An Update on Missile Defense Testing Plans

November 3, 2014 | 12:18 pm
Laura Grego
Research Director, Senior Scientist

Inside Defense reports that the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has scrapped its plans for the next Ground Based Midcourse missile defense (GMD) system intercept test. It had been planned for the coming spring; instead, MDA will perform a non-intercept flight test of the system, designated CTV-02+.

This will come as a disappointment to those that think the system is already in fine fighting form, for it will slow down the already plodding rate of testing. It will thus take longer to get a realistic evaluation of the system’s reliability and to demonstrate important extensions of capability.

The scuttled test, FTG-09, had originally been slated for FY11 rather than FY15, but this changed after the January 2010 failure of the first test of an interceptor with the new CE-II kill vehicle. The repeat test, FTG-06a, also failed, and the MDA devised a Return to Intercept plan to try to get things back on track. This plan allowed for two non-intercept tests, CTV-01 and CTV-02, before trying another intercept.

After the reported success of CTV-01 in 2013, the MDA stated in its FY14 budget documents that:

In implementing a less concurrent technical approach for the CE-II program, we plan to execute a CTV-02 non-intercept flight test in second quarter 2014 followed by FTG-09 CE-II intercept test in fourth quarter 2014. These dates may be accelerated to a possible intercept mission as early as the end of FY 2013 once we are through analyzing the data from CTV-01.

CTV-01 was apparently successful enough that the MDA skipped CTV-02 and went right to June’s FTG-06b intercept test, which the MDA reports as successfully destroying its target.

Why cancel the next intercept test then?

It’s hard to read the tea leaves from the little information offered. There’s plenty of room to speculate, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from the Pentagon.

It is possible that the FTG-06b test in June was not as successful as assumed, and MDA wants more confidence in the kill vehicle before attempting another intercept. For example, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office report, the CTV-01 test left a few issues unrevealed:

although MDA successfully achieved all test objectives for CTV-01, we found that subsequent ground testing revealed further corrections to the redesigned component were needed.

Intercept tests are the most visible markers of GMD’s capabilities; there’s an argument that testing failures decreases missile defense’s utility as a deterrent. Moreover, intercept tests are very expensive so you want them to count.

Of course to make a system that actually works and that you can be confident in, you need to test. A lot. Currently the intercept test record for the CE-II version of the kill vehicle is one success for three tries. To increase confidence in the reliability of this kind of interceptor, more intercept tests need to be done, and this is a setback.

In particular, the next scheduled intercept test for the GMD is FTG-15 in third quarter FY16, leaving a two-year gap between intercept attempts.  FTG-15 is meant to confirm the updated components of the CE-II kill vehicle. However, this would be taking place the same year that the MDA is meant to field 14 of these new interceptors for operational use. The interceptors would need to be manufactured before this important developmental test had been completed.

It also could be that the MDA will be pursuing a redesign of the kill vehicle in earnest and it feels it’s got as much out of the CE-II as it can. It may believe that another expensive test—and possible failure—isn’t worth it if it’s truly committed to a new path.

Why back to a non-intercept test, though?

Here’s how the new non-intercept test, CTV-02+, was described by MDA spokesperson Rick Lehner:

a developmental non-intercept test; the primary objective is to evaluate Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle alternate divert thruster performance in a flight environment, and to evaluate improved discrimination performance.

Part of MDA’s FY14 plans was to complete development of, and then test, the new divert and attitude control system’s (DACS) thruster design for the kill vehicle. Following that, in FY15, it would “initiate production and retrofit” of the interceptors with the new thruster system. CTV-02+ would test the DACS in flight.

A FY14 goal was to “develop the capability for the EKV to utilize sensor inputs” in support of discrimination, and in FY15 to complete ground testing of the Discrimination Improvements for Homeland Defense (DIHD) Near-term capability during the ground testing of the new divert thruster.  Presumably testing the DIHD corresponds to the “evaluate improved discrimination performance” part of the flight test description.

So perhaps this is just what we’ve been asking for: a more methodical approach to systems engineering, and the procurement process will slow down accordingly.

What else does this mean?

This change means another delay in the test program, and possibly a long one if the current pattern holds. The tests of the next few years seem geared to establishing that the existing interceptor can work under limited conditions—a much scaled-back goal from what had been expected for a decade after the system was first put in the ground.

The cancelled FTG-09 intercept test had been originally planned for FY11 as a salvo test (two interceptors fired at one target), which would be an important extension of capability, though this cancelled test as currently configured was scaled back to use only a single interceptor.

As best I can tell from the FY15 budget documents, after FTG-15 the next intercept test would be FTG-13, scheduled for third quarter FY17. I have not yet unraveled how and why the test order looks this incoherent as the testing schedule changes. I would really have liked to get a clear look at Director Syring’s unclassified, “for public release” slide on the “GMD Program Timeline” from this August’s Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, which might clear this up. But this has proved to be difficult all around; my FOIA request is pending.

Salvo testing will not happen until at least the fourth quarter of FY18 with FTG-11, which got postponed from FY15. This test is currently planned not only as a salvo test (two interceptors fired at one target) but the first test against an ICBM-range target.

In addition, tests FTG-8 and FTG-10 have been canceled. FTG-8 was originally a test with a two-stage booster, rather than the current three-stage one, and as of FY13 was to be a test against an air-launched intermediate range missile.

In 2011, the tests FTG-12 and FTG-14 were moved to 2021 and 2022, respectively.

So according to the most recent plans, in the best-case scenario testing the GMD system in a salvo mode or against an intercontinental range missile would not have happened until well into 2018. We’re no longer in the best case scenario, and that date has likely slipped to later.