What does “successful intercept” mean? Maybe not what you think. (April 19, 2012)

What happened with FTG-02?  And what does “successful intercept” mean?

The Missile Defense Agency has long claimed that the first intercept test using the operational version of the Ground-Based Interceptor of its GMD national missile defense system resulted in a “successful intercept.”  But the Pentagon’s own test and evaluation office recently revealed that the interceptor actually failed to kill its target. 

The operational version of the Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) of the U.S. Ground-based Mid-course Defense (GMD) national missile defense system has been flight tested seven times.  The last two tests, both in 2010, were intercept tests using a new version of the Exo-Atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV), and both of these tests failed.  However, the MDA stresses that the bulk of the thirty GBIs currently deployed carry an older version of the EKV [see post of April 3 for the differences between the two versions of the kill vehicles] and that this version has been successful in all five of its flight tests, including three intercept tests.  This statement has been repeated as recently as yesterday (April 18, 2012), when MDA Director Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly told a hearing of the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee that “…the original missile, exo-atmospheric kill vehicle is deployed today, it’s been successful in five tests, three intercept tests and two other flight tests and we’ve never seen any indication of a problem on the ground with it…”[1]

However, a month and a half ago, the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) J. Michael Gilmore clearly stated that the first of these three tests that MDA claims as successful intercepts did not in fact destroy its target.  Specifically, in his opening statement at a March 6, 2012 Congressional Hearing (MDA Director Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly was also on the panel), Gilmore stated that:

“The first flight test of the GBI and kill vehicle that were actually deployed occurred on 1 September, 2006, about two years after the initial deployment was declared.  That was a zero-offset fly-by that did not achieve a kill.  The first actual intercept with a kill occurred on 28 September, ‘07.”[2]

So what happened with this test? And how can a “successful intercept” not kill its target?



The test in question here is FTG-02, which took place on February 1, 2006.  This was the first GMD test against a target using the both the kill vehicle and the Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) missile booster that were (already) deployed.  An actual intercept of the target was not a primary objective of the test.  This scenario corresponds with Gilmore’s description of the test as a “zero-offset fly-by.”  However, while an intercept was not the primary objective of the test, as discussed below it was in fact an objective of the test.   

The target missile was launched from Kodiak Island and the interceptor was launched from a silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.  The target missile released a threat representative warhead target (a mock reentry vehicle).  The Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) missile interceptor released an EKV that, in the vacuum of outer space, detected, homed in on, and maneuvered to intercept the target.  There were no decoys or other countermeasures used in this test.  However, it is very likely that the third stage of the target’s rocket booster as well as other objects associated with target’s deployment would have been visible to the EKV’s infrared seeker.  The primary radar used in the test was the PAVE PAWS Upgraded Early Warning Radar at Beale Air Force Base in California.

Video of the test posted on the MDA’s website show what appears to be a bright flash apparently associated with a high-speed impact by the EKV.[3]  This flash looks very similar to those seen in later successful intercepts.

The next test of the operational interceptor and kill vehicle was FTG-03a, a successful intercept test which took place on September 28.  This is the test that Gilmore describes above as “the first actual intercept with a kill.”

Claims of a “successful intercept”

Immediately after the FTG-02 test and up to the present day, the MDA has claimed that that FTG-02 produced a successful intercept of the warhead (reentry vehicle) target.

At a news briefing following the test (the same day), then MDA Director Lt. General Henry Obering III, began by announcing “I’m pleased to announce that the test that we executed today was total success.  In fact, it exceeded even our primary objective on the test.  And we also met all the secondary objectives on the test.”[4] Later in same the briefing, he stated that: “But I will tell you that what we do know now is that we did, in fact, exceed our objective.  We did intercept the reentry vehicle, and we did use the operational radar data to provide the initial track for that intercept.  And the kill vehicle performed its own discrimination and targeting of the kill vehicle.”

In his written statement to the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee the next spring, Lt. Gen Obering similarly stated: “After the kill vehicle acquired the target launched out of Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska nearly 3,000 km away from the engagement zone, it successfully intercepted it.”[5]

The successful target intercept in FTG-02 is referenced in MDA’s often repeated claim that the currently deployed GBI interceptors with the older version of the EKV have been successful in all of three of their intercept tests.  For example, in March 2011, current MDA Director Lt. General Patrick O’Reilly stated in congressional testimony that “We have two versions of the GMD missile.  The first version is called capability enhancement number one and it’s the kill vehicle that has performed five times on flight, has done very well, three intercept attempts and its intercepted three times.[6] 

This claim is repeated graphically in a chart from a November 2011 Missile Defense Agency Factsheet, the relevant part of which is shown below.[7]  The “3 of 5 successful intercepts using operationally configured interceptors” are the last three with check marks: FTG-02, FTG-03a, and FTG-05. 

Possible Explanations

My first reaction to seeing DOT&E Gilmore’s statement at the March 6 hearing was that perhaps it was a mistake.  However, I have confirmed that that DOT&E does in fact assess FTG-02 as not achieving a kill, specifically meaning that the warhead target was not destroyed, although it may have been hit. [8]

If the warhead indeed was not killed, how can one explain MDA’s claim that FTG-02 produced a successful intercept?

One possible explanation is that since an intercept was not a primary objective of FTG-02, the test could be successful even if an intercept was not achieved. 

However, even if not the primary objective, an intercept was clearly an objective of FTG-02.  This is made clear in an exchange between MDA Director Obering and Senator Levin about the upcoming FTG-02 test during a Senate hearing in April 2006:[9]

“SEN. Levin: And, as I understand it, you are going to try then to intercept the target.  Is that correct?

GEN. Obering: No, sir. It is — if an intercept occurs, it will be a by-product of it.  But it is the first time we’re flying the interceptor out of Vandenberg.  We have flown a target across the Beale radar.  We have not flown the Kill Vehicle — this version of the kill vehicle — against a target as it relates to the radar track information we get from the Beale radar.  So that will be the primary objective.

SEN. Levin: I know that is your primary objective, but is it not an objective to intercept a target?

Gen. Obering: We’re putting a target out there because we want to be able to do the tracking of the target across the radar, feeding that information into the fire control system, getting the interceptor into place, comparing that with the target characterization that is seen by the interceptor.  And so, if — an intercept could occur, yes, sir, but that is not the primary objective.

SEN. Levin: Is that a secondary objective?

GEN. Obering; Yes, sir, it would be.

SEN. Levin: A secondary objective?

GEN. Obering: Yes, sir.

SEN. Levin: Okay. That, to me, is an objective. It may be secondary, but it nonetheless is an objective, and I think it is important that we know that.”

Following the test, as quoted above, General Obering stated that all the secondary objectives of the test had been met.  In addition, MDA’s repeated description of this test a successful intercept test would seem to rule out this explanation. 

This seems to leave only the possibility that the MDA’s definition of “intercept” does not mean the target was destroyed or perhaps even hit.

This use of terminology has occurred before, notably in the U.S. Army’s defense of the performance of the Patriot system against Iraqi Scuds in the 1991 Gulf War.  In a 1992 Congressional Hearing, Brig. General Robert Drolet, the U.S. Army’s Program Executive Officer for Air Defense, argued that the term ‘intercepted” (as used by President Bush in a speech) did not mean “killed or destroyed,” only that “a Patriot and Scud crossed paths in the sky.”[10]

However, in this case MDA is claiming not only an “intercept” but a “successful intercept.”  If MDA’s unqualified use of the term “successful intercept” does not mean the target was killed (as I think most people would assume it does), then MDA clearly needs to clarify what it means by a successful intercept.


[2] Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, House Armed Forces Committee, March 06, 2012, transcript by Federal News Service.  This statement does not appear  in his written testimony submitted to the committee.

[3] Available at: http://www.mda.mil/news/gallery_gmd.html.  It is the first video under the category “2006 GMD Videos.”

[4] U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), News Transcript, “DoD News Briefing with Lt. Gen. Obering from the Pentagon, September 1, 2006.  Available at: http://www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=3710.

[6] Lt. General Patrick O’Reilly, Strategic Forces Subcommittee, House Armed Forces Committee, March 31, 2011.

[7] Ballistic Missile Defense Agency, “Ballistic Missile Defense Intercept Flight Test Record (Updated Nov. 7, 2011), Fact Sheet, November 2011.   Available at: http://www.mda.mil/global/documents/pdf/testrecord.pdf.

[8] Private communication

[9] Hearing of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Fiscal Year 2007 Defense Authorization Request for Missile Defense Programs, April 4, 2006.

[10] The full exchange on this point between Representative John M. Conyers, Jr.,  Chairman of the Legislation and National Security Subcommitee of the Committee on Government Operations, U.S. House of Representatives, and Brig. General Robert Drolet, Program Executive Officer for Air Defense, U.S. Army. (and also  Maj. General Jay M. Garner, Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff, Force Development, U.S. Army), on April 7, 1992 is as follows:

Mr. CONYERS. No we are trying to get the scoring worked out, which may be a little more signficant.

 Let me ask you this about — did you know that President Bush  had gone on national television and claimed that 41 out of the 42 Scuds were intercepted?  Is that news to you?

General GARNER.  I did not know that when he made it, but I have read that since then.

General DROLET: I am glad that you mentioned that, because that has come up on several occasions.  You are correct, the President did say that, and in fact on an ABC film that was shown on TV, and then of course the criticism was, of course, that 41 out of 42 was not correct.  But what eveybody does is that they don’t go on to read the rest of the President’s speech.  And I would like to go through that for a quick second.  You are right, the President said, all told, Patriot was 41 for 42; 42 Scuds engaged, 41 intercepted.  That is where the cut takes place and the criticism comes.

But the very next paragraph, the President said, “I am sure that some experts here would say Patriot is not perfect.  No system is.  No system ever will be.  Not every intercept resulted in total destruction.” So that is what the president said.

Mr. CONYERS. Well, was he in error?

General DROLET. No, sir.

Mr. CONYERS. So he was correct when he said 41 out of 42 Scuds were intercepted

General DROLET. Yes, sir.

Mr. CONYERS. You have records to back that up.

General DROLET. Intercepted?

Mr. CONYERS. Yes, sir.

General DROLET.  Yes, sir.  He did not say killed or destroyed.  He said intercepted.  That means a Scud came in and a Patriot was fired.  But he did not say, nor did we ever say, that all of the Scuds were killed.

Mr. CONYERS.  He didn’t mean they were killed?  He meant intercepted, meaning what in military jargon?

General DROLET. I quote, sir. “I am sure some experts here would say Patriot is not perfect.  No system is.  No system ever wil be. Not every intercept results in total destruction.”

He did not define intercept as a kill.  He just means that a Patriot and Scud crossed paths in the sky.  It was engaged.

Mr. CONYERS. They passed each other in the sky?

General DROLET.  Yes, sir.

Mr. CONYERS. I get it.  That was pretty important that he said that, then.  So he was right, under that definition of intercept, he was right that 41 of 42 Scuds were intercepted, that is, they passed Patriots in the sky.

General DROLET: As far as we could tell, yes, sir.


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