When a critical test of the nation’s ground-based missile defense system went off without a hitch late last month, executives at Tucson-based Raytheon Missile Systems heaved a collective sigh of relief.
A hit-to-kill interceptor warhead made by the local Raytheon unit hit its mark in a test over the Pacific Ocean June 22 — its first success after two failed attempts in 2010.
Another failure would have dealt a serious blow to the Ground-based Midcourse Defense program — the nation’s still-evolving defense against long-range ballistic missiles — and to Raytheon, Southern Arizona’s biggest private employer.
Instead, Raytheon is now awaiting word on restarting production of its Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, which is designed to intercept enemy missiles at high speed and destroy them by sheer impact.
“The importance of this test’s success cannot be overstated,” Norm Montano, Raytheon’s EKV program director, said via email. For those watching the test launch, “the excitement was indescribable. There were a lot of happy people when we saw the flash of the intercept.”
A missile-defense advocate put the stakes in more stark terms.
“That was make-or-break for the program,” said Riki Ellison, chairman of the Virginia-based Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.
COSTLY TEST FAILURES
Montano said he was confident going into the high-stakes test because a successful non-intercept flight test in January 2013 had proven the fix to the latest EKV, known as the Capability-Enhancement II, or CE-II version.
But he acknowledged there were some tense moments as he and other Raytheon and program officials — including national Missile Defense Agency Director Vice Adm. James Syring — watched the test at the agency’s operations center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
During the recent test, a ground-based interceptor was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to hit a target missile launched from a U.S. test site in the Marshall Islands. Raytheon’s redesigned kill vehicle separated, tracked the target in space and smashed into it at high speed.
Amid a plan to redesign the whole kill vehicle by around 2017, a failure may have prompted the Missile Defense Agency to scrap the Raytheon effort — and it certainly would have sparked a new round of debate over the system’s value.
“If we had failed that test, production would have been stopped, the whole revisit of the kill vehicle, the missile, the system would have been debated. Clearly it was a significant jump for where we need to go with the program,” said Ellison, an Amphitheater High School graduate.
The Missile Defense Agency is still analyzing the results of the recent flight test and will decide in the “near future” regarding resumption of deliveries of Raytheon’s kill vehicle, spokesman Rick Lehner said.
But questions remain over the reliability of the system — and Raytheon’s role as the Missile Defense Agency plans a redesign of the kill vehicle.
Philip Coyle, a former senior Pentagon weapons testing manager and current senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said the recent test hardly inspires confidence after its repeated failures, and the system hasn’t undergone needed testing against intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“The latest test didn’t involve an ICBM-range target and the missile-defense agency has never tried to defend against one in a test flight,” Coyle said.
COSTLY FAILURES, FIXES
Coyle said there’s no assurance the kill vehicles in 30 ground-based interceptors inside silos at Vandenberg and at Fort Greely, Alaska, will perform like the interceptor in the successful test shot. An undisclosed number of the interceptors are tipped with the prior version of the Raytheon kill vehicle, known as the CE-I, which failed a flight test in July 2013.
Coyle said he favors a fully vetted redesign of the kill vehicle instead of “throwing good money after bad” by deploying the flawed kill vehicles on interceptors, including 14 interceptors the Obama administration wants to add in the next few years.
The Missile Defense Agency plans to come up with a fix for the CE-1 kill vehicles by the end of the year. Meanwhile, they will remain operational, agency spokesman Lehner said.
The ground-based missile program has so far cost taxpayers some $40 billion, and redesign work prompted by the program’s test failures have cost more than $1 billion alone.
Last month, missile-defense chief Syring told the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee that the agency has already docked some contractor awards and incentive fees. Its contracts with the program’s prime contractor, Boeing Co., allow the government to retroactively recoup some payments in the event of future test failures.
The ground-based system has also been criticized by the Government Accountability Office. The Pentagon’s main weapons-testing oversight agency has said the system “has demonstrated a partial capability to defend the U.S. Homeland from small numbers of simple intermediate or intercontinental ballistic missile threats launched from North Korea or Iran.”
Syring told Congress that the non-intercept test of the new warhead last year verified that a redesign had dampened vibrations that were blamed for one of the 2010 failures. The other 2010 failure was caused by quality issues Raytheon has corrected, the agency has said.
The Missile Defense Agency and Raytheon have attributed the failures largely to a rush to deploy some missile-defense capability while sidestepping the normal design engineering process.
“The EKV was deployed by presidential decree in 2004 while it was still in prototype status,” Raytheon’s Montano said. “It didn’t go through a rigorous systems design engineering process, which would have dramatically increased its performance from the very beginning.”
Montano said building an EKV now takes more than 100,000 steps, most of them labor-intensive operations done by hand, but engineers are eying a number of ways to simplify the design to ease production and lower costs.
Raytheon is constantly seeking to improve quality, but the technology to make a kill vehicle strike a missile in space at speeds of about 22,000 mph — often compared too “hitting a bullet with a bullet” — doesn’t come easily.
“It seems obvious to say, but the space environment is very different than conditions on Earth, and replicating that environment in a lab is extremely difficult,” Montano said.
Two new physics phenomena were discovered in the process, which required creating new testing systems to replicate the issue and test the fix, he said.
“That process may seem like ‘failure’ on the surface if all you’re doing is counting one success out of three on the scorecard,” he said. “But we made significant scientific leaps through that process.”
However, the failures attracted criticism and scrutiny including an on-site review of Raytheon’s quality procedures by the Pentagon’s inspector general in October. The agency has yet to issue its report.
Raytheon supports a full redesign of the kill vehicle, Montano said.
“We fully understand the improvements that are needed, and we stand ready to make them should we be called upon to do so,” he said.
The Missile Defense Agency has not decided whether to put the next-generation kill vehicle out to bid. If it does, Raytheon could have competition from Lockheed Martin and from Boeing, which is the prime contractor on the ground-based system, missile-defense advocate Ellison said.
Raytheon’s Montano said the company can adapt technologies from its shorter-range — and more thoroughly and successfully tested — Standard Missile-3 sea-based interceptor to the ground-based program.
The SM-3 is part of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system, which has had 28 successful test intercepts out of 34 attempts since 2002 and has been deployed on Navy warships since 2011. In April, the Navy and the Missile Defense Agency began deploying the latest version of Raytheon’s SM-3, the Block IB.
The agency, in requesting $99.5 million in fiscal 2015 to start the kill-vehicle redesign effort, has said it will consider developing a common, upgradeable design that could be used across platforms.
Montano noted that unlike the EKV, the SM-3 benefited “from the typical ‘crawl, walk, run’ engineering design process,” and both kill vehicles are made by the same engineers and technicians in Tucson.
Ellison said the Aegis system’s SM-3 has demonstrated capabilities to counter regional short- and intermediate-range missile threats, along with the mobile Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, called THAAD, and shorter-range Patriot systems.
But a ground-based system is needed to counter longer-range and much faster-moving missiles, which require large rockets to reach the speeds needed for such intercepts, he said. The ground-based system is the nation’s only one to intercept such threats, after cancellation of other countermeasures including an airborne laser and satellite-based missile killers, Ellison said.
Costs must be reduced, Ellison said — each ground-based interceptor costs some $75 million — and accuracy needs to be improved to allow fewer missiles to do the job.