HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – The U.S. Missile Defense Agency plans to address one of its more frequent criticisms head on by conducting seven tests before 2024 against ICBM-class targets, the MDA’s director said Aug. 13.

Navy Vice Adm. James Syring said during the Space and Missile Defense Symposium here that the target in the most recent missile defense test reached near-ICBM speeds.

Iran and North Korea are expected to field ICBMs capable of reaching the United States in coming years.

In the June 22 test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, a long-range target missile built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, California, was launched from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean and 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 Air Force Base, California, and destroyed the target by force of impact.

In one of the longest speeches of his tenure – Syring rarely grants interviews or holds media briefings – he outlined the cause of every missile defense intercept failure over the last 10 years, pointing to hurried production schedules and what he described as minor, and typical, technical problems. The GMD failed in three straight intercept tests before its June 22 success.

In recent congressional testimony, Syring has crafted a narrative in discussing the agency’s failures, saying national strategy and politics may have led to unrealistic expectations and unfair criticisms of MDA programs. This has tended to obscure the technical causes of the mishaps, some of which were corrected by as little as one line of code, he said.

Syring used his keynote speech to address many longstanding criticisms of U.S. missile defense activities.

In an apparent response to charges that missile tests are rigged for success, for example, Syring acknowledged that the agency does “limit variables,” but said the reason for that is to gather more precise data on system capabilities and comply with safety regulations.   

Syring also pushed back against the idea that the hit-to-kill technology employed by the GMD and other interceptors cannot be consistently successful, saying MDA records show an 80 percent chance of success on all intercept tests across the agency’s portfolio. That average would be even higher, he said, if tests from the earliest stages of the programs were not counted.

Five early stage GMD intercept failures — there have been nine failures in 17 attempts to date — were the result of issues that are to be expected “in a prototype or test bed,” he said. 

Syring outlined a broad philosophy for the coming years: “build a little, test a little, learn a lot.” He said he would continue to follow a strategy of carrying out non-intercept tests before intercept tests.

Syring said he remains committed to improved target discrimination, including a new long-range radar in the Pacific Ocean and a redesigned exo-atmospheric kill vehicle. Critics have long charged that U.S. missile defense systems are unable to distinguish between missile warheads and decoys, even in attacks from a relatively unsophisticated adversary.

“This is not a choice,” Syring said. “This is an imperative that we remain focused on improvements.”

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.