U.S. Missile Defense Agency Plans $200M Test of Anti-ICBM System on Sunday After a String of Failures

Regardless of Outcome, System Not Ready for Prime Time, UCS Says

Published Jun 19, 2014

WASHINGTON (June 19, 2013) — The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has scheduled a long-delayed, $200-million missile defense test for this Sunday, June 22. It is just shy of a year since the last failed test of the problem-plagued Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) anti-missile system, which is intended to knock down a hypothetical North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in mid-flight.

Over the last decade, the system has failed eight of 15 intercept tests, including the last three in a row, despite the fact that the tests were highly scripted. That means the GMD system operators knew ahead of time where and when the target would be launched, and exactly what it looked like. Fixing the problems uncovered by recent failures will cost more than $1.3 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Given the test failures, Sunday’s test will be watched closely. The Obama administration announced in March 2013 that it plans to spend $1 billion on 14 more GMD interceptors, but only after a successful test.

On Sunday, GMD system operators will aim an interceptor from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at a target missile launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The interceptor will release a second-generation “kill vehicle” over the Pacific Ocean with on-board sensors that will try to guide the kill vehicle into a collision with a mock warhead released by the target missile.

The kill vehicle, dubbed the CE-II, failed its only two intercept tests, both in 2010. The last successful intercept — which featured the CE-II’s predecessor, the CE-I — was nearly six years ago.

“Even if Sunday’s test is successful, it would demonstrate little about the kill vehicle’s capability and reliability,” said Dr. Laura Grego, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “It would be the first time in three tries that it hit its target, but 33 percent is still a failing grade — and not a good argument for buying more.”

Grego noted that the MDA considered the previous CE-I kill vehicle successful after two successful intercepts, but that was before last year’s failure, which led to the discovery of a number of design flaws, some which are common to both the CE-I and II. The flaws in the system are so serious that the Obama administration has directed the MDA to redesign the kill vehicle to replace both versions.

Despite the fact that the CE-II kill vehicle has thus far failed its only two intercept tests, the Missile Defense Agency has already fielded it. Approximately a third of the 30 GMD interceptors at Vandenberg and Fort Greely in Alaska are armed with the CE-II. The rest of the interceptors are equipped with the CE-I, whose track record is also less than reassuring.

Many of the GMD system’s problems are rooted in decisions made more than 10 years ago. In 2002, the Bush administration mandated the MDA to field a system by the fall of 2004 to defend the United States against a theoretical missile attack. To facilitate this deadline-driven approach, the Bush administration and Congress loosened or set aside the normal requirements and oversight processes for new weapons systems, which allowed the MDA to field technology under development that has not passed the rigorous milestones normally required.

Consequently, the MDA fielded equipment with completely unknown capability. Over the last decade, the MDA has conducted far too few tests to establish the GMD system’s effectiveness and reliability. Moreover, the tests the agency has conducted have been highly scripted and held under unrealistic conditions. Nevertheless, according to a recent Los Angeles Times investigation, some members of Congress and the defense industry have been pressuring the administration to continue building a system with known flaws instead of slowing down to fix them. The result has been a $40-billion debacle, according to the GAO.

Fortunately, after a decade of lax congressional oversight, some members are finally recognizing that giving the GMD program a free pass was a mistake. “These are design, engineering and reliability problems that were largely caused by the rush to field this system without properly testing it first,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) during last week’s Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on missile defense. “We are now paying dearly for that decision.”

UCS’s Grego agrees. “The administration and Congress are giving missile defense a pass from the ‘fly before you buy’ rule on the basis of a bad decision made more than a decade ago,” she said. “Some members of Congress continue to push for more missile defense sites and faster deployment, despite the fact that speeding up development has resulted in a system that is technologically in shambles.

“Whether or not Sunday’s test leads to an intercept,” she added, “it is long past time that the Obama administration and Congress subject the missile defense program to oversight that is at least as rigorous as that required of all other major weapons development programs. Reducing the nuclear threat is serious business and calls for an equally serious approach.”

For more information on the missile defense kill vehicles, see this UCS fact sheet.

For more background on the missile defense system, see UCS’s missile defense materials.