Ballistic Missile Defense: Update on GMD Testing (December 21, 2012)

The last time I reviewed the Ground-Based Midcourse (GMD) system testing situation was in May 2012 (, at which time the GMD testing program was attempting to recover from the failure of its two most recent intercept tests.  At that time it was expected that the next GMD flight test would be CTV-01, a non-intercept test then scheduled for July 2012.  If CTV-01 was successful, the next test would be an intercept test, FTG-06b that would be held in December 2012 or later.  However, neither test has taken place yet.

This post briefly updates the schedule for these tests and also adds some recently reported information on the cause of the most recent test GMD intercept test failure (FTG-06a).


CTV-01 and FTG-06b (Source: Missile Defense Agency)


The last successful intercept test of the GMD system was FTG-05, conducted on December 5, 2008.  This test used the original  CE-I version of the Exo-Atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV). Although the EKV successfully hit its target, the test did not go flawlessly.  According to the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, “An interceptor malfunction, although not affecting achievement of test objectives, resulted in a hardware change to mitigate the risk of a similar GMD interceptor malfunction.[1]  In addition, this test was supposed to be the first test of an operational interceptor against a target accompanied by “countermeasures.”  However, the countermeasures failed to deploy correctly.

The next test intercept test was FTG-06, which took place on January 31, 2010.  This was the first flight test using the new CE-II version of the EKV, and it failed to hit its target.  There were at least two significant problems.  First, the SBX radar encountered unexpected “chuffing” (additional material coming out of the booster following the end of powered flight) that caused it to shut down.  In addition, a connector problem on the EKV (“a lockwire was not inserted during the EKV manufacturing process”) caused one of its maneuvering thrusters to fail.[2]

The next (and most recent) intercept test was FTG-06a, conducted on December 15, 2010.  This test was a repeat of the previous FTG-06, and in it the CE-II kill vehicle again failed to hit its target, although for a different reason.  According to a failure review board, “The EKVs guidance system had a fault related to outer space-related dynamic environments which caused the EKV to fail in the final seconds of the test” and “There is no indication of any quality control problem as the source of the failure.”[3]  The failure review board also concluded that CE-I version of the EKV did not have the problem that caused this failure.

Because the failure of FTG-06a apparently involved a design flaw rather than a quality role failure, it had severe consequences.  MDA announced it would stop accepting deliveries of CE-II EKVs (CE-Is were no longer being built) until the problem was corrected.  However, ten of the thirty EKVs deployed in silos were already equipped with the CE-II kill vehicles, and MDA announced that these would not be regarded as operational until the problem was corrected.

In addition to ground-testing, MDA announced two new GMD flight tests that would be part of the process of identifying and correcting the problem encountered in FTG-06a.  The first test, CTV-01, would be a non-intercept test using a version of the suspected defective part in order to confirm the problem identified through ground testing.  If CTV-01 was successful, the next test, FTG-06b, would be a repeat of FTG-06a, but with a new replacement for the defective part.

As the GAO noted, the failure investigations and additional flight test have brought the cost of confirming a CE-II intercept capability to about $1 billion, assuming the next two tests succeed.[4]  In addition, the test failures have caused several years delays and resulted in the cancellation of at least two planned flight tests (FTG-07 and FTG-09).


What happened with FTG-06a?

In April 2011, MDA Director Patrick O’Reilly told Congress that a failure review board had reached a preliminary conclusion about the cause of the FTG-06a failure, although they were not able to duplicate it on earth:

“In our latest GMD test, we did have a failure mode that could not be replicated on the earth.  And that’s why I’m going to request an additional fix to verify we fixed it.  The earth’s gravitation is one problem with testing it on the ground and literally the rotation of the earth.

These are very sensitive items and you must be in flight testing.

And the frequencies and shocks that we can replicate on the ground are limited even with our best capabilities, our best facilities.   So one of the problems is until you’re into flight testing you can’t replicate it on the ground, but you can do a lot.”[5]

The GAO subsequently reported that the problem was with the CE-II EKV’s inertial measurement unit (part of its guidance system) and that this unit needed “redesign and additional development.”[6]

In December 2012, it was reported that the problem was suspected to be in the EKV’s guidance system and to be caused by vibrations from the EKV’s thruster system (which is used to maneuver the EKV into a collision with its target).  Boeing has developed a high-frequency test bed (up to 80 kHz) that is being used to assess both the problem and potential solutions. [7]


When Will the Tests Take Place?

The non-intercept test CTV-01 has now been delayed until late January 2013.[8]  If it is successful, the FTG-06b intercept test could take place by the summer of 2013.  If this test is successful, deliveries of CE-II kill vehicles would resume.  MDA has previously stated that if the CTV-01 test is unsuccessful, it may conduct its next intercept test using a CE-I kill vehicle.[9]

[1] DOT&E, GMD, 2009.

[2]  Government Accountability Office, “Missile Defense: Opportunity Exists to Strengthen Acquisition by Reducing Concurrency,” GAO-12-486, April 2012, p. 74.

[3] “Outer Space Environment Causes MDA Flight Test Failure, Board Finds,” Space and Missile Defense Report, October 24, 2011.

[4] Government Accountability Office, GAO-12-486, p. 75.

[5] Lt. General Patrick O’Reilly, Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Senate Armed Services Committee, April 13, 2011.

[6] Government Accountability Office, GAO-12-486, p. 74.

[7] Guy Norris, “Valuable Vibrations,” Aviation Week and Space Technology,  December 3, 2012, p. 28; Amy Butler, “Next Flight of Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System Slips,” Aerospace Daily and Defense Report, December 7, 2012, p. 1.

[8] Butler, “Next Flight Test.”

[9] Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, Opening Statement, Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, April 18, 2012.

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