When will the GMD national missile defense system finally be tested against ICBMs? 2015? 2020? (May 2, 2012)

When will the GMD national missile defense system finally be tested against ICBMs?   The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) says 2015, but the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the first test against ICBMs is now scheduled for 2020.  In either case, it will be more than a decade after the system became operational.

The United States’ Ground-Based Midcourse (GMD) national missile defense system, with interceptors based in Alaska (26) and California (4), is intended to defend the United States from possible future intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that might be developed by countries such as North Korea or Iran.  ICBMs have been defined by the Missile Defense Agency as having a range of 5,500 km (3,410 miles) or more.  And ICBMs are the relevant threat for the GMD system, since the vast majority of the U.S. population is located more than 5,500 km from North Korea or Iran.

For example, ranges from the North Korea ballistic missile launch test site (the eastern site, not the western site which is further from U.S. territory) to several of the nearest large U.S. cities are:

            Anchorage:                  5,630 km

            Honolulu:                     7040 km

           Seattle:                           7,900 km

          San Francisco:             8,610 km

and all U.S. territory is at least 8,500 km from Iran.

However, the GMD system has never tested an operationally-configured interceptor (one that is essentially the same as those that are currently deployed, rather than a prototype) against an ICBM-range target. 

Official statements about when the first test against an ICBM will occur have varied over the last year or so.   In March 2011 testimony, the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) J. Michael Gilmore stated that the first GMD test against an ICBM target would not occur until 2017:

“And then, finally, I assess the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system at level three because it has been test only against IRBMs.  The first ICBM test is now scheduled for the fourth quarter of fiscal 2017 in simple threat presentations with no silos, no simultaneous engagements, and many of the models are not accredited.”[1]  [An IRBM is an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile, which has a shorter range than an ICBM.]

However, an August 2011 MDA figure shows the first test against an ICBM target occurring in 2015, as part of the FTO-02 test, an operational test involving not only the GMD system, but other shorter-range defenses such as Aegis and THAAD.[2] The GMD portion of FTO-02, which is shown in yellow on the chart, was to involve a salvo test in which two GMD interceptors would be fired at a single ICBM target.  The 2017 test against an ICBM target cited above by Gilmore remains in the schedule (FTG-12) on the chart, but was subsequently postponed until the 4th quarter of 2021.[3] 


After this chart was made,  the GMD component of FTO-02 was pulled out of that test and  set up as a separate GMD test, FTG-11, still with same 4th quarter of FY 2015 date.  [FTG-11 had in fact previously been eliminated in order to incorporate its activities in FTO-02, which has now apparently been delayed.]

In his written statement to Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee on March 06, 2012, Gilmore reaffirmed MDA’s plan to test against an ICBM in 2015:

“The MDA maintained the GMD test sequence in IMTP 12.1.  The MDA will conduct their first engagement of an ICBM, with a target flying a range of greater than 5,000 km, in FY 15.  This will also be the first salvo test of two interceptors fired at a single target.”   [IMTP is the Integrated Master Test Plan, which is updated  every six months.  IMTP 12.1 is the most recent version, approved in March 2012.]  Gilmore submitted the same statement to the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces of the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 25, 2012.

The striking thing about Gilmore’s statement is that it seems to define an ICBM as having a range of greater than 5,000 km.  However, the usual definition, and the one used previously by MDA, is that an ICBM has a range greater than 5,500 km.

Meanwhile, on April 20 2012, the Government Accountability Office  released a report stating that the first test against an ICBM target had been delayed until 2020.  Specifically, the report stated:[4]

“MDA canceled the planned intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) competition because the new test plans delay the need for the first ICBM target by several years” and “Specialized ICBM contract solicitation canceled in February 2011 — acquisition delayed to align with the first ICBM test in 2020.”

Thus, according to the GAO, plans to test against an ICBM target had been pushed back to 2020 by at least February 2011, contrary to the subsequent statements by MDA and DOT&E.  An alternative (and somewhat speculative) interpretation, raised by DOT&E Gilmore’s statement, is that MDA may have redefined tests against missiles with ranges between 5,000 and 5,500 km (which would traditionally be classified as IRBMS not ICBMs) , as tests against ICBMs. 

In any event, it is clear that the first test against an ICBM, the threat the GMD system is intended to counter,  will not take place until more than a decade after it became operational in 2004.[5]

[1] J. Michael Gilmore, Director, Operational Test and Evaluation,  Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, House Armed Services Committee, March 31, 2011.

[2] Patrick J. O’Reilly, “Ballistic Missile Defense Overview – Phased Adaptive Approach,” briefing slides, 2011 Space and Missile Defense Conference, August 17, 2011.

[3] Director, Office of Operational Test and Evaluation, 2011 Annual Report, p. 264.

[4] Government Accountability Office, “Missile Defense: Opportunity Exists to Strengthen Acquisitions by Reducing Concurrency,”GAO-12-486, April 2012, p. 90.

[5] According to DOT&E Gilmore’s March 6, 2012 testimony, the Bush Administration declared a GMD limited option capability achieved on September 30, 2004 and NORTHCOM accepted this capability on December 31, 2004. 

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