Three failures in a row often bode ill for a program's funding at the Pentagon. No so for missile defense.
On the heels of last year's humiliating third failure of the U.S.'s Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system in what was billed as a fairly simple flight trial, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is doubling down. He plans to add more than $4.5 billion to the Missile Defense Agency's coffers, much of it for GMD, from fiscal 2015-19, says Riki Ellison, chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.
Thus far, the Pentagon has spent more than $157 billion since 1985 developing missile defenses.
The Pentagon's budget request is slated for delivery next month to Congress (see page 52). Hagel intends to repair what some say has become an atrophied focus on testing and evolving technology and to score an intercept this spring.
He also will propose at least $1.5 billion across the plan to develop a new GMD radar to spot missiles from North Korea while, potentially, shifting the massive, floating Space-Based X-Band system to the East Coast to monitor for attacks from an increasingly bellicose Iran.
Missile Defense Agency (MDA) spokesman Rick Lehner declined to discuss fiscal 2015 budget specifics until delivered to Congress. But sources speaking on background are painting a picture of what is ahead for the agency.
MDA's budget was expected to dip as low as $7 billion or less, down from a steady $9 billion years before. But much of that is slated to be restored.
As the only measure of defending the homeland against a North Korean or Iranian ICBM attack, any failure of the-managed GMD system is a national embarrassment. The system's inability July 5, 2013, to repeat a relatively simple test that it had already aced five years earlier was stunning, however. Hagel had hastily ordered the test last March in response to sabre rattling from Pyongyang, and the failure raised questions about the effectiveness of a small fleet of GMD interceptors on alert at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg AFB, Calif. Thirty have been emplaced, four in California.
This test was akin to the “glory missions” of the U.S. Minuteman III ICBM, where officials take an active missile on alert and put it through its paces. In this case for GMD, however, theExoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) failed even to separate from the booster. “We were doing this in the '60s,” said one industry source, noting vehicle separation is hardly the hardest part of an intercept. Some hypothesize that a relatively unsophisticated clamp derailed the $200 million test. As a result, Hagel wants more monitoring and modernization activities as well as to evolve the system's capability, defense sources say. It is no longer acceptable to the Pentagon's leadership to take risk in the program. “What failed . . . was the culmination of a five-year process failure—a huge process failure between the and [Capitol Hill]—that has led to the suspension of the normal redesign and reengineering activities on GMD,” one official said after last year's debacle (AW&ST July 15, 2013, p. 20).
The Pentagon will effectively be stuck with today's configuration—including a prickly EKV Capability Enhancement (CE)-I baseline version—for years; it achieved eight of 14 intercept attempts. And two of the three GMD failures since 2008 have been with the CE-II—an upgrade shrouded in secrecy that is thought to have added capability, possibly improved maneuverability, to defeat countermeasures. The Pentagon's chief tester goes so far as to recommend a redesign of EKV in his fiscal 2013 report to Congress.
But it seems senior defense officials want a path beyond EKV, a so-called Common Kill Vehicle (CKV). Although the fiscal 2014 budget included funding for this—dubbed common because the equipment might be shared between the GMD and SM-3interceptors—the program's fate was not certain (AW&ST Aug. 5, 2013, p. 70). Now, however, Hagel's guidance is to move forward with an EKV replacement, the defense source says. “We need a comprehensive kill vehicle strategy.”
A question that remains is whether this kill vehicle will be unitary—like EKV designed to counter a single warhead—or capable of deploying multiple baby kill vehicles, allowing each interceptor to attack a number of threats. Ideally, it could be ready to deploy around 2020.
Lackluster reliability by GMD is due, in part, to its status as a hybrid developmental and deployed system. A decade ago, President George W. Bush proclaimed “limited defensive operations,” a unique moniker to GMD intended to imply operational capability needed to underpin a policy deterring adversaries from buying, developing or using ballistic missiles. Unlike the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense program—which was sidelined for nearly a decade for redesigns—the White House refuses to take GMD “offline” to narrow the program's focus.
Full backing of a CKV capability does not translate to abandoning EKV; it likely will be improved in the next decade to boost reliability.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is also planning to propose a program to develop and deploy a radar in the Pacific region. Dubbed the Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR), the system would most likely be placed in Alaska. It will be designed to differentiate between incoming warheads and countermeasures, devices designed specifically to fool radars into chasing false targets. This system would augment the Upgraded Early Warning Radar at Beale AFB, Calif., which operates at ultra-high-frequencies, a forward-based AN/TPY-2 X-band system, the floating Sea-Based X-band (SBX) radar and the Cobra Dane L-band system. Aegis ships also patrol in the region with their SPY-1s.
A program such as LRDR would likely take advantage of advances in radar transmit-and-receive modules, semiconductors and active, electronically scanned arrays that have matured since SBX was crafted in the late 1990s (see page 45). A problem with SBX was spotty reliability.
This would allow for MDA to deploy SBX to the East Coast, satisfying a concern among some lawmakers that homeland ICBM defenses against Iran are inadequate.
Meanwhile, planning continues for what MDA hopes will be the first successful GMD intercept test in more than five years. Although originally planned as a repeat of the failed FTG-06 flight trail, some officials are considering a more basic scenario. “We need a success,” the defense source says.
FTG-06 pitted EKV CE-II against a sophisticatedLV-2, with the high closing velocities of a head-on engagement.
While MDA must redo that test, officials also are considering whether it should, once again, attempt to showcase the CE-I in a test that would present a lower risk and, possibly, restore confidence.
Each GMD trial is about $200 million. Agency Director Vice Adm. James Syring has said when GMD is flying again, he hopes to test more regularly.
Explore an interactive map with more on the U.S. missile defense sensor architecture at AviationWeek.com/misdef