The Real Reasons for the GMD Testing Delays and Problems (July 15, 2013)

On Friday, four high-ranking Republican members of Congress issued a letter blaming the Obama Administration for the slow pace and poor test record of the Ground-Based Midcourse (GMD) national missile defense system.  This widely-publicized letter (see, for example, Barnini Chakraborty, “GOP lawmakers blame Obama Administration over failed missile test,”, July 14, 2013) complained that only three GMD intercept tests and two GMD flight tests had been conducted over the last four and a half years.  The letter laid the blame for this situation on the Obama Administration, stating that “is already clear that President Obama’s decision to drastically cut funding for the GMD Program since he came to office … has drained funding available to conduct needed tests of the system.”

Funding for the GMD system has decreased under the Obama Administration.  This is hardly surprising given that the GMD was transitioning from a system under rapid deployment to one whose core was largely deployed.   However, this decrease in funding was not the primary cause of the problems with the GMD test program.  Rather, these problems were the result of a series of mistakes and bad decisions made (mostly) before Obama took office.  Specifically:

(1) Well before Obama took office on January 20 2009, the Missile Defense Agency had begun deploying a new version of Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) that has a serious but unsuspected design flaw.  In essence, the George W. Bush Administration had left the Obama Administration with a hidden, ticking (albeit slowly) time bomb that would ultimately wreck the GMD testing program.

(2) This defective new version of the GBI was only needed in the first place, because, in its rush to meet a politically motivated deadline established by the George W. Bush Administration, the MDA had deployed GBIs that relied on non-sustainable parts. Moreover, the first operationally-configured interceptor was deployed more than a year before it was first flight tested and more than two years before its first intercept test.

(3) The new version of the GBI also began deployment long before it had even been flight tested, much less intercept tested.

(4) When the first flight and intercept of this new version of the GBI ultimately took place in early 2010, it failed.   However, the MDA simply continued to deploy them as if there were no problem.

(5) When the design flaw in the new version of the GBI was finally uncovered as a result of a second failed intercept test, its disastrous consequences for the entire GMD program became evident.  It resulted in testing delays of at least five and a half years. It caused planned intercept tests to be cancelled.   It cost over a billion dollars.  To put this cost in perspective, at least four or five intercept tests could have been funded with the money that will ultimately be spent to demonstrate that the CE-II equipped GBI can actually hit a target.  One need not look much further for the cause of GMD test delays and the reason funds have been “drained” from the test program.

(6) Finally, the current slowdown in testing of the GMD system did not begin with the Obama nor did it coincide with large reductions in GMD spending.  The slowdown began in 2007-2008, during the second George W. Bush Administration and at a time when spending on the GMD system was still relatively high.

Some further details and data on each of these six points:

(1) Deployment of GBIs with the new CE-II (Capability Enhancement II) kill vehicle began in October 2008, beginning with the 25th GBI to be deployed.  The 30th GBI was deployed in September 2010.  Thereafter, additional new CE-II GBIs replaced already deployed CE-I versions on a one-for-one basis.  The design flaw in the CE-II, which involved a component(s) not used in the older CE-I kill vehicles, was not discovered until sometime after the failure of the FTG-06a intercept test in December 2010, by which time ten of the new CE-II GBIs were already deployed in silos.

(2) In 2002, President George W. Bush directed the Department of Defense to begin deploying an initial set of national missile defense capabilities by 2004.[1]  Deployment of GBIs began on July 22, 2004 when the first GBI was deployed in a silo at Fort Greely, Alaska.  These interceptors were the first ones built to an operational configuration and were equipped with the original Capability Enhancement-1 (CE-I) version of the kill vehicle.  The first flight test of a CE-I GBI was conducted on December 13, 2005  The first intercept test was FTG-02, conducted on September 1, 2006 (although  reported as highly successful at the time, years afterward it was revealed that the interceptor had only struck the target a “glancing blow.”)  Deployment of the CE-I GBIs continued until the end of Fiscal Year 2007, and a total of 24 were deployed. 

Although the 2004 goal for an operational capability was met, in the rush to deploy, the CE-I GBI interceptors were built with non-sustainable parts.   Thus just a year after the first GBI deployment, MDA began developing a new version of the GBI. 

Then MDA Director Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly told Congress in 2011: “However, we started a second version of the missile kill vehicle in 2005 based on obsolescence reasons; parts, manufacturers and so forth not producing parts anymore that – and the electronic systems that we needed.”[2]  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) states that the decision to develop and deploy the CE-II occurred even earlier, in 2004.[3]

While the development and deployment of this new CE-II version of the kill vehicle is often portrayed as a desirable step for the GMD program, one that improved its capabilities, this is not why it happened. As the GAO reports:  “The CE-II EKV was not originally a reliability upgrade or a performance upgrade program.  Its initial priority was replacing obsolete components.  However, updating certain components is expected to result in increased performance.”[4]  As it turned out, updating one of these components would prove disastrous to the GMD program.

(3) MDA began to deploying the new CE-II equipped GBIs before a CE-II kill vehicle had even been flight tested, much less intercept tested.  The first flight and intercept test for a CE-II equipped kill vehicle was FTG-06, held on January 31, 2010, fifteen months after deployment of CE-II GBIs began in October 2008.  

(4) As noted in the point (3) above, the first flight and intercept test of a CE-II GBI was FTG-06, in January 2010.  It was subsequently discovered that the test failed because a part was omitted during the assembly of the kill vehicle. (There was also a serious failure of the SBX radar during this test.)  However, as discussed in (1) above, deliveries and deployment of CE-II GBIs continued.  Deliveries and deployment of CE-II GBIs were not suspended until after the failure of FTG-06a in December 2010, at which point ten were already deployed in silos.

 (5) In 2012, GAO reported that as of February 2012 the cost of the testing the CE-II kill vehicle had reached nearly $1 billion.  These costs are shown in Figure 1 below:[5] 


Figure 1.  Cost of establishing the capability of a CE-II interceptor to hit a target as of February 2012.[6]  Click on the figure for a larger image.

Additional costs since then have certainly pushed the total over $1 billion. (For example, as noted in my post of July 12, the cost of conducting the non-intercept CE-II flight CTV-01 had increased by about $29 million from February 2012 until it was actually conducted in January 2013.  This increase alone puts the total over $1 billion.)

Thus well over $1 billion will ultimately be spent demonstrating the basic operation of the CE-II GBI even if the next test, FTG-06b, is completely successful.  To put this in perspective, the most recent test GMD test, FTG-07, held earlier this month, reportedly cost about $214 million (although the costs of investigating its failure will increase this.)  In 2012, MDA told Congress that the planned future tests FTG-11 and FTG-13 would cost $206 and $191 million respectively.  At roughly $200 million each, MDA could have conducted roughly five intercept tests for the over $1 billion it will expend trying to get a CE-II interceptor to hit a target. 

Moreover, as the graphic from the GAO below illustrates, the problems with the CE-II GBIs imposed at least a five and a half year delay in the GMD testing program.


Figure 2.  Figure from 2013 GAO Report  showing at least five years of delay in the GMD testing program due to problems with the new CE-II GBIs.[7]  Click on the figure for a larger image.

(6) The dramatic slowdown in planned GMD testing occurred in 2007-2008, during the second term of President George W. Bush.  As the top part of the GAO chart below shows, as of September 2006 (following the reportedly successful  FTG-02 test), MDA planned to conduct seven intercept tests (one involving two interceptors) by the end of calendar year 2008.  However, as the lower part of the chart shows, only two tests actually were conducted by the end of 2008.  Moreover, the third test in the lower part of the figure, FTG-06, which is shown as planned for FY2009, did not actually take place until 2Q FY 2010 (and it failed).  Thus the slowdown in GMD testing the letter from the Republican Congressmen complains about was initiated during George W. Bush’s Administration, and at a time during which GMD spending was still relatively high.


Figure 3.  GAO chart illustrating the reductions that occurred in 2007-2008 in the number of planned GMD tests through FY2010.[8]  Click on the figure for a larger image.


[1] See, for example, Government Accountability Office, “Defense Acquisitions: Production and Fielding of Missile Defense Components Continue with Less Testing and Validation Than Planned,” GAO-09-338, March 2009, p. 1.  Available at:

[2]Strategic Forces Subcommittee, House Armed Services Committee, March 31, 2011.

[3]Government Accountability Office, “Missile Defense: Opportunity Exists to Strengthen Acquisitions by Concurrency,” GAO-12-486, April 2012,  p. 77.  Available at:

[4]GAO-12-486, p. 77.

[5] GAO-12-486, p. 75.

[6] GAO-12-486, p. 75.

[7] Government Accountability Office, “Missile Defense: Opportunity to Refocus on Strengthening Acquisition Management,” GAO-13-432, April 2013, p. 96.  Available at:

[8] GAO-09-338, p. 29.

How much will GMD Test FTG-06b Cost? More than $300 million? (July 12, 2013)

An article posted on Inside Defense SITREP on Wednesday cites MDA spokesman Richard Lehner as stating that the upcoming FTG-06b test of the Ground-Based Midcourse (GMD) national missile defense system was expected to cost between $229 million and $269 million.[1]  However, publicly available information suggests that the cost could be much higher, to the extent that this could be the first test to top the $300 million mark.

FTG-06b is to be the third intercept attempt for the GMD system using a Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) equipped with the new CE-II version of the Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle.  The first two intercept attempts using the CE-II (FTG-06 and FTG-06a) both failed in 2010, as a result of which production and deliveries of new GBIs was suspended and the ten CE-II GBIs already deployed in silos were taken off operational status.   The MDA has stated that production of new GBIs, which is necessary for the deployment of the planned 14 additional GBIs (scheduled to be completed by 2017), will not start until after the CE-II is successfully demonstrated in an intercept test.  That demonstration is the objective of FTG-06b, currently planned for later this year.  A successful non-intercept test (CTV-01) of a CE-II GBI was conducted in January 2013 as part of the process of validating the cause of the FTG-06a failure.

In April 2012 the Government Accountability Office reported (p. 75) the MDA’s estimate of the cost of FTG-06b “as of February 2012” was already $269 million.  Given the time that has elapsed since then (and that the test is still at least a few months away), this cost has certainly increased.

For example, in the same report, the GAO stated that the cost of the non-intercept test CTV-01 was $141million as of February 2012.  By the time the test was actually conducted in January 2013, this figure had increased to about $170 million, an increase of about 21% (see my post of February 5).  If the cost of FTG-06b increased by the same percentage, its cost would be about $327 million.

It is unclear (to me) precisely what the wording “as of February 2012” in the GAO report means.  However, if it means money actually expended by February 2012, then the costs of FTG-06b could go much higher.  This possibility is suggested by the GAO report’s statement (p. 75) that “In addition to the costs of the actual flight tests, the total cost for determining the root cause [of the FTG-06b failure] and developing the design changes has not been fully developed.”   Moreover, MDA did not even begin building the CE-II kill vehicle to be used in FTG-06b until after the January 2013 non-intercept test (and a CE-II kill vehicle reportedly costs about $39 million).

[1] Jason Sherman, “Top Army General Still Confident in GMD System Despite Intercept Test Failure,” Inside Defense SITREP, July 10, 2013.

“Preliminary Findings” on the Failure of the FTG-07 GMD Missile Defense Intercept Test (July 11, 2013)

The website of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance (MDAA) is reporting that the cause of the failure of the July 5 FTG-07 Ground-Based Midcourse (GMD) intercept test was a failure of the booster rocket of the interceptor.  Specifically, according to the MDAA, “preliminary findings” indicate that the final stage of the booster failed to separate.  As the MDAA article discusses, the consequences of this failure will depend heavily on whether the problem was an isolated quality control problem affecting only a single booster or was due to a more systemic problem that could affect the entire fleet of GBI interceptors (or some subset of them).

If the reported reason for the failure is correct, this will also likely mean that virtually no data on the performance of the kill vehicle was collected.  This would be a serious setback,  since as discussed in my post of July 5,  the primary purpose of the test was to check the performance of the refurbished CE-I kill vehicle after it had received “24 to 25” improvements (possibly some of these improvements were to the booster) and possibly also to test the kill vehicle against “countermeasures.”  Thus although the Missile Defense Agency will undoubtedly emphasize that many elements of the system,  such as the radars, worked well, this would mean that, as far as advancing the GMD program is concerned, the test is  essentially a complete loss.


Could SM-3 Interceptors be Deployed Rather than Additional GBIs? And is the SM-3 Block–IIB Making a Comeback? (Probably Not.) A tale of battling transcripts. (July 10, 2013)

At his July 9 daily press briefing, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little stated that the Department of Defense was considering deploying Navy SM-3 interceptors in addition to or instead of the 14 additional Ground Based-Midcourse (GMD) Ground-based Interceptors (GBIs) that are currently planned for deployment in Alaska by 2017.  Here what he said, from a transcript posted on the DoD’s website:

LITTLE:  There are no plans to change our expansion to 44 Ground Based Interceptors.  And as I understand it, we’re looking at deploying a different kind of system, the SM3 (inaudible) system as part of the additional Ground Based Interceptors. 

This is pretty big news, it seems to me.  But it gets even more interesting.

Here’s the same statement by Little, as transcribed by CQ Transcriptions:[1]

LITTLE:  There are no plans to change our expansion to 44 Ground Based Interceptors.  And as I understand it, we’re looking at deploying a different kind of system, the SM3 BII (ph) system as part of the additional Ground Based Interceptors. 

In this version, he not only says they are considering deploying SM-3s, but he specifically says they are considering deploying the Block IIB variant of the SM-3 interceptor!   

(For those of you not up on SM-3 versions, the SM-3 Block IIB was the very high speed version of the SM-3 that the DoD announced the cancellation of at its March 15, 2013 press conference announcing the deployment of the 14 additional GBIs.  This cancellation was significant because, at least up to that time, the Block IIB version has been the primary focus of Russian complaints about US missile defense plans.)

So is the SM-3 Block IIB making a comeback?  Or is the “inaudible” on the DoD website’s transcript simply a way of correcting a misspeaking?  The follow up queston suggests that the statement may simple be an error.

QUESTION:  I don’t want to correct you, but the issue is a new warhead on the — that’s got to be proven out.  The thing you just mentioned I think was canceled… 


LITTLE:  OK.  Well, we’re — we’re taking a look at another system, I think, and — for the GBIs. 

Nonetheless, this is the first offical statement (I think) indicating tht SM-3s, of whatever type, might be deployed as substitutes for GBIs.

[1] “George Little, Defense Department Press Secretary, Holds Defense Department Regular News Briefing, CQ Transcriptions, July 9, 2013.

Pentagon Press Secretary on Friday’s Failed GMD Missile Defense Intercept Test (July 10, 2013)

Here’s what Pentagon Press Secretary George Little had to say on Tuesday about Friday’s failed Ground-Based Midcourse (GMD) System test:

Question:  Missile defense.  There was a major missile defense test… 

Little:  Yes. 

Question:  … that didn’t go well on Friday.  A lot of the public is going to say, why are we spending billions on this “turkey,” in quotes?  Can you give the public a sense of if you know what happened and is there a feeling of discomfort within this building that the system using the current warheads — not the new ones — didn’t do so well? 

Little:  The test on Friday was not a success.  And it’s being reviewed as to what went wrong.  And we’re cognizant of the need to get to the bottom of this. 

      But we maintain that we have a robust missile defense system in place to defend the United States and our allies from a range of threats.  And I would repeat what I shared yesterday in my office, Tony, with a number of you and say that you shouldn’t necessarily draw conclusions about our entire missile defense system based on one single test.  We have a range of assets that can support American missile defense, and we are confident that we can defend this country from the missile threat. 

Actually, I think it is considerably more than just “one single test” that has introduced the word “turkey” into this discussion.

I have updated my list of offical claims about GMD effectiveness with Little’s comments



Want Something to Remember GMD Test FTG-07 By? You Can Get it Here. (July 8, 2013)



Did you know the Missile Defense Agency has a store?  I didn’t until a few minutes ago.  But here it is:

I have no idea if this is in any way an official site (from the URL, maybe not).  But where else can you get your MDA mission shirts and patches?

For example, you can get your patch (pictured above) for last Friday’s FTG-07 test of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system.  Unfortunately, they only come in packs of 50 for $400.  (However, they probably will not sell out any time soon)

On the other hand, you can get a patch from the somewhat more successful FTI-01 test of last year for only $1 (pictured below).


Updated Table of Ground-Based Midcourse (GMD) intercept tests. (July 7, 2013)

Updated Table of Ground-Based Midcourse (GMD) intercept tests.  Several non-intercept tests that used actual kill vehicles and several recently cancelled tests are also included.  Unfortunately, I had to split it into three pieces. Click on each section of the table for larger versions.

(Update, July 8: Major technological advance: I have figured out how to post the table as a single table.  Click here for the single table version – you will probably have to click on one more box to get the table)




Ballistic Missile Defense: Ground-Midcourse Intercept Test Fails (July 5, 2013)

The first intercept test of the GMD national missile defense system since December 2010 has failed to achieve an intercept.  The test was designated FTG-07, reviving the designation of an earlier cancelled intercept test (see the end of this post).  The last successful intercept test of the GMD system was FTG-05, conducted on December 5, 2008.

The primary stated purpose of FTG-07 was to test the many changes that have been made to the GBI interceptor since it was deployed.  Ten of the thirty deployed interceptors are a new version of the GBI using the new CE-II version of the kill vehicle.  However, these ten interceptors are not considered operational, because the CE-II version of the GBI failed in both of its intercept tests.

The other twenty deployed GBIs are older interceptors using the original CE-I version of the kill vehicle.  It was a refurbished version of the CE-I GBI that was tested today.

Although the three previous intercept tests (in 2006, 2007, and 2008) of this CE-I version of the GBI have all been described by the MDA as successful, many problems with these interceptors have been discovered.  According the GAO, as of 2011:  “all GMD flight tests have revealed issues that led to either a hardware or software change to the ground-based interceptors.”[1]  Accordingly, in 2007, MDA began a program to refurbish the older, already deployed CE-I GBIs.  [The deployment of 24 CE-I interceptors was completed in FY 2007.  Four of them were subsequently replaced by CE-II interceptors.]  This refurbishment program, which the GAO has estimated will cost between $14 and $24 million per interceptor, is still ongoing.[2]  According to MDA Director Vice Admiral James Syring, FTG-07 would test out 24 or 25 “improvements” to the CE-I GBI.[3]

In addition, this test has been described as using a “complex” target.  It is unclear exactly what this means, but it may indicate that that this was the fourth attempt to intercept a target using “countermeasures.”  (In the previous three attempts, the decoys failed to deploy in one test, and the interceptor failed in the other two).

Bottom Line: Although we need to wait for details, this test failure may pose a particular problem for GMD advocates.  In recent years, when asked about whether or not the GMD system could be relied on to be effective, the standard MDA reply has been that although the two most recent intercept tests had failed, these were of the new CE-II GBIs, and the older GBIs could still be relied on.

For example, here is part of Admiral Syring’s response to a question during his most recent Congressional testimony:[4]

ADM. SYRING:  “Let me take that, and then maybe, sir, I’ll cede some time to Dr. Gilmore.  The systems we have today work.  And I’ll keep — I’ll keep it that simple.  The older systems, which we call the CE1 interceptors, have been successfully flight tested three out of three times.

The problem that we’ve had recently with the newer interceptor — and those failures both occurring in 2010 — and that’s the flight test that I — that I spoke about in terms of the January fix was flown in a nonintercept flight and then we’ll fly later this year in an intercept flight to validate the performance of the new kill vehicle.”

The failure of FTG-07 could put a serious dent in that argument.


Historical Note:  The original FTG-07 (see figure below) was planned as a two-stage GBI intercept test against an IRBM target, and as of June 2009, it was scheduled for 4Q of FY 2010.  The target launch was to be from Kodiak, rather than Kwajalein.  However, after the failure of FTG-06, this test was cancelled in order to conduct FTG-06a.[5] 



Figure 1.  FTG-07 as originally planned but since cancelled.


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

[2] GAO, Missile Defense: Opportunity Exists to Strengthen Acquisitions by Reducing Concurrency,” April 2012, pp. 78.

[3] “We’ve incorporated over 20 — I want to say 24 or 25 improvements to the current CE-1 fleet that I’ll demonstrate in flight within the next month, and that — those improvements and those continued — the continued improvements of the current fleet is part of my R&D request as well.” Vice Admiral James Syring, House Armed Services Committee, May 8, 2013.

[4] Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Senate Armed Services Committee, May 9, 2012.

[5] GAO-11-372, p. 27.