Boeing Co. officials who oversee the company’s work as prime contractor

on the U.S. Defense Department’s national missile shield

say that they have not learned much new about the system during testing in recent months.

However, the officials said this is a positive sign

of progress

with the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System (GMD), which features interceptor sites in Alaska and California and a vast network of sensors and command and control systems.

“The fact that we aren’t seeing surprises is a reflection of maturity,” said Scott Fancher, vice president and program director for the GMD system at Boeing Missile Defense Systems here

. “Sure you learn things at the margins, but nothing that impacts capability or flexibility. It really has been unfolding the way we expected.”

Fancher and Pat Shanahan, vice president and general manager for Boeing Missile Defense Systems, both said during an Aug. 15 interview at the 10th Annual Space and Missile Defense Conference and Exhibition here that their confidence level in the system has remained steady for the past year even as they have worked to introduce new capabilities.

Improvements coming online in the near future include additional interceptors – a total of 24 in silos by Oct. 1 – and the inclusion of more sensors in

intercept tests, Shanahan said.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, said during a speech in late February that 13 interceptors were in place at that point.

In addition to results from the ground testing that Boeing and the military have been continuously conducting

, Fancher cited the GMD system’s performance during the

period surrounding North Korea’s

July 4, 2006, test of multiple missiles as evidence of the system’s progress. Fancher said

the GMD system was placed on alert for a “matter of weeks” during that time, though he declined to

be more specific.


, the GMD system requires “hours” to transition between testing and alert status, and operators

make this switch several times a week, Fancher said. However,

before the end of this year, the operators

will begin to

be able to make that switch instantaneously, he said.

The simultaneous test and operations capability will be phased in beginning later this year, with a second phase of capability coming online next year, but declined to elaborate, Fancher said.

The details of how to make the instantaneous


are sensitive, but one the keys

is having separate communications networks to avoid confusion between a message sent as part of testing, and an actual operational command, Fancher said.

Air Force Lt. Gen. C. Robert Kehler, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said during an Aug. 15 speech at the conference that other enablers of the

immediate transition

include additional training and a thorough understanding of operational procedures, although he did not provide specifics.

Making the immediate switch will give the military added flexibility

and capability as

interceptors and other assets


dedicated to testing could be

activated quickly

in the event of attack, Fancher said.

Boeing’s confidence also was buoyed by the GMD system’s

successful intercept of a target missile during a test last September, Fancher said. The next GMD intercept test will take place this fall

and will be the first

since a May attempt

was canceled when the target malfunctioned and did not take off.

The recently deployed

Sea-Based X-band Radar sensor will observe

the upcoming test, which Fancher said will enable GMD program officials to assess its tracking accuracy and other performance parameters

. However, the massive radar installation, built atop a self-propelled offshore oil-drilling platform,

will not be a part of the fire control loop until the next intercept attempt, which could take place in early 2008, Fancher said.

Meanwhile, Boeing has begun

preliminary design work on

a proposed U.S. interceptor site in Poland under a contract that could be worth up to $80 million through 2013. Boeing has received $5 million thus far under that contract; another contract may follow this fall or early next year to cover work on a proposed radar site in the Czech Republic, according to Rick Lehner, a Missile Defense Agency spokesman.

Fancher said

Boeing will leverage its experience in building the interceptor field at Fort Greeley in Alaska as it begins

work on European sites. While Boeing built the Alaska site in two years, the timeline for the site in Poland will be dependent on funding and diplomatic negotiations, he said.

The Polish and Czech governments have not formally agreed to host U.S. missile defense installations on their respective territories.