WASHINGTON — The head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) confirmed that a July 5 test of the nation’s primary missile shield failed because the interceptor’s kill vehicle did not separate from the booster rocket that launched it towards its target.

“Every part of the system worked as designed until the separation,” Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, MDA’s director, told the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee July 17. 

During a hearing, Syring also disclosed that the next test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system’s second-generation kill vehicle is now targeted for March. The MDA previously said in budget documents it could conduct the test, which if successful would clear the way for the agency to buy a new batch of interceptors,  as early as the final three months of calendar year 2013.  

Currently the MDA has 30 deployed GMD interceptors: 26 at Fort Greely, Alaska, and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The Pentagon in March announced plans to place an additional 14 interceptors at Fort Greely to counter a growing North Korean threat.   Syring said the agency is evaluating whether it may need more than 44 interceptors as the threat from Iran evolves.

At the July 5 test, the MDA launched a long-range target missile from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, but a GMD interceptor that launched from Vandenberg failed to destroy it. The exercise involved the first-generation Capability Enhancement 1 Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle that Tucson, Ariz.-based Raytheon Missile Systems builds for GMD prime contractor Boeing Co. of Chicago.

The test followed a two-year hiatus in GMD testing and marked the third consecutive failed intercept for the system. The two previous failures, both of which occurred in 2010, involved a new-generation kill vehicle dubbed Capability Enhancement 2.

“In light of the last three GMD failures, I recognize that quality and reliability in our [ground-based interceptors] must be our top concern,” Syring said. “Whatever happens, I am dedicated to executing successful GMD intercept flight tests over the coming year.”

The latest test cost about $214 million “for mission planning, target, interceptor, range and other sensors, range costs, personnel, post-mission analysis and other costs,” according to Richard Lehner, an MDA spokesman. Funding for GMD tests is spread across several MDA spending accounts, he said via email, adding that system testing has not been scaled back since 2008, as some critics of U.S. President Barack Obama’s missile defense policies have suggested. 

Syring said the MDA has convened a failure review board to investigate what happened. He said he believed the separation problem could be solved because the MDA experienced a similar issue in a previous test.

All told, the GMD system has recorded eight GMD intercepts in 16 tries since 1999.  

The subcommittee’s chairman, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), voiced skepticism about the reliability of the nation’s primary missile shield and questioned the wisdom of putting more money toward the program without results. He pointed to $150 billion Congress has spent on missile defense since the 1980s and said it has not resulted in a culture of confidence.

“This is a system that still hasn’t been proven to protect America,” he said.

The spending figure cited by Durbin covers all of MDA’s programs, not just GMD, which currently is funded at about $1 billion per year.

Throughout his testimony, Syring repeated calls for more-frequent testing of the system. A test of the Capability Enhancement 2 interceptor is targeted for March, and Syring said he expects to conduct at least one test a year after that.

“What’s important is to continue to test,” he said.

Lehner said the upcoming test will be a repeat of one of the 2010 tests that ended in failure.

Meanwhile, Syring also told the committee that the MDA continues to look at a third interceptor site in the United States. Many Republican lawmakers have pushed for an East Coast site to protect against a ballistic missile attack from Iran.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced in March that the MDA would begin looking for a third site, a prospect that has led to jockeying among lawmakers to get their home states selected. 

In response to questions from Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Syring said two sites in Maine remain a possibility and that MDA officials hope to perform site visits before the end of the year.


GOP Lawmakers Seek Another Test after Latest GMD Failure

Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...