Successful Intercept Seen as ‘Final Exam’ for SM-3 Block 1B

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UPDATED 5:07 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — A U.S. Standard Missile (SM)-3 Block 1B interceptor engaged and destroyed a medium-range target missile over the Pacific Ocean Oct. 4 in what the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) said was the fifth consecutive success for the sea-based system.

The $26 million test is expected to clear the way for full-rate production of the interceptor, which is built by Tucson, Ariz.-based Raytheon Missile Systems. The Defense Department is expected to spend more than $3 billion as part of a procurement campaign.

Raytheon said the test was among the highest-altitude intercepts to date for the sea-based SM-3 Block 1B.

The intercept “is a result of increasing the complexity of the testing scenarios, reflecting what we would see in an operational environment,” Mitch Stevison, Raytheon’s SM-3 program director, said in an Oct. 4  press release. “The missile continues to perform, increasing confidence in the SM-3 Block IB’s readiness for production.”

At approximately 1:33 a.m. local time, the target was launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii, and flew northwest over an open area of the Pacific.

The target was detected by radars aboard the USS Lake Erie, which developed a firing solution via the on-board Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System and launched the interceptor.

The interceptor maneuvered in space and released its kinetic warhead, which “acquired” and then destroyed the target by force of impact, the MDA said.

In a press release, MDA officials said they would examine data from the test and use them, in combination with information from a successful intercept test Sept. 18, to make a follow-on production decision for the SM-3 Block 1B, which is still in developmental testing and is yet to be deployed operationally. The Block 1B, an upgrade to the SM-3 1A now in service aboard Navy ships, failed in a September 2011 intercept test.

The Oct. 4 test marks the final exercise in initial operational testing, said Kenyon Hiser, Raytheon’s SM-3 deputy program director. “In one case, this was the final exam,” he said in an interview with SpaceNews.

MDA officials are expected to review the entire sequence of SM-3 1B tests and present a report to the agency’s executive board. That process could take four to five months, Hiser said.

Raytheon officials are expecting a full-rate production decision in spring 2014.

MDA budget documents indicate that the agency plans to buy 52 missiles in 2014 and 72 missiles each year for the next four years. The production contracts could be worth more than $3.1 billion, budget documents show.

Hiser said Raytheon expects that the MDA will continue to buy the missiles past 2018.

Riki Ellison, chairman and founder of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance here, said in an Oct. 4 press release he expects the missiles will fill the launch tubes on 28 Navy ships, at the upcoming Aegis Ashore site in Romania and on four Japanese Kongo-class ships.

“We remain on track to deliver this critical capability in time for a 2015 deployment in support of global combatant command requirements, and specifically phase two of the European Phased Adaptive Approach,” Taylor Lawrence, president of Raytheon Missile Systems, said in the press release.