WASHINGTON — A U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) investigation board is trying to determine what caused an ICBM interceptor to fail during the final moments of a flight test last December, according to industry officials.
Although the failure review board has not determined the precise problem during the Dec. 15 test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, Boeing’s top program official said he believes the issue was isolated to the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV).
“This flight, up until the last few seconds, was absolutely picture perfect,” Norm Tew, vice president and program director of GMD for Boeing, said during a March 16 briefing in Arlington, Va. “It was the cleanest, most picture-perfect flight we’ve ever had. All those items worked great.”
The Raytheon-built EKV is the part of the GMD system that intercepts the ICBM in space. Boeing is the program’s prime contractor, but Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and Orbital Sciences build parts of the system.
GMD is designed to protect the United States from long-range ballistic missiles, particularly future threats from North Korea and Iran.
“We know the majority of the system and the work that we’ve done, we know how it worked, and it worked very well,” Tew said. “This issue was isolated to the EKV.”
Raytheon officials declined to comment on the failure, citing the ongoing investigation. No information on the test failure will be available until the review board completes its work, MDA spokesman Rick Lehner said March 23.
There are more than 20 operational interceptors deployed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and Fort Greely, Alaska. These operational GMD missiles are currently in “capability enhancement one” configuration.
These systems have successfully intercepted missiles in three of three tests.
“We know a lot about that system and that configuration, and we have high confidence in that,” Tew said.
The missile that failed during the intercept test last year was part of a new configuration called “capability enhancement two,” he noted. That version has “a lot of changes,” including enhancements and design improvements, Tew said.
The newer generation missiles are designed to augment the existing systems, according to Tew.
The failure review board and industry officials are evaluating data from the test to determine the root cause of the problem. Industry officials are “pursuing additional design concepts that might address what some of the most likely items are,” he said.
Program officials’ top priority is to resolve the flight test failure, Tew said.
“We have a robust and ongoing dialogue with the customer and our industry teammates, and there are several parallel activities aimed at establishing root cause, aggressively pursing a design solution and getting back into flight,” he said.
At the same time, the MDA is reviewing industry proposals for the future sustainment of the GMD system. A Boeing-Northrop Grumman-Raytheon team is vying against a Lockheed Martin-Raytheon team.
Air Force To Upgrade Minuteman 3
The U.S. Air Force intends to spend about $1.2 billion between 2012 and 2016 to improve systems and upgrade its Minuteman 3 ICBMs, according to 2012 Pentagon budget justification documents. This includes replacing obsolete parts, developing a new fuze and upgrading the remote cryptography system that transmits launch codes.
Roughly $345 million of that funding is being eyed for other ICBM-related development efforts.
In all, the upgrades and enhancements are intended to keep the Minuteman 3 in use until 2030. Boeing is the prime contractor for the Minuteman 3.
“A key to integrating technologies to ensure ICBM security, availability, accuracy and affordability is maintaining an appropriate industrial base and ICBM skills unique to Boeing,” said Peggy Morse, the company’s director of strategic missile systems. These skills are in the area of guidance, navigation and secure ICBM command and control.
“There’s been much discussion and some action to support the solid rocket motor industrial base, and similar action will also be required for those other unique ICBM industrial capabilities,” she said.
While the Air Force has completed a program to replace the electronics in the Minuteman 3, the accelerometers and gyroscopes are aging, Morse said during a March 17 interview.
“At some point, there will have to be a guidance replacement program to replace the inertial instrument part of the system as well,” she said. “That’s not imminent, but there [are] issues that drive maintainability and affordability related to the guidance system.”
Boeing has invested company dollars over the last six years to look at different guidance systems and methods of taking the weapons out of the field, Morse said.