Vice Adm. James D. Syring, Director, Missile Defense Agency
Vice Adm. James D. Syring, Director, Missile Defense Agency. Credit: DoD, Glenn Fawcett

UPDATED Feb. 5 at 5:34 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Missile Defense Agency intends to lead the effort to design a new kill vehicle for its U.S.-based interceptors by drawing on the best ideas from three previously submitted industry concepts, the agency’s director said Feb. 2.

Once the MDA-generated design is complete, which is expected around 2018, industry would be invited to compete for the production contract, U.S. Navy Vice Adm. James Syring said during a press briefing on the MDA’s 2016 budget request. The competitors for that work would be Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, each of which submitted competing kill vehicle designs for a since-canceled program, he said.

Syring unveiled the development strategy in rolling out the MDA’s $8.12 billion budget request for fiscal year 2016. That figure is about $600 million higher than the White House requested and about $300 million more than Congress approved for the current fiscal year.

The request includes $279 million for the redesigned exoatmospheric kill vehicle, which Syring has long identified as one of his top priorities. The White House had requested $100 million for the program a year ago and Congress approved nearly the fully amount.

Ground-based Missile Defense system test. Credit: MDA
Ground-based Missile Defense system test. Credit: MDA

The redesigned kill vehicle program was hatched following a string of intercept failures of the Boeing-built Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, the primary U.S. territorial missile shield. At least two of those failures have been attributed to issues with the current exoatmospheric kill vehicle, which is designed to destroy incoming missile warheads by force of direct impact. The Raytheon-built system has not had a significant change to its fundamental design in more than a decade, experts say.

Syring said the MDA’s acquisition strategy was “very close” to being approved by the Pentagon’s senior leadership. “In the end, it will be our design,” he said.

In addition to owning and managing the design, the MDA intends to have decision authority over the kill vehicle’s components and subcomponents. Syring has pushed the MDA’s biggest contractors to tighten their oversight of third-, fourth- and fifth-tier suppliers.

The Raytheon-built kill vehicle system has not had a significant change to its fundamental design in more than a decade, experts say. Credit: Raytheon

Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, California, Boeing Defense, Space & Security of St. Louis, and Raytheon Missile Systems of Tucson, Arizona, submitted the kill vehicle concepts that the MDA will draw upon in March 2014. That work was done under modified contracts originally awarded in 2011 for a new interceptor dubbed Standard Missile-3 Block 2B, which was canceled in 2013.

“We evaluated all three,” Syring said. “They all have positives and negatives. It’s our desire to get the best of all three and that’s what we intend to do.”

Even as it prepares to move ahead with a new kill vehicle, the MDA is requesting funds to study the reliability of the current GMD design, a budget overview document said. As part of a White House strategy for bolstering U.S. defenses against North Korea, the agency plans to add 14 interceptors to its GMD installation at Fort Greely, Alaska, one of two main GMD sites. Those additional interceptors are scheduled to be in place by 2017 and Syring said the effort remains on time.

The MDA normally keeps its testing plans close to the vest, but the budget documents said one nonintercept GMD flight test is scheduled in 2016 to evaluate new kill-vehicle thrusters and target discrimination technologies. Syring has cited improving the ability of interceptors to discriminate between missile warheads and decoys or debris as another of his top priorities.

Meanwhile, Syring said the MDA is “working through concepts on what might be possible” for a follow-on program to the experimental missile tracking satellites known as the Space Tracking and Surveillance System.

While there is no current plan for such a system, Syring said there is still a need for satellites capable of tracking missiles in midflight and that the MDA would not approach a follow-on program by itself. Instead, the MDA would likely work with the Air Force or another Defense Department agency, he said.

The current experimental satellites, built by Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems of Los Angeles, were launched into low Earth orbit in 2009.


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.