Aegis SM-3 Block IIA First Intercept Test Successful, but Testing Schedule Appears To Be Slipping (February 7, 2017)

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) recently announced the completion of the  first intercept test for the Aegis SM-3 Block IIA interceptor.[1]  The test was designated SFTM-1 (SM-3 Cooperative Development (SCD) Project Flight Test Standard Missile).    In two previous flight tests, no intercept was attempted.

The test took place at about 10:30 pm Hawaii Standard Time on February 3 (February 4 EDT).  The test had been planned for late January but was delayed due to bad weather.[2]  The MDA stated that the test was successful, specifically saying “Based on preliminary data the test met its primary objective.”[3]  The test was conducted jointly with Japan, which is co-developing the missile.

The SM-3 Block IIA missile is larger and much faster than the Block IA and Block IB interceptors currently deployed on U.S. and Japanese ships and at the Aegis Ashore site in Romania.  It also has a much more capable homing kill vehicle.  Relative to the current SM-3 Block IB, the SM-3 Block IIA kill vehicle has “more than doubled seeker sensitivity” and “more than tripled divert capability.”[4]  These performance improvements are intended to allow the Block IIA to defend much larger areas against longer-range missiles.

The Block IIA interceptor was launched from the U.S. destroyer John Paul Jones.  This is the first time the Block IIA missile has been launched from a ship.  The John Paul Jones was equipped with most recent version of the Aegis ballistic missile defense (BMD) system, the Baseline 9.2.C (BMD 5.1).  This was the first intercept test for this version, which is not only capable of conducting anti-air and anti-missile operations simultaneously, but also adds an engage-on remote capability.  However, the engage-on-remote capability was not demonstrated in this test.[5]

[Engage-on-remote means that the interceptor can be both launched and guided to intercept by sensors remote from the launching ship (such as a land-based TPY-2 radar).  Thus in engage-on-remote mode, the launching ship does not need to be able to detect or track the target.]

The SM-3 Block IIA is the centerpiece of Phase III of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) system, under which Block IIs are to be deployed at a new Aegis Ashore site in Poland by the end of 2018.  The MDA has insisted that the Block II interceptor will be developed under a “fly before you buy” policy.   In practice (see, for example, my post of February 2, 2017), however, their policy appears to commit them only to not operationally deploying the missile before completing a single successful intercept test.  Thus the successful test may have already fulfilled the “fly” requirement, thus clearing the way for deployment.  (However, MDA has stated that all the tests listed in Table 1 below will be used to inform production decisions on the Block IIA.)

However, if the Phase III EPAA deployment occurs as planned by the end of 2018, it appears it will do so with far fewer intercept tests than was originally planned.  Table 1 below shows that as of 2014, MDA planned to conduct six Block IIA intercept tests, including 3 operational tests before the end of 2018.  However, it now appears that there will be no more than three and none of them will be an operational test.

 

Test After April 2, 2014[6] ~ February 2015[7] ~ February 2016[8]  
CTV-1 1Q 2015 2Q 2015 2Q 2015 Non-intercept Test, Accomplished 2Q 2015
CTV-2 3Q 2015 4Q 2015 4Q 2015 Non-intercept Test, Accomplished 4Q 2015
SFTM-1 2Q 2016 2Q 2016 3Q 2016 Intercept Test, Accomplished 1Q 2017
SFTM-2 4Q 2016 4Q 2016 2Q 2016* Intercept Test
FTM-29 4Q 2017 4Q 2017 4Q 2017 Intercept Test
FTO-3 E1 2Q 2018 Operational Intercept Test
FTO-3 E2 2Q 2018 Operational Intercept Test
FTO-3 E3 3Q 2018 Operational Intercept Test

Table 1. Planned SM-3 Block IIA flights at several points in time (* = this is likely an error in the FY 2017 budget documentation).  All dates are calendar year.

Although Table 1 shows the first two, non-intercept, tests occurred on schedule, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicates that there were delays in them (which likely occurred before the dates listed in the “After April 2, 2014” column were published).  The GAO states that CTV-1 was delayed by about 5 months and that CTV-2 was originally scheduled for the 3rd quarter of 2015.[9]  According to the GAO, the CTV-2 delay was due to “delays in hardware deliveries.”[10]

Table 1 shows that the first intercept test, SFTM-1, had slipped by one quarter by early 2016 and by a total of three quarters by the time it occurred this month (relative to the 2014 plan).  The second intercept test, SFTM-2, will also be delayed relative to the 2014 schedule.  (Unfortunately, as noted by the asterisk in Table 1, the “~ February 2016” date for this test appears to be incorrect.)

Although Table 1 shows the third intercept test, FTM-29, on schedule for 4Q 2017, if the same 3Q delay for the first intercept test also applies to it, then it would slip to 3Q 2018, and another two quarters of delay would push it past the end of 2018 plan for deploying phase 3 of the EPAA. According to a 2016 GAO report, the Block IIA program has experienced “technical challenges and schedule delays, some of which are expected to continue to impact developmental efforts through 2017.”[11]

More interestingly, the three operational tests do not appear in the FY 2016 and FY 2017 budget materials (the 2nd and 3rd columns of dates), although FTO-03 E2 and FTO-3 E3 did appear in the FY 2015 budget materials. (FTO-03 E2 actually does appear in the FY 2017 budget, but as a test of the THAAD interceptor.)  It is possible that the three operational test have been given new designation, but the FY 2017 budget materials show that there are no Aegis BMD tests planned for either FY 2018 or CY 2018.

Thus it now appears that there will be no more than three SM-3 Block IIA tests before the end of 2018, and that this number could slip to two. (For comparison, MDA conducted six intercept tests of the SM-3 Block IB (five successful) before it was first deployed on ships and one more successful intercept test before it was deployed at the Aegis Ashore site in Romania).

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[1] U.S. Missile Defense Agency, “U.S., Japan Successfully Conduct First SM-3 Block IIA Intercept Test,” News Release, January 30, 2017.  Online at https://www.mda.mil/news/17news0002.html.

[2] James Drew, “First Intercept Test of Beefed-Up Standard Missile Imminent,” Defense Daily, January 3, 2017.

[3] MDA, “U.S., Japan Successfully Conduct.”

[4] Department of Defense, Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 President’s Budget Submission, Missile Defense Agency, RDT&E. Vol. 2a, February 2016, p. 2a-891.  Online at http://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/FY2017/budget_justification/pdfs/03_RDT_and_E/MDA_RDTE_MasterJustificationBook_Missile_Defense_Agency_PB_2017_1.pdf.

[5] Sam LaGrone, “Lockheed: SM-3 Block IIA Missile Shot Next Month Will Also Test New Aegis Build,” USNI News, September 1, 2016.  Online at https://news.usni.org/2016/09/01/lockheed-sm-3-block-iia-missile-test-next-month-will-test-new-aegis-bmd-build.

[6] Written response by MDA Director Admiral Syring to a question by Senator Udall, April 2, 2014 at a hearing of the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Online at https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-113shrg91192/pdf/CHRG-113shrg91192.pdf (pp. 170-171).

[7] Department of Defense, Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 President’s Budget Submission, Missile Defense Agency, RDT&E, Vol. 2a., February 2016, pp. 2a-839, 2a-840.  Online at http://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/FY2017/budget_justification/pdfs/03_RDT_and_E/MDA_RDTE_MasterJustificationBook_Missile_Defense_Agency_PB_2017_1.pdf.

[8] Department of Defense, Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 President’s Budget Submission, Missile Defense Agency, RDT&E, Vol. 2a., February 2015, pp. 2a-891. Online at http://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2016/budget_justification/pdfs/03_RDT_and_E/MDA_RDTE_MasterJustificationBook_Missile_Defense_Agency_PB_2016_1.pdf.

[9] Government Accountability Office, “Missile Defense: Ballistic Missile Defense System Testing Delays Affecting Delivery of Capabilities,” GAO-16-333R, April 28, 2016, p. 46.

[10] GAO-16-333R, p. 46.

[11] GAO-16-333R, p. 46

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Could FTG-15 Delays Prevent the Deployment of 44 GBIs by the End of 2017?  (February 2, 2017)

As of April 2016, the first intercept test of the U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) national missile defense system against an ICBM-range target, designated FTG-15, was planned for the last quarter of calendar year 2016.  An ICBM-range missile is defined as having a range greater than 5,500 km (3440 miles), although many ICBMs have much longer ranges.  According to Missile Defense Agency (MDA) Director Vice Admiral James Syring, in FTG-15, “…we’re getting now out to the long-range and closing velocities that certainly would be applicable from a North Korean or Iran type of scenario.” [1]

However, FTG-15 has not yet taken place.  In early January 2017, a Missile Defense Agency (MDA) spokesman stated that the test is now scheduled for “early this calendar year.”[2]  A few days later, MDA Director Vice Admiral James Syring was somewhat more specific, saying the next GMD intercept test is tentatively planned for the April to June time frame.[3]  If the test slips to June, it will then be three years after the last successful intercept test, FTG-06b on June 22, 2014.  Perhaps more interestingly, it will be only 6-7 months before the end of 2017 deadline for deploying a total of 44 Ground-Based Interceptors (GBIs) set by the Department of Defense in March 2013.  Could these delays in FTG-15 prevent MDA from achieving this objective?

FTG-15 also will be the first flight and intercept test of the new CE-II Block-I version of the Exo-Atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV).   The CE-II Block I EKV appears to be a relatively modest upgrade that eliminates some of the known problems with the CE-II EKV and is intended to provide improved reliability.  The MDA plans to build eleven CE-II Block I interceptors – one for FTG-15 and the other ten for deployment.  MDA needs to deploy at least some of these CE-II Block I interceptors (possibly as many as eight) before the end of 2017 in order to meet the objective of 44 deployed GBIs.[4] However, MDA has stated that it will not deploy any of these CE-II Block I interceptors until after a successful intercept test.

Although no reason for the FTG-15 test delays has been announced (at least none that I have seen), a May 2015 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report stated that “The GMD program is following a high risk approach for acquiring the CE-II Block I…”[5]  The GAO report went on to say:  “In addition, the GMD program has encountered issues with a number of the component modifications being developed for the CE-II Block I. The developmental issues have caused the program to delay necessary design reviews, generated significant schedule compression, and has pushed out the completion of CE-II Block I deliveries to the second quarter of fiscal year 2018.”[6]  Note that this assessment was made before the most recent 4-6+ months delay.

The GAO report concluded with the recommendation that: “For GMD, delay production of CE-II Block I interceptors intended for operational use until the program has successfully conducted an intercept flight test with the CE-II Block I interceptor.”[7]  In other words, the GAO was recommending a “fly before you buy” approach to deploying the CE-II Block I interceptors.

The MDA has for the last several years insisted that it is now following a “fly before you buy” approach with the GBIs, and even claimed to partially concur with the GAO’s recommendation.  However, MDA’s approach to deploying the CE-II Block I GBIs is actually almost exactly the opposite: it is buying and assembling CE-II Block I interceptors before even a flight test.

This is clear from the MDA’s response to the GAO’s recommendation: “To ensure a sound acquisition approach, the DOD will delay emplacement of CE-II Block I interceptors intended for operational use until the program has successfully conducted an intercept flight test with the CE-II Block I interceptor.”[8]  MDA further stated that it had “two interceptors scheduled to complete integration before completion of the intercept flight test” and that “Delaying this integration would unacceptably increase the risk to reaching the Secretary of Defense mandate to achieve 44 emplaced interceptors by the end of CY 2017 to defend the homeland against the threat of limited ballistic missile attack.[9]

In fact, the GAO reported in 2015 that the MDA had been building CE-II Block I interceptors for deployment for the past two years.[10]  All MDA has committed to do is to not actually place then in their launch silos before a successful intercept test.

If the MDA was in fact following a fly before you buy approach, it would never be able to meet the deadline for reaching 44 deployed interceptors, even without the most recent testing delays.  On the other hand, MDA’s approach of buying and assembling interceptors before an intercept suggests that the most recent delays may not prevent MDA from achieving it objective of 44 deployed GBIs by the end of 2017.  What the delay means is that a greater number of CE-II Block I interceptors will be assembled and ready to deploy before the test then would have been the case without the delay.

Of course, if FTG-15 fails, then MDA will have substantially less time to respond.  However, even if the test had occurred in the 4th quarter of CY 2016, a failure would likely have resulted in missing the deadline.

Finally, it is worth noting the CE-II Block I kill vehicle is not the only untested system in FTG-15.  FTG-15 will also be the first flight test of the new C2 version of the Ground-Based Interceptor booster rocket, which has improved avionics and resolves some obsolescence issues relative to the current booster.  GAO has described the new booster as an “extensive upgrade.”[11]

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[1] Vice Admiral James D. Syring, “Ballistic Missile Defense System Update,” presentation at the Center for Strategic  and International Studies, January 19, 2016.  Video available at: http://csis.org/event/ballistic-missile-defense-system-update-0.

[2] Marc Selinger, “Missile Defense Agency Nears Next GMD Intercept Test,” Defense Daily, January 4, 2017.

[3] Anthony Capaccio, “Stopping a N. Korea Missile No Sure Thing, U.S. Tester Says,” www.bloomberg.com, January 10. 2017.  Online at  https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2017-01-10/stopping-a-n-korean-missile-no-sure-thing-u-s-tester-says-ixr2dcu3.

[4] As of early 2015, MDA planned to reach 44 deployed GBIs with the deployment of the 8th CE-II Block I in late 2017.  However, it may be possible for the MDA to reach the total of 44 with fewer CE-II Block I interceptors by retaining some CE-I interceptors longer than it had planned.

[5] Government Accountability Office, Missile Defense: Opportunities Exist to reduce Acquisition Risk and Improve Reporting on System Capabilities, GAO-15-345, May 2015, p. 22.  Online at http://gao.gov/assets/680/670048.pdf.

[6] GAO-15-345, p. 22.

[7] GAO-15-345, p. 29.

[8] GAO-15-345, p. 35

[9] GAO-15-345, p.35

[10] GAO-15-345, p. 28

[11] Government Accountability Office, Missile Defense: Assessments of DOD’s Reports on Status of Efforts and Options for Improving Homeland Missile Defense, GAO-16-254R, February 17, 2016, p. 4.  Online at http://www.gao.gov/assets/680/675263.pdf.