The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency conducted the first successful test of its ground-based missile defense system in five years.
The Boeing Co.-made Ground-based Midcourse Defense System includes a fleet of 30 rocket-like interceptors in underground silos at the Army's Fort Greely, Alaska, and the Air Force's Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The last successful exercise of the technology -- designed to knock down incoming threats from such countries as North Korea and Iran -- occurred in late 2008.
On Sunday, a three-stage booster launched from Vandenberg rammed into a dummy warhead fired from a test site on the Kwajalein Atoll in Marshall Islands, the Pentagon announced in a statement. The interceptor featured a newer type of exoatmospheric kill vehicle, or EKV, which sat atop the interceptor and destroyed the projectile on impact.
"This is a very important step in our continuing efforts to improve and increase the reliability of our homeland ballistic missile defense system," Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said in the statement.
Chicago-based Boeing, the world's largest aerospace company, was equally enthusiastic.
"Today's test demonstrated the system's performance under an expanded set of conditions that reflect real-world operational requirements," Jim Chilton, vice president and general manager of the company's Strategic Missile & Defense Systems, said in a press release.
After the intermediate-range dummy missile was launched from the Reagan Test Site, the Navy destroyer USS Hopper (DDG-70) detected the target using its Aegis Weapon System and AN/SPY-1 radar, which sent data to the GMD fire-control system, according to the Pentagon statement. The sea-based X-band radar also tracked the object and relayed information to assist with target engagement and data collection, it stated.
About six minutes after the target was launched, the interceptor lifted off from Vandenberg, according to the Pentagon statement. The booster propelled the second-generation kill vehicle, known as the Capability Enhancement II EKV, into the target's projected trajectory, it stated. The vehicle maneuvered to the target, performed discrimination and intercepted the warhead, it stated.
Boeing is the program's prime contractor, and Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. builds the interceptor and Waltham, Mass.-based Raytheon Co. makes the kill vehicle.
"Considering all the hard work that went into this test, I'm sure the MDA and its contractors are relieved to finally have had a success," Philip Coyle, a senior science fellow Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, D.C., and the Pentagon's former top weapons tester, said in a statement. The group is a think tank that works to reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles worldwide.
It's worth noting that this exercise was only the first successful flight intercept test in five and a half years, Coyle said. Two tests of the CE-II kill vehicle failed in 2010 and another test of the CE-I kill vehicle failed last July, he said. That amounts to an overall success rate of just 25 percent, he said.
"This test did not involve an [intercontinental ballistic missile]-range target and the MDA has never tried to defend an ICBM-range target in a flight intercept test," he added.
In addition, Coyle said, "given the difficulties MDA has had with configuration control, and the changes it has made and is planning to make to the CE-II kill vehicle, it is far from clear that the performance of the kill vehicle in today's test will be representative of other configurations already deployed and planned for deployment in silos at Fort Greely.
The Pentagon's budget request for fiscal 2015, beginning Oct. 1, includes more than $1 billion for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System.
The funding would be used to expand the fleet of interceptors to 44, including 40 at Greely and four at Vandenberg, and redevelop the so-called kill vehicle, among other initiatives, according to budget documents. Some $100 million of the funding would go toward a "redesign of the GMD exo-atmospheric kill vehicle for improved reliability, availability, performance, and productivity."
The system is part of the larger Ballistic Missile Defense System estimated to cost almost $140 billion and the Pentagon's second-most expensive acquisition program behind the F-35 fighter jet.