U.S. Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, the head of the Missile Defense Agency, said Jan. 19 that a new kill vehicle will fly in 2018 and face an intercept test in 2019. Credit: CSIS

WASHINGTON – The head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency said Jan. 19 the schedule for a new kill vehicle will be based on rigor and process, not hard deadlines, an allusion to design missteps by the organization more than a decade ago.

U.S. Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, the head of the MDA, said his plan is to field a new kill vehicle around 2020 and to hold the first flight test, a non-intercept test, in 2018. MDA would conduct an intercept test for the new kill vehicle in 2019. Additional tests are possible.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Jan. 19, Syring described the pace as “a very quick schedule.”

MDA hatched the Redesigned Kill Vehicle program following a string of intercept failures of the Boeing-built Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, the primary U.S. territorial shield. The Defense Department has attributed at least two of those failures to the Raytheon-built EKV, which is designed to destroy incoming missile warheads by force of direct impact.

The EKV has not had a significant change to its fundamental design in more than a decade, experts say, and Raytheon officials have said the EKV was deployed in 2004 as a prototype because of urgent national defense priorities.

Now, MDA is leading the design of the RKV using a blueprint that cobbles together the best ideas from concepts submitted by Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon

Syring said the program is being “driven by rigor and not by schedule. The objective is 2018, but it’s absolutely driven by design progress.”

As a result, Syring said he wants a kill vehicle that is more reliable, more producible, more effective, easier to maintain, and cheaper to build than the current kill vehicle.

The program, one of Syring’s top priorities, also serves as a key technical bridge to the Multi-Object Kill Vehicle, which has become a darling for some members in the House.

The MOKV is intended to destroy multiple objects simultaneously, addressing one of the most prominent criticisms of current missile defenses: the inability to distinguish between missile warheads and decoys and other objects.

“If you can put more kill vehicles on an interceptor, the better chance you have of reducing the number of shots you need to defeat the threat,” Syring said.

Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon in August won study contracts worth approximately $9.7 million each to develop MOKV concepts.

During a question-and-answer session, Syring said North Korea’s nuclear test earlier this year did not expand its nuclear capability, contrary to Pyongyang’s assertion it had detonated its first hydrogen bomb.

“I would assess that their technical capability has not increased,” he said. “That said, everything that they’re doing continues to be alarming and provoking.”

Meanwhile, the MDA plans to have 37 Ground-based Midcourse Defense interceptors in the ground by the end of this year, Syring said.

Currently the MDA has 30 deployed GMD interceptors: 26 at Fort Greely, Alaska, and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. In March 2013, the Defense Department announced plans to place an additional 14 interceptors at Fort Greely to counter a growing North Korean threat.

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.