The year ahead will be the busiest year for U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) , with demonstrations of a variety of interceptor systems slated to take place in flight tests and in laboratories on the ground.
Industry officials involved with the construction of the systems are hoping 2006 bears more resemblance to late 2005, when MDA conducted successful tests on three different systems, than the end of 2004 and the early part of 2005 when interceptor rockets failed to take off in consecutive tests of the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System.
But even testing failures can provide data that builds the foundation for successful programs, according to Jerry Agee, president of Northrop Grumman Mission Systems in Reston, Va.
Agee, who serves as Northrop Grumman’s top missile defense executive, pointed to failures in the early days of the U.S. government’s development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles as cases where a rocky road ultimately led to systems that have proven effective and vital to the military.
The Ground Based Midcourse Defense System, which is built by a team led by Boeing Co. of Chicago, is expected to run through several flight tests over the course of the year, according to MDA spokesman Rick Lehner.
These tests will be the first launches of the national missile defense system interceptors from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Interceptors in the program’s previous flight tests have been launched from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.
The first of the Vandenberg tests, which is expected to be conducted in the spring, will feature the flight of an interceptor without the launch of a target for it to intercept. Another spring time test will feature the launch of a target from Kodiak, Alaska, with the use of a computer-simulated interceptor that is primarily intended to test an upgraded ground-based radar system at Beale Air Force Base in California, Lehner said.
A test slated for mid summer or early autumn will feature the launch of an interceptor, as well as a target fired from Kodiak. This test is intended to gather intercept-related data without necessarily destroying the target, Lehner said. Another test, which is expected to take place in late autumn , is planned to include an intercept, Lehner said.
The Airborne Laser, an aircraft built by a Boeing-led team that features a high-powered chemical laser intended to destroy ballistic missiles in their boost phase of flight, also has significant flight test plans for 2006.
The Airborne Laser is expected to test out atmospheric compensation systems in-flight for the first time Nov. 30, Lehner said. In the meantime, program officials will continue to conduct ground testing on the aircraft’s Beacon Illuminator Laser, which gathers data on atmospheric distortion between the aircraft and its target, and the Tracking Illuminator Laser, which tracks ballistic missiles, he said.
Other work on the Airborne Laser includes ground firings of the aircraft’s high-powered chemical laser at a relatively low power, Lehner said.
MDA also has plans for four flight tests of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in 2006 at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
The first of those tests involves the launch of a THAAD interceptor against a computer-simulated target. The second THAAD test will involve the launch of an interceptor and a target that features a warhead that does not separate from its booster, while the third test will include an interceptor launched against a separating target. Those tests are intended to generate data but do not include an intercept as the goal, Lehner said.
The fourth THAAD test, which is the only flight in 2006 with an intercept as a goal, will feature the interceptor launched at a separating target, Lehner said. The fifth test is intended primarily to demonstrate control of the interceptor during flight, he said.
The Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense Program will also feature flight testing in 2006. MDA is sufficiently pleased with data gleaned from a November intercept of a separating target that it plans to skip an intercept test that had been planned for February, according to Navy Rear Adm. Alan Hicks, MDA’s program manager for the effort.
The next flight test will take place in March, and will demonstrate an improved nosecone for the kill vehicle on the rocket that was developed in cooperation with the Japanese government, Hicks said during a December luncheon speech sponsored by the George C. Marshall Institute, a think tank here. No interception is planned for that test.
That demonstration will be followed at some point in the summer by an intercept test with a new variant of the Standard Missile-3 interceptor built by Raytheon Co. of Waltham, Mass., Hicks said. A second Aegis intercept is expected to follow later in the year, according to MDA officials.
Other important tests in 2006 include ground firings of the Kinetic Energy Interceptor engines, Agee said. Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor for that program, which is intended to develop a high-speed rocket capable of knocking down ballistic missiles in their boost or ascent phase of flight.
The first tests, which took place on Jan. 17, , involved the second stage of the rocket, Agee said. Program officials currently are deliberating on a date for some point later in 2006 for test firing the first stage, he said.
Northrop Grumman also will spend 2006 conducting sensor integration tests on the ground with the Space Tracking and Surveillance System to ensure that those demonstration satellites can withstand rigors like extreme cold and vibration, Agee said. Those two satellites will then be launched in 2007, he said.