Missile Defense Agency officials developing a new high-speed missile interceptor are hoping to avoid a proposed cut to the 2008 budget

that they say would force additional compromises on the operational system.

Carlton Brewer, program manager for the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) system at the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, said that if the cut proposed by the House of Representatives in its version of the 2008 defense authorization bill is enacted into law, the planned 2008 booster flight test for the system will likely stay on track.

However, Brewer said in a June 7 interview that he would likely be forced to further limit advance work in 2008 that has already been scaled back on the operational version of the interceptor.

The KEI program began as an effort to develop an interceptor fast enough to knock down ballistic missiles shortly after takeoff. MDA awarded a contract with a potential value of about $4 billion to Northrop Grumman Mission Systems of Reston, Va., in 2004 to serve as the prime contractor.

MDA has regarded the KEI system as a backup to the Airborne Laser, its primary boost phase missile defense system. The agency stripped the KEI effort back two years ago to focus on a 2008 booster flight demonstration due to a

budget crunch at MDA, and further scaled it back with the release of its 2008 budget to stop work on a planned mobile version of the system.

MDA requested $227.5 million for KEI in 2008, about half of what it had expected to request a year earlier.

The 2008 budget request also reflected MDA’s decision to drop a unique kill vehicle from the effort, as the agency now plans to use the Multiple Kill Vehicle and sea-based interceptors for the KEI mission.

Despite a tighter than expected budget request, KEI was given the additional responsibility of

serving as the booster for the next generation of midcourse-phase interceptors.

The House of Representatives cut $50 million from the KEI budget request when it passed its version of the 2008 defense authorization legislation on May 17. However, the House Armed Services Committee included language in the

report accompanying the bill


that the Pentagon designate KEI, rather than the Airborne Laser, as its primary boost phase defense system.

The committee stated that it was frustrated with the repeated schedule delays on the Airborne Laser – the most recent of which was announced with MDA’s 2008 budget request in February

, pushed an intercept test planned for 2008 to September 2009 – and noted that KEI passed through its programmatic milestones as scheduled in 2006.

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the bill, which was sent to the full Senate

June 5 where it awaits a vote, fully funded the KEI program and cut the Airborne Laser request, but did not include language about which should be the primary boost phase program.

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees have not yet marked up their versions of the 2008 defense budget legislation.

Brewer said

the House recommendation on KEI serving as MDA’s primary boost-phase interceptor program has not led to any changes thus far on the agency’s plans for KEI.

Brewer said that he hopes that the KEI

ultimately will receive its full 2008 budget request when Congress finishes its work on the 2008 defense budget. However, the House-proposed funding reduction, if it becomes law, would likely be applied to the small portion of the program’s budget request that was intended to prepare for work scheduled as a

follow-up to the 2008 booster flight, he said.

Craig Staresinich, sector vice president and general manager for KEI at Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, said in a June 12 interview that the proposed reduction to the program’s budget request in 2008 likely would

stop Northrop Grumman from conducting systems engineering work that would lay the groundwork for the use of the KEI interceptor on a mobile launcher.

Development of the mobile launch platform already had

been curtailed by MDA when it reduced its planned budget request for the program for 2008.

If program officials are forced to wait until after the booster flight test to conduct this work, they might

need to do redesign work on the rocket later, Staresinich said.

Meanwhile, MDA and Northrop Grumman have begun a series of engine tests

with each of the two stages of the KEI booster, which are built by ATK.

Initial engine testing was conducted in 2006.

The first test

in the series was conducted June 14 with the successful

test firing of

the first stage at ATK’s facilities in Promontory, Utah.

The burn time of the engine is classified, Staresinich said in a conference call with reporters following the test.

Testing on the second stage will begin at ATK’s Elkton, Md., facility this fall, Brewer said.

Each engine will be test fired a total of four times throughout the spring of 2008, with the level of difficulty increasing with the third and fourth tests, Brewer said. Some of the conditions that will be addressed with the latter tests include testing under hot and cold temperatures, Staresinich said.

After completion of the engine tests, Northrop Grumman will integrate the two stages for the 2008 booster flight test with a dummy payload representing the interceptor’s kill vehicle,

Staresinich said in the conference call following the June 14 test.

Northrop Grumman and MDA plan to continue booster flight tests following the initial demonstration in the second half of 2008, leading up to a flight test with the Multiple Kill Vehicle in 2013 before it pursues the intercept of a target, Staresinich said. The program had initially pursued an intercept test in 2010 before undergoing funding reductions, he said.

Throughout its work on the KEI program, Northrop Grumman has commissioned reviews of the effort by teams primarily consisting of retired missile program managers and engineers that are intended to provide suggestions on how to best approach the rocket’s design and spot issues before they turn into serious problems, Staresinich said. Northrop Grumman’s history working with the Minuteman ICBM program has helped to ensure that the company is designing a system that can be handled safely and will work reliably, he said.