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).

———————————————————————–

[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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