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.

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1 Comment

  1. Allen Thomson

     /  July 5, 2013

    FWIW, the SBX deployed to support this engagement:

    Big radar vessel departs to test missile defense
    By William Cole
    POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jun 26, 2013

    The $2 billion Sea-Based X-Band Radar recently left Pearl Harbor to take part in an upcoming test of the nation’s ground-based ballistic missile defense system — a key element in the protection of Hawaii and the mainland from North Korean threats, officials said.


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