On the heels of last year’s humiliating third failure of the premier U.S. missile defense system during what was billed as a fairly simple flight trial, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is doubling down on the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program by adding more than $4.5 billion to the Missile Defense Agency’s coffers from fiscal 2015-2019, according to Riki Ellison, chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.
Thus far, thehas spent more than $157 billion developing various missile defenses, a portion of it on GMD technologies.
In the Pentagon’s forthcoming budget request, which is slated for delivery next month to Congress, Hagel is planning to specifically request higher funding for GMD, according to defense sources. The goal is to turn the tide in what some say has become an atrophied focus on testing and evolving technology for the program, and hopefully score an intercept this spring.
Additionally, he will propose at least $1.5 billion across the plan to develop a new 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 due to the sensitivity of the subject are painting a picture of what is ahead for the agency.
MDA’s budget was expected to dip as low as about $7 billion or less, down from a steady $9 billion years before. But much of that is slated to be restored, thanks in part to concern from Hagel that GMD was being shortchanged.
As the only measure of defending the homeland against a North Korean or Iranian ICBM attack, any failure of the GMD system, managed by, is a national embarrassment. The system’s inability on July 5, 2013, to repeat a relatively simple test that it had already successfully conducted five years earlier, however, was a genuine shame. Hagel had hastily ordered the test last March in response to saber rattling from Pyongyang, and it was intended to showcase the Pentagon’s unique ability to shield U.S. territory.
Instead, it 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, including 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 to validate effectiveness; a secondary effect is a worldwide reminder of its capabilities. 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 attempt. Some hypothesize that a clamp, or other relatively unsophisticated hardware, was to blame for the failure of the $200 million test. An investigation into the mishap still has not concluded.
As a result, Hagel is adding more funding to GMD to shore up monitoring and modernization activities as well as 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 Defense Department and the [Capitol Hill] — that has led to the suspension of the normal redesign and reengineering activities on GMD,” one official said after last year’s test failure.
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, Michael Gilmore, goes so far as to recommend a redesign of EKV in his fiscal 2013 report to Congress.
But it seems senior defense officials see their only way out of the conundrum as embarking on a path beyond EKV, a so-called Common Kill Vehicle (CKV). Though the fiscal 2014 budget included funding to embark on such a program — dubbed common as the equipment might be shared between the GMD and SM-3interceptors — the program’s fate was not certain. 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 to be answered 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 larger number of threats. Ideally, defense officials and lawmakers hope to deploy it around 2020, the defense official says.
Lackluster reliability by GMD is due, in part, to the system’s burgeoning status. GMD is a hybrid developmental and deployed system. A decade ago, President George W. Bush proclaimed “limited defensive operations,” a moniker unique to GMD intended to evoke a sense of operational capability. It was rushed into service 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 will likely be improved over the next decade to boost reliability.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon also is planning to propose a program to develop and deploy a new radar in the Pacific region. Dubbed the Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR), the system would most likely be place in Alaska, though a decision has yet to be made. It will be designed to differentiate between incoming warheads and countermeasures, devices designed specifically to fool radars into guiding interceptors against 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-1 sensors.
A program such as LRDR likely would take advantage of advances in radar developments and manufacturing to produce a highly reliable and sensitive system. Advances in transmit-and-receive modules, semiconductors and active, electronically scanned arrays have matured since SBX was crafted in the late 1990s. A main problem with SBX was spotty reliability. The system was designed to help engineers test GMD’s capabilities, not for a round-the-clock alert. As both GMD and the threat from Pyongyang matured, officials want a more stable system on alert status.
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. Though the test originally was planned as a repeat of the failed FTG-06 flight trail — the most complex to date — some officials are considering whether a more basic scenario is in order. “We need a success,” the defense source says.
FTG-06 pitted the new EKV CE-I in a head-on engagement against a sophisticatedLV-2, which was emulating an advanced threat. The high closing velocities of a head-on engagement requires more precision and performance.
While MDA must redo that test, officials also are considering whether the agency should, once again, attempt to showcase the CE-I in a test that would present a lower risk and, possibly, restore confidence in the system.
Each GMD trial costs roughly $200 million. Agency Director Vice Adm. James Syring has said that once he gets GMD flying again, he hopes to test more regularly.