The FY 2013 DOT&E Report and the GMD System. What does “demonstrated capability” mean? (January 29, 2013)

The FY 2013 Annual Report from the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation is now available. Its short (two pages) section on the Ground-Based Midcourse (GMD) national missile defense system has already gained notice for its recommendation that the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) should consider re-designing the exo-atmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) of the GMD interceptor.[1]  Although this might seem like a harsh criticism, it is probably consistent with what the MDA was already planning to do anyway (more on this in a future post).

What most caught my attention about the GMD section of the report was, first, the claim that the GMD system had a demonstrated  capability against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and, second, that the January 2013 CTV-01 GMD flight test might not be the complete success it has been portrayed as:

(1) The first bullet point in the GMD section of the 2013 Report states that the “Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) has demonstrated a partial capability to defend the U.S. Homeland from small numbers of simple intermediate or intercontinental ballistic missile threats launched from North Korea or Iran.”

In standard usage, at least in a missile defense context, the word “demonstrated” means that a capability has been shown to work in an actual successful intercept test.  Indeed the word is used in precisely this way in several other parts of the GMD section of the 2013 DOT&E Report. 

However, as is well known, the operational GMD system has never been tested against an ICBM-range target, nor against more than one target at a time.  So how has the GMD system’s effectiveness been “demonstrated” against either ICBMs or against “small numbers” of missiles of any range?  (Unless one reads the word “partial” to mean not against ICBMs and not against more than one missile

Two years ago, the 2011 DOT&E Report contained the more specific assessment that “Ground test results suggest that the GMD system provides a limited capability for the defense of the U.S. Homeland against emerging intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missile threats.” 

Given that there has been no successful intercept test (only two failures) of the GMD system since that 2011 assessment, it is hard to see how the GMD system has progressed from a capability “suggested by ground tests” to a “demonstrated” capability.  This contradiction is highlighted by the second bullet point in the 2013 GMD section, which states that: “The performance of GMD during flight tests in FY13 prevented any improvement in the assessment of GMD capability.”

(2) The Report contains the first public indication (at least that I am aware of) that CTV-01 test of January 2013 was not an unqualified success.  CTV-01 test was a non-intercept test intended to show that the problem that caused the failure of the exo-atmospheric kill vehicle in the previous intercept test, FTG-06a in December 2010, had been correctly identified.  All previous public discussions of the test seemed to indicate that CTV-01 was complete success.  For example, in his prepared statement to the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 17, 2013, MDA Director Vice Admiral James Syring stated that: “The successful non-intercept controlled flight test of the next generation CE-II GBI earlier this year (CTV-01) gives us confidence and cautious optimism we have addressed the causes of the FTG-06a endgame failure in December 2010 and are on the right track for a successful return to intercept using the redesigned EKV.”

However the DOT&E Report’s description (six months after Syring’s statement above) of the outcome of this test was somewhat less glowing, saying that “The GBI boost vehicle and the CE-II EKV with the redesigned component performed adequately and mostly as expected.”  It went on to say that: “The MDA noted several unexpected results that did not negatively affect test execution or data collection.  The MDA is analyzing these unexpected results to determine if any of them pose a risk to GBI operational or test performance.”


[1] Andrea Shalal-Esa, “U.S. Should Consider Re-Design of Missile Defense System: Report,” Reuters, January 29, 2014.  Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/29/us-usa-missile-defense-idUSBREA0S0ED20140129?feedType=RSS&feedName=domesticNews.

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