GMD test
A Missile Defense Agency Ground-based Missile Defense system test. Credit: MDA

WASHINGTON — A U.S. missile defense interceptor destroyed a target during a June 22 test of the nation’s primary missile shield, marking the first success in the last four tries for the system.

The test, the first successful intercept for the newest variant of the kill vehicle that tops the Ground-based Midcourse Defense boosters, opens the door to U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan to bolster U.S. defenses against a North Korean missile attack.

“This is a very important step in our continuing efforts to improve and increase the reliability of our homeland ballistic missile defense system,” Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said in a June 22 press release announcing the test results. “We’ll continue efforts to ensure our deployed Ground-based Interceptors and our overall homeland defensive architecture continue to provide the warfighter an effective and dependable system to defend the country.”

MDA officials have said a success in the latest test would clear the way for the agency to buy 14 more GMD interceptors for installation at Fort Greely, Alaska, as part of Obama’s plan to counter the North Korean threat.

Designed to protect U.S. territory, the GMD currently features 30 interceptors: four at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and 26 at Fort Greely.

The test ended a string of three consecutive failed intercepts of the GMD. The last successful GMD intercept test occurred in 2008.

In the most recent failure, which occurred in July 2013, the interceptor’s kill vehicle failed to separate from its booster rocket. That followed two failures in 2010, both of which have been attributed, in whole or in part, to issues with the Raytheon-built Capability Enhancement 2 kill vehicle — the same design that has now succeeded.

In the latest test, a long-range target missile built by Lockheed Martin was launched from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean at about 2:49 p.m. and was tracked by the Aegis Weapon System aboard the USS Hopper and by the Sea-Based X-band radar, according to press releases from the Defense Department and GMD prime contractor Boeing Defense, Space & Security of St. Louis. About six minutes later, a GMD interceptor launched from Vandenberg and destroyed the target by force of impact.

The exercise, known as FTG-06b, was designed to test the Capability Enhancement 2 Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, a complex device equipped with sensors and a multidirectional propulsion system that enable it to home in on its target.

The test cost about $200 million, said Richard Lehner, an MDA spokesman.

Raytheon Missile Systems of Tucson, Arizona, builds the kill vehicle; Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Virginia, provides the booster rocket.

“These are among our industry’s most complex systems,” Taylor W. Lawrence, president of Raytheon Missile Systems, said in a June 22 press release. “Testing is critically important to ensuring the advancement of reliable kill vehicles for the protection of the U.S. and its allies.”

The GMD system has recorded nine intercepts in 17 flight tests since 2001. The recent string of failures triggered a quality control investigation by the Defense Department’s inspector general in October as well as an MDA effort to redesign the kill vehicle.

In a press release, Riki Ellison, chairman and founder of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance here, attributed the success to a change in the MDA’s “organizational culture” and credited Syring, “who has overcome leadership decisions from the past and the lack of investment which has plagued the performance of the CE-II interceptor since its inception.”

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.