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This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.
After two years on the ground for technical problems, an upgraded version of the system designed to protect the U.S. from ballistic missile attack is finally flying again. But the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has significant challenges not only to employing the modernized Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system but also incrementally improving other systems that protect areas abroad.
The Boeing-led GMD missile shield executed a long-awaited flight test of the Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI), carrying an upgraded version of its hit-to-kill mechanism, after repeated slips. The Raytheon Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) Capability Enhancement 2 (CE 2) failed to intercept its first ballistic missile target during a December 2010 test, and since then engineers have been working to isolate and fix a high-frequency vibration issue that affected the upgraded EKV's guidance system.
The GBI launched Jan. 26 at 2 p.m. local time from Vandenberg AFB, Calif. and did not have a target to intercept. The objective was to fly the system and its kill vehicle through "stressing" conditions to collect data.
The MDA did not definitively say what went wrong with the guidance system during the December 2010 failure, but spokesman Rick Lehner said the problem "did not show itself during extensive pre-test ground testing and [occurred] only in a space environment." Boeing spokesman Scott Day says that "therein lies the demand and the challenge: developing a ground-test capability that could recreate a problem, which had only been observed in space, allowing us to understand the phenomenon and develop solutions."
Boeing actually had to build a ground-based system that could recreate the high-frequency vibration conditions "mimicking the stresses of space flight and EKV maneuvers outside the Earth's atmosphere and gravitational pull.".
Greg Hyslop, vice president for Boeing's GMD program, calls the failure "one of the toughest challenges facing the aerospace industry," underscoring the complexity of the problem, especially given Boeing's challenges with lithium-ion batteries grounding its new 787 commercial airliner fleet.
Early results of last month's flight test appear promising. Lehner says experts will pore through troves of telemetry data to assess the exact performance of the interceptor. "Data collected during the test will anchor digital and hardware-in-the-loop models for the EKV," he says.
But the ultimate goal is to pit the GMD, with its upgraded kill vehicle, against a target. Prior to the flight test, the MDA had said it would conduct the intercept attempt between March and June; since then test officials have not said when this demonstration will take place.
Mating of the EKV CE2s with their boosters has been on hold while the government-industry team sorted through the technical issue.
Though the GDM and EKV CE 2 were grounded for two years, the legacy system in silos in Vandenberg AFB and Fort Greely, Alaska, remained on alert.
However, the return to flight for the GMD was a relief for many policymakers closely watching activities in North Korea. Pyongyang unleashed a rash of bellicose rhetoric, saying last month that it would target its maturing missile fleet against the U.S. and continue with nuclear tests. The GMD is specifically designed to counter an attack from North Korea, and it is only influential as a deterrent to aggression if it can intercept targets in flight testing.
While the flight test appears to put the GMD back on a growth path, the MDA still faces a host of challenges. A dearth of research expertise is among the top priorities that need to be addressed by the incoming director, Vice Adm. James Syring, according to Philip Coyle, who was associate director for national security and international affairs in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in 2010-11 and previously was the Pentagon's chief tester.
Among the reasons for what some say is a "brain drain" at the MDA was the caustic management style of Syring's predecessor, Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly. Industry officials note that some of the MDA's top experts left during O'Reilly's tenure due to his biting management and micromanaging.
Hand in hand with that problem is an overarching morale slump at the agency, as well, they say.
Syring will also have to make some tough calls about how to proceed programmatically. O'Reilly deviated from his predecessor, Air Fore Lt. Gen. Trey Obering, in doggedly pursuing technologies to achieve "early intercept" of ballistic missiles -- a kill at or before a threat missile reaches apogee. In doing so, he proposed testing of Predator unmanned aircraft outfitted with modified Raytheon MTS-B electro-optical/infrared sensors to provide tracking data early after a threat missile's launch. O'Reilly also pushed the development of the Precision Tracking Space System (PTSS), a satellite constellation designed to track missiles from early after launch through their midcourse, as they cool in space.
Experts at the National Academies of Sciences proposed last September that the MDA terminate the PTSS because they questioned the system's capability, especially in light of the high cost of performing from space.
Coyle points out that determining what to do with these sensor systems will be among the issues facing Syring during his first budget cycle as MDA director.