to intercept aircraft (and soon ships), allowing more efficient use of the limited number of vertical launch tubes on Navy ships.

SM-2 Block IV, Block IVA, and Block IV (modified)

In the 1990s, the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and the U.S. Navy planned to develop a terminal phase ballistic missile defense system known as Navy Lower Tier.  (In parallel, BMDO was developing the Navy Upper Tier interceptor, which was renamed Navy Theater Wide, and eventually evolved into the current SM-3 Aegis BMD interceptors.)  This program, which was renamed Navy Area Defense in 1996, was based on a new version of the Navy’s existing extended-range air defense missile the SM-2 Block IV.  The SM-2 Block IV operates within the atmosphere, uses semi-active radar homing and has a high-explosive fragmentation warhead.

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THAAD Radar Ranges (July 17, 2016)

A central element of the debate surrounding the recent decision by South Korea to allow the United States to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system on its territory is the range of the THAAD’s radar. China argues that the THAAD radar will be able to look deep into its territory; supporters of the deployment counter that the radar will be configured so that its range will be limited.

The radar used with a THAAD battery is the X-band AN/TPY-2.  The TPY-2 radar has two configurations.  It can be configured as Terminal Mode (TM) radar, in which it operates as the fire control radar for a THAAD battery.  Alternatively, it can be set up as a Forward-Based Mode (FBM) radar, in which it relays tracking and discrimination data to a remote missile defense system, such as the U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse (GMD) system.  If THAAD is deployed to South Korea, The United States has stated that its TPY-2 radar would be in the shorter-range TM configuration.  Since in the TM mode, the radar reportedly only has a range of 600 km, supporters of the THAAD deployment argue that while its range is adequate to cover N. Korea, it cannot look deeply into China.  Critics of this argument point out that in the FBM mode the radar has a much greater range, and that the radar can be converted from TM to FBM (or vice versa) in only eight hours or less.  According to a U.S. Army manual, “The hardware used by the two modes is identical, but their controlling software, operating logic, and communications package are different.”[1]  In addition the radar is highly mobile: it can be transported by air and can be operational with four hours of reaching its deployment site.

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THAAD Flight and Intercept Tests Since 2005 (July 10, 2016)

Flight tests of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system since developmental testing resumed in 2005 and planned future tests.


Figure 1. THAAD intercept tests since 2005. In April 2012, the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation stated that “due to budget constraints within the agency, MDA had decided to slow the pace of THAAD testing to about one test every eighteen months.[1] 

FTT-01 (November 22, 2005:  First launch of an operationally-configured THAAD interceptor.[2]  The launch, conducted at the White Sands Test Range (WSMR), successfully demonstrated the operation of missile and kill vehicle, although no target was used and thus no intercept was attempted.  The THAAD TPY-2 radar does not appear to have participated in this test.

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SM-3 Block IIA Testing Chronology (July 7, 2016)

SM-3 Block IIA Testing Chronology

SCD PTV-01 (October 2013): SM-3 Cooperative Development (SCD) Propulsion Test Vehicle (PTV)-01. A test of the Block IIA booster rocket and canister, reportedly successful, intended to demonstrate that The Block IIA could be launched from the Vertical Launching System used on U.S. Navy Aegis ships and at Aegis Ashore sites.

SCD CTV-01 (June 6, 2015): SCD Controlled Test Vehicle (CTV)-01.  First flight test of SM-3 Block IIA.  It was not an intercept test and no target was present.  The Missile Defense Agency stated that the test “successfully demonstrated flyout through nosecone deployment and third stage deployment.”[1]  According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the test was delayed by about 5 months.[2]

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Strategic Capabilities of SM-3 Block IIA Interceptors (June 30, 2016)

In two previous posts, I made estimated projections forward in time of the number of U.S. Navy ballistic missile defense (BMD) capable ships and the number of SM-3 BMD interceptors.[1]  These projections reached two main conclusions: (1) The number of BMD capable ships would reach the upper seventies (77) by 2040; and (2) The number of SM-3 Block IIA interceptors (including possible more advanced version of the missile) would be in the hundreds, possibly 500-600 or more, by the mid-to-late 2030s.

Several developments since those posts were written illustrate the uncertain nature of such projections.  In February 2016, it was revealed that the Navy had decided to upgrade three additional Flight IIA Aegis destroyers to the full advanced BMD capability (under the previous plan these three ships would have had no SM-3 BMD capability).[2]  In addition, it is still unclear how long the five Aegis BMD cruisers will remain in service, although this makes no difference to the longer term projections..

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