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.

 

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