National Missile Defense: Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) Testing Update. Why so long until the next CE-II Test? Is it because of “fly before you buy?” (March 18, 2013)

At last Friday’s Pentagon press conference announcing plans to deploy 14 additional Ground-Based  interceptors (GBIs) in existing silos as part the of current Ground-Based Midcourse (GMD) national missile defense system, a revision to the GBI intercept testing program was also revealed.


A prototype version  of the EKV kill vehicle (Photograph:

The new version of the GBI’s kill vehicle, the Capability Enhancement II (CE-II), failed to intercept its targets in its only two flight tests, both in 2010.  As a result, deliveries of new CE-II kill vehicles have been suspended (and the CE-I version can no longer be built). As of the end of 2012, the plan was that the next GBI flight test would be CTV-01, a non-intercept attempt flight with a modified CE-II kill vehicle.  If this test, scheduled for early 2013, succeeded, then an intercept test (FTG-06b) using a CE-II kill vehicle would be conducted this summer, and if this test succeeded, then deliveries of the CE-II kill vehicle could resume.

The non-intercept test CTV-01 was successfully conducted in January.  However, at the March 15 press conference, it was stated that the FTG-06b intercept test of the CE-II kill vehicle would be delayed until at least the fall, and that in its place a test using the earlier CE-I kill vehicle would be conducted this summer.  According to Admiral James Winnefeld, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “We’re going to flight-test the CE-1 this summer, and we are going to hopefully flight-test the CE-2 after we build it this fall.”

When asked about the reason for the delay in the CE-II intercept test (which must be successfully completed before deliveries of new interceptors can resume), the Pentagon representatives said it was  because they had just started to build the CE-II kill vehicle, and that building it was a lengthy process.

In response to a question about where they were in the process of preparing for the test, Admiral Winnefeld stated that: “They’re — they’ve started assembling — you know, acquiring the components and assembling the additional EKV.  And that’s a — that’s a very technical piece of equipment; it takes a while to put together.”

Now if you have not been following the story of the CE-II closely, it might seem somewhat surprising that they have to wait many months until an entirely new CE-II kill vehicle is assembled from scratch.  After, all, there are already ten CE-IIs deployed in silos.  A brief review of the history of the CE-II can shed some light on what is going on.

The first GBIs deployed in 2004 and were equipped with the original CE-I kill vehicle (see the post of March 28 for a GBI deployment chronology).  Twenty four of these were ultimately deployed, the last in September 2007.  However, in the rush to deploy, these kill vehicles were built with parts that were not sustainable, and thus in 2005 the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) began develop a new version, the CE-II kill vehicle.  Although the primary reason for the developing the new kill vehicle was obsolescence of components, some improvements in capability were also made.  The first GBI with the new CE-II kill vehicle was deployed in October 2008.

The first flight and intercept test of a GBI with a CE-II kill vehicle was conducted in January 2010, and failed due to a quality control problem.  The second CE-II intercept test in December 2010 also failed, this time apparently due to a design flaw in a part new to the CE-II version, a fundamental and much more serious problem.  Following this failure, the MDA announced that all deliveries of CE-IIs would be suspended.

The plan the MDA ultimately announced to address the problem with the CE-II involved two flight tests.  The first test would be a flight test with no target.  This test would use a CE-II with the part that was believed to be defective, but with mitigations for the problems it was believed to be causing.  The kill vehicle would conduct maneuvers in space to confirm the cause of the problem, which was believed to be caused by high-frequency vibrations from the kill vehicle’s maneuvering rocket thrusters.  If this test was successful (and it was successfully carried out in January), a second test would be conducted using a new replacement part for the defective component.  If this second test, which would be an intercept test, was successful, then production and deliveries of new CE-II kill vehicles would resume.

The problem here is that the defective component that is being replaced is at the very core of the kill vehicle, and is one of the first parts required in the assembly process.  If the MDA waited until the January test successfully confirmed the nature of the problem before building new CE-II, as it appears they have done, then construction of a brand new CE-II for the next test would then have to start from the beginning, a process that apparently takes many months.  The testing delay in this case thus appears to be actually attributable to following a “fly before you buy” (or in this case “fly before you build)” process.  At the March 15 press conference, both Admiral Winnefeld and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller attributed the delay in testing to following a fly before you buy process.

Not so good from a “fly before you buy” perspective are the ten GBIs armed with CE-II kill vehicles with the defective part that are already deployed in silos in Alaska and California.  These kill vehicles will have to be pulled from the silos, almost completely disassembled, and then reassembled with the new part, at a cost that the GAO last year estimated as about $18 million each.[1]

[1] Government Accountability Office, “Missile Defense: Opportunity Exists to Strengthen Acquisitions by Reducing Concurrency,” GAO-12-486, April 2012, p. 78.  Available at:

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