A multiple-choice quiz to test your knowledge about the GMD system (you may notice a trend in the answers). (May 21, 2012)

The Ground-Based Midcourse (GMD) national missile defense system is intended to protect U.S territory from long-range missile attack, such as from intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that might be built in the future by North Korea or Iran.  The system now deploys 30 Ground-Based Interceptors (GBIs) in silos in Alaska and California.  The first GBI was deployed in July 2004 and the first intercept test of using an operationally-configured GBI (that is one that is nominally the same as the deployed interceptors) was in September 2006.

Here‘s a simple multiple-choice quiz to test your knowledge about the GMD system (you may notice a trend in the answers).  Bear in mind that over the last decade numerous U.S. officials have stated the GMD system is already highly effective (“ninety percent plus” according to the Missile Defense Agency’s current Director — see the post of  April 27 on Thirteen Claims about GMD Effectiveness for details).

 (1) How many (percent) of the GMD flight tests have revealed problems that required subsequent modifications to the GBI interceptors?

(a) 20%.

(b) 50%.

(c) 70%.

(d) Every one.


(2) In March of this year, in the face of congressional questions about whether the current total number of 30 deployed GBI interceptors was sufficient, the Pentagon stated that it would:

(a) Double the number of deployed interceptors within five years.

(b) Develop and deploy a submarine-based version of the GBI interceptor.

(c) Not permit North Korea or Iran to deploy more than 30 ICBMs.

(d) Modify already deployed interceptors to at least double their effectiveness by 2018.


(3) The most recent successful intercept test of the GMD system was:

(a) In 2012.

(b) In 2011.

(c) In 2009.

(d) Longer ago.


(4) According to the current Director of the Missile Defense Agency, each of the 30 GBI interceptors currently deployed in silos in Alaska and California:

(a) Are the final production version of the interceptor.

(b) Cost about $50 million each.

(c) Have a planned lifetime of at least 30 years.

(d) Are basically prototypes.


(5) The largest and most powerful radar in the GMD system (in terms of antenna size and power output) is the Cobra Dane radar on Shemya Island in the Aleutian Islands.  This radar:

(a) Is considered by the Missile Defense Agency to be a vital part of the GMD system.

(b) Will soon need large scale (and expensive) hardware upgrades if it is to continue to operate.

(c) Has never participated in a GMD intercept test.

(d) All of the above.


(6) How many times has the new CE-II version of the GBI kill vehicle, which is currently deployed on ten of the thirty GBI interceptors, successfully intercepted a test target?

(a) Three times.

(b) Twice.

(c) Once.

(d) Never.


(7) The most capable tracking and discrimination sensor in the GMD system is the Sea-Based X-Band (SBX) radar.  In February 2012, the Pentagon announced that the SBX:

(a) Would be upgraded to double its tracking range.

(b) Would be permanently deployed to the Sea of Japan in order to monitor North Korean ballistic missile activities.

(c) Would be playing an increasingly important role in the GMD system.

(d) Would be placed in a limited status, in order to reduce the costs of operating it.


(8) How many intercept tests of operationally-configured interceptors has the GMD system conducted against an ICBM-range target?

(a) Five.

(b) Three.

(c) One.

(d) None.


(9) According to the Missile Defense Agency, the first successful intercept test of an operationally-configured GBI interceptor was on September 1, 2006.    According to the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, in this test the interceptor:

(a) Successfully picked out the target from a number of decoy warheads.

(b) Was part of an operationally realistic end-to-end test of the GMD system.

(c) Created a lot of space debris.

(d) Did not kill its target.


(10) In September 2007, it was announced that Missile Defense Agency had completed, ahead of schedule, a $26 million mooring facility in Alaska for the Sea-Based X-Band Radar (SBX).  Which of the following is true about this facility?

(a) It has proven to be essential for SBX operations.

(b) It is conveniently located near a major Alaskan city.

(c) It has lovely year-round weather.

(d) The SBX has never used it.


(11) According to an April 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office, the cost to demonstrate a single successful intercept by the new CE-II version of the GBI’s kill vehicle is now expected to be about:

(a) $200 million.

(b) $400 million.

(c) $750 million.

(d) $1 billion.


(12) How many GMD intercept tests has the MDA conducted of operationally-configured interceptors using targets equipped with countermeasures (decoys and other objects intended to potentially defeat the defense)?  In how many of these tests did the interceptor successfully pick the target out from amongst the countermeasures and hit it?

(a) Three and three.

(b) Two and one.

(c) None and none.

(d) Three and none.




Of course, the answer to all of the questions is (d).  Some details:

(1) A Government Accountability Office report released last month stated:

“As we previously reported, to date all GMD flight tests have revealed issues that led to either a hardware or software change to the ground-based interceptors.”[1]


(2). According to MDA Director Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly at a March 6 2012 congressional hearing, “Most important, our GBI enhancements will effectively double the firepower of our 30 operational GBIs over the next six years.”[2] At the same hearing, Bradley Roberts, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense, made the same argument: “Working closely with MDA, we have determined that significant improvement is possible in the performance of the existing system with the current inventory.  Indeed, the performance can be at least doubled.  In essence, we can double the number of ICBMs the current force is capable of defeating without adding a single new GBI.”

(3).The last successful GMD intercept test was FTG-05 on December 5, 2008.

(4). According to MDA Director Lt. General Patrick O’Reilly, at a hearing of the Strategic Forces subcommittee of  the House Armed Services Committee on March 31, 2011, in response to a question about whether the current number of Ground-Based Interceptors was sufficient: 

“We do not have a lot of the data that you would normally have before you filled a system just due to the urgency, as you say, the need, because the GMD is our only homeland defense system.  So we put prototypes — they’re more akin to prototypes than production representative missiles in the field.”

Note that no new interceptors have been deployed since Gen. O’Reilly made this statement since production of new kill vehicle was suspended following the failure of intercept test FTG-06a in December 2012.  The GBIs cost at least $80 million each and are planned to have about a 20 year service life.

(5) Because of its location and (fixed) orientation, Cobra Dane has never participated in a GMD intercept test. (It has been used to observe a number of missiles that were not interceptor targets.)  According to the GAO, MDA has described the radar as vital to the GMD system, but that “Cobra Dane will soon be in need of large-scale hardware upgrades to continue to operate.”[3]  According to the Department of Defense, the decision on upgrading Cobra Dane will not be made by MDA but will be a departmental decision, made after consultation with other agencies.

(6). The new version of the kill vehicle has never even had a successful flight test, much less a successful intercept test.  Its only two intercept tests so far, FTG-06 in January 2010 and FTG-06a in December 2010, both failed to produce an intercept.

(7) The MDA’s fiscal year 2013 budget summary states that, starting in FY 2013 the SBX would be placed in “a limited test and contingency operations status.”[4]  Spending on the SBX would be reduced from about $178 million in FY 2012 to less than $10 million in FY 2013.  At a February 13, 2012 press conference, Frank Kendall, Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics discussed the reasons for cutting the SBX program: “The SBX is a large X-band research development radar primarily.  It’s very expensive to keep and operate.  And we thought we could get adequate for the testing that we’re doing without that radar.  So that’s essentially the reason.  It’s largely an affordability issue where we have other centers that can — that can fill in the gap.”[5] 

(8) No operationally-configured GBI has ever been tested against an ICBM-range target.  The MDA has indicated that the first such test is now planned for 2015.  However, in April the GAO reported that the first test against an ICBM would be in 2020.  See the May 12 2012 post on When Will the GMD National Missile Defense System Finally be Tested Against ICBMs? for more details.

(9) At a March 6, 2012 hearing of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, J. Michael Gilmore, the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation stated that this test “did not achieve a kill” and that “the first actual intercept with a kill” did not occur until more than a year later.  See the April 19 post on What Does “Successful Intercept” Mean? for more details.

(10) The mooring facility was completed in Kuluk Bay near Adak on Adak Island, Alaska (population about 330 in 2010).[6]  Exactly why the SBX has never moored there is unclear.[7]  Perhaps the routinely occurring 30 foot waves and 130+ miles per hour winds in the Bering Sea, as pointed out by the Coast Guard, had something to do with the decision.  In any event, the SBX now operates in a nomadic mode with no homeport.

(11) According to an April 2012 GAO report, “The cost to confirm the CE-II capability through flight testing has increased from $236 million to about $1 billion dollars due to the flight test failures as noted in table 4.”[8] Moreover, the GAO also noted that these costs do “not reflect the costs already expended during development of the interceptor and target” and that “the total costs for determining the root cause [of the test failures] and developing the design changes has not been fully developed.”

(12) Since 2005, MDA has conducted three intercept tests against targets carrying countermeasures.  In the first of these, FGT-05 in December 2008, the countermeasures failed to deploy, although the interceptor reportedly hit its target.  In the second and third tests, FTG-06 and FTG-06a, both in 2010, the countermeasures reportedly deployed successfully, but both interceptors failed to hit their target (for reasons apparently unrelated to the countermeasures).

[1] Government Accountability Office, “Missile Defense: Opportunity Exists to Strengthen Acquisitions by Reducing Concurrency,” April 2012, pp. 18-19.

[2] Hearing of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, March 6, 2012.

[3] Government Accountability Office, “Missile Defense: Actions Needed to Improve Transparency and Accountability,” GAO-11-372, March 2011, p. 76.

[4] Missile Defense Agency (MDA) Fiscal year 2013 Budget Outline. Available at: http://www.mda.mil/global/documents/pdf/budgetfy13.pdf

[6] “Boeing Announces Completion of Sea-based Radar’s Mooring System, Space Daily, and September 25, 2007.

[7] William Cole, “On the Ball,” Honolulu Star-Advertiser, January 23, 2011.

[8] Government Accountability Office, “Missile Defense: Opportunity Exists to Strengthen Acquisitions by Reducing Concurrency,” April 2012, pp. 75.

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