July 15, 2013
“You get what you pay for.”
That is what multiple industry officials have said of the embarrassing, third failed intercept test in nearly five years for the $41 billion U.S. anti-missile system developed over more than 20 years to defend the U.S. against North Korean ICBM attack. But proponents of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) charge that the failure is directly related to five years of diminished funding for development.
The last successful kill by GMD, which is managed by Boeing, was in December 2008; program proponents charge that recent failures are directly related to five years of diminished funding for testing and redesign. The lackluster July 5 trial—a virtual repeat of the 2008 test—was hastily added to the development plan by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in March as a show of force related to North Korea's third nuclear test, which took place in February. But, if Hagel hoped to showcase U.S. deterrence as a response to that saber rattling, the test was nothing short of a whimper because some industry insiders believe a hardware problem might have prevented the intercept.
“We have confidence in our system,” Hagel said during a March 15 press conference in which he announced plans for the July 5 flight demonstration and to buy another 14 Ground-Based Interceptors (GBI) as an added measure of security against North Korean attack. “We certainly will not go forward with the additional 14 interceptors until we are sure we have the complete confidence that we will need.” So, it seems, not only are the interceptors that are already fielded of potentially questionable value against an attack, based on the results of the recent test. But plans to buy newer missiles are likely on hold pending a laborious review of the flight-test failure.
For that trial, a GBI already fielded and on alert was launched from Vandenberg AFB, Calif., against a Lockheed Martin LV-2 target lofted from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific. Except for use of a newer target missile, the geometry of this trial was the same as that of the successful December 2008 kill, and it should have been an easy redo.
“We're concerned when any test is unsuccessful . . . and we're concerned now,” Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said. “There are going to be glitches from time to time, and clearly there are some glitches here . . . . We'll try to find the root cause of the problem here. But we are confident in what is, I think, by any measure, the most robust missile defense architecture in the world.”
The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) did not answer questions about the sequence of events but acknowledged that an intercept was not achieved. Spokesman Rick Lehner did not say whether the interceptor, which includes an Orbital Sciences booster, managed to execute its anticipated flightpath and deploy the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV), a Raytheon system designed to destroy a warhead with a direct hit. He also declined to say whether the test involved the use of countermeasures from the target, which would confuse the radar and optical sensors used by the missile defense system to hone in on a mark.