The Government Accountability Office (GAO) yesterday (April 30, 2014) released a Report assessing a Department of Defense (DoD) Report on options for the test program of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) national missile defense system. Specifically, the DoD Report, mandated in the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2013, was required to:
(1) Explain GMD testing options if the forthcoming FTG-06b intercept test did not successfully demonstrate that the problem that caused the failure of the new CE-II kill vehicle in the FTG-06a test has been resolved; and
(2) Assess the feasibility, advisability, and cost effectiveness of accelerating the pace of GMD test flights.
The DoD Report was released to Congress on October 18, 2013, but does not yet appear to be publicly available (at least I haven’t seen it). Yesterday’s GAO Report is based on a briefing given by GAO to Congress on December 16, 2013.
Before discussing the GAO’s findings, some background information:
The GMD interceptors, thirty which are based in silos in Alaska and California, use two different versions of the Exo-Atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV). The original Capability Enhancement 1 (CE-I) version of the EKV was flight tested five times from 2005 to 2010, three of which were intercept tests, and all of these tests were reportedly successful. However, the CE-I EKV design was not sustainable, and thus the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) began in 2004-2005 to develop a new CE-II EKV.
CE-II interceptors began deployment in 2008, and currently make up about ten of the thirty deployed interceptors. However, the CE-II interceptor was not flight tested until 2010, when two intercept tests failed. The failure of first CE-II intercept test (FTG-06) in January 2010 was subsequently assessed as being due to a quality control failure in assembling the EKV, a relatively easily correctable problem. However, the second failure, FTG-06a in December 2010, posed a much more serious problem, since it was eventually determined to be due a design flaw in the kill vehicle. Specifically, the problem was attributed to excessive vibrations in the kill vehicle’s inertial measurement unit caused by the kill vehicle’s divert rocket motors, which are used to steer the kill vehicle towards its target.
As a result of the FTG-06a failure, deliveries of CE-II interceptors were suspended until a solution to this problem was demonstrated through a successful CE-II intercept test. In addition particular, deliveries of the fourteen additional interceptors announced in March 2013 cannot begin until after such a successful CE-II intercept test. Determining the cause of and developing a fix for the FTG-06a problem has been complex and difficult, and this problem has so far delayed successfully demonstrating a CE-II capability by more than three years and significantly increased the cost of doing so. In January 2014, MDA conducted a successful flight (not intercept) test of CE-II interceptor with mitigations for the FTG-06a problem and could conduct a CE-II intercept test (FTG-06b) as early as the third quarter of FY 2014.
However, the CE-II testing situation is further complicated by the failure of the FTG-07 intercept test in July 2013. This test, using a CE-I interceptor, was intended to test the many changes that have been made to the CE-I kill vehicles since they have been deployed. Although the failure review for this test is still ongoing, the failure has been traced to the CE-I kill vehicle’s battery system. Because the battery system is the same in both the CE-I and CE-II kill vehicles, it is possible that FTG-06b will be further delayed until this problem is fully resolved.
Overall, since MDA began flight testing operationally-configured GMD interceptors in 2005, it has conducted ten GMD flight tests, seven of which involved an intercept attempt. Thus the GMD system has been averaging about 1 GMD flight test per year but only about 0.7 intercept tests per year. Some in Congress have been urging MDA to increase this rate of testing, and, in particular, to increase to it to an average pace of 3 flight tests every two years. As discussed in my post of December 24, 2012, MDA has been opposed to increasing the pace of flight tests beyond the current average of one per year.
What did the GAO conclude?
(1) The GAO Report states that the DOD Report provides “limited insight on potential testing options” if the upcoming FTG-06b CE-II intercept test fails. The GAO Report noted that DoD Report presented only one alternative testing option – the development of new divert thrusters that produce less vibration. (By attempting to reduce the vibrations at their source, this approach is complimentary to the one being taken in the FTG-06b test, which instead attempts to isolate the inertial measurement unit from the vibrations). While the GAO characterizes this option as “reasonable,” it states the DoD Report provides few details on how or when such new divert thrusters could be developed and tested, on the cost, benefits and risks of this option, or of its impact on both currently deployed and future production interceptors.
The GAO also noted that prior to the failure of the FTG-07 CE-I test in July 2013, DoD also had testing options involving CE-I interceptors available to address the CE-II test failures. However, the GAO stated the FTG-07 failure precluded MDA from employing these options until the root cause of that failure is both identified and resolved.
(2) It has previously been reported that the DoD Report had concluded that an increase in GMD flight test pacing to three tests every two years was not feasible. (See my post of February 13, 2014.) The GAO Report provides more details on this issue. Specifically it states that the DoD Report says that “With additional funding, it should be possible to accelerate GMD’s testing pace to three flight tests every two years beginning in fiscal year 2018.” However, the GAO Report then goes on to state that it defines “feasibility” as “the extent to which something is both possible and likely to occur,” and that it judges that it is ”not likely” that the pace of testing could be accelerated. According the GAO, the DoD Report also provides no information on either the advisability or cost effectiveness of accelerating the testing pace. (However, it is clear from previous statements by MDA and DoD officials that they do not regard an acceleration of testing as either advisable or cost effective – see my post of December 24, 2012).
 The GAO Report states that the total cost of conducting a successful CE-II intercept test had now risen from $1.17 billion (as of August 2012) to $1.31 billion (as of June 2013), primarily due to increased failure review costs. Prior to the failure of FTG-06 in January 2010, this cost had been expected to be about $236 million.
 John Liang, “DoD: Faulty Battery Caused July 2013 GMD Intercept Failure,” Inside the Pentagon, April 3, 2014.