Upcoming Missile Defense Test: Success or Failure, Time to get Serious

June 20, 2014 | 2:38 pm
Laura Grego
Research Director, Senior Scientist

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.

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.

Ongoing Kill Vehicle Problems

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. It would be the first time in three tries that it hit its target, and is not a good argument for buying more.

While the CE-IIs were not considered operational, as they had not yet had a successful test, the previous version, the CE-I kill vehicle, has been considered successful and operational after two successful intercepts (and one in which the kill vehicle struck the mock warhead with a “glancing blow” but did not destroy it), 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.

Lack of Rigorous Oversight

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 normal requirements and oversight processes for new weapons systems were loosened or set aside altogether, 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. Both the CE-I and CE-II kill vehicles were fielded before an intercept test had even been attempted. 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.

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.”

Time to Get Serious

Whether or not Sunday’s test leads to an intercept, the result should be the same. The Obama administration and Congress should 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.