WASHINGTON — Persistent problems with the kill vehicle atop the interceptors deployed to protect the United States against ballistic missile attacks have triggered a quality control investigation by the U.S. Defense Department’s inspector general.

In a Sept. 24 letter to U.S. Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General said it has begun a “quality assurance assessment” of the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV), which is built by Raytheon Missile Systems of Tucson, Ariz. The EKV, designed to separate from its booster rocket and destroy incoming missile warheads by force of impact, is the business end of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, which serves as the primary U.S territorial shield.

Though already deployed and considered operational, with an expansion planned, the Boeing-built GMD system has a spotty record in testing, recording just eight intercepts in 16 attempts since 1999. Some of those failures have been attributed to the EKV, a complex device equipped with sensors and multidirectional propulsion system that enable it to home in on its target.

The inspector general’s investigation is being conducted at the MDA’s EKV program office in Huntsville, Ala., and at Raytheon’s office in Tucson, the letter said. It was signed by Randolph Stone, deputy inspector general for policy and oversight. Stone worked for the MDA for eight years as the director of quality, safety, and mission assurance.

Raytheon spokeswoman Heather Uberuaga did not return a message seeking comment.

The most recent intercept test of the GMD defense system occurred July 5 and ended in failure. In testimony before Congress later in July, Syring said initial indications were that the EKV, an older version dubbed Capability Enhancement 1, failed to separate from its booster.

Rick Lehner, a spokesman for MDA, said Oct. 31 the failure review is still underway but could offer no new information. The failure review board does not have an estimated date to complete its work, he said.

The July 5 failure came after a two-year testing hiatus that was prompted by back-to-back intercept failures in 2010. The second of those failures was attributed to the EKV, which in that case was a newer variant dubbed Capability Enhancement 2. Production of that hardware was halted as a result.

In March, the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated the price tag for correcting the problems that led to the failures of the newer variant, including failure review costs, testing costs, redesigns and retrofits, could exceed $1.2 billion. The Defense Department has spent more than $41 billion on the program, according to the congressional watchdog agency.

Concerns and issues with the EKV go back more than a decade. In 2006, the MDA withheld money from GMD prime contractor Boeing Defense, Space and Security of St. Louis, and in turn Raytheon, because of work on the EKV. In 2001, the MDA requested funding to establish a second production source for EKVs, but that idea proved too expensive and was quashed.

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 has said the agency is evaluating whether it may need more than 44 interceptors as the threat from Iran evolves.

The next test of the GMD system’s second-generation kill vehicle is now targeted for March and will determine whether the technology on the Capability Enhancement 2 kill vehicle has improved. If successful, that test would clear the way for the agency to buy a new batch of 14 interceptors.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.