GOP Lawmakers Seek Another Test after Latest GMD Failure

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WASHINGTON — One week after the U.S. Ground-based Midcourse Defense system suffered its third consecutive failure in two years, the GOP leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees are calling for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) to repeat the failed July 5 test of a first-generation interceptor perhaps as soon as the end of this year.

The lawmakers’ July 12 request for a do-over comes as the MDA prepares to test a second-generation interceptor before deciding whether to order 14 more for Fort Greely, Alaska, to protect against a North Korean ballistic missile attack. 

On July 5, U.S. officials launched a long-range target missile from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, but a ground-based interceptor that launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., failed to destroy it, according to an MDA release. The exercise was designed to test the first-generation Capability Enhancement 1 Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle. Boeing is the prime contractor for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. Some experts said they suspect the Raytheon-built kill vehicle failed to separate from its Orbital Sciences-built booster.

The test followed a two-year hiatus and marked the third consecutive unsuccessful intercept for the GMD system. Two similar tests in 2010 also failed to lead to an intercept. All told, the GMD system has recorded eight intercepts in 16 flight tests since 1999.

Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters July 9 that MDA investigators are reviewing what happened. “We’re cognizant of the need to get to the bottom of this,” Little said. “But we maintain that we have a robust missile defense system in place to defend the United States and our allies from a range of threats.” 

In their July 12 letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the Republican lawmakers, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), said a repeat of the test was necessary to “ensure there is no question about the capability and credibility of our GMD system.” 

They also criticized the Obama administration for not testing the system more often.

Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance President Riki Ellison also wants to see MDA repeat the July 5 test once the agency understands what went wrong and how to fix it. The MDA “has no other way to restore confidence with the current GMD system,” he said.

Other missile defense experts said the failed intercept furthers a perception problem for the MDA and likely will spark another round of debate about the program.

“It’s a big public relations blow,” said George Lewis, senior research associate at the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Cornell University. 

“The tests have taken on more symbolic importance than technical importance,” said Jeff Kueter, president of the Marshall Institute, a think tank here. 

The July 5 failure came as the MDA was in the midst of preparing for a second-generation interceptor test meant to help determine whether the technology on the Capability Enhancement 2 kill vehicle has advanced enough for the Pentagon to buy 14 more interceptors for Fort Greely. The purchase is a key part of the Obama administration’s plan to bolster the nation’s missile defense shield against an attack from North Korea.

The work leading up to that test, which the MDA had been targeting for as early as this fall, now hinges on what a failure review board finds from the July 5 launch. Ellison and Kueter said there are indications the kill vehicle did not separate from its booster. If that is true, Lewis said, it would mean little information was collected from the kill vehicle and subsequently from the test as a whole.