Officials defend delay for next missile intercept test

U.S. Defense Department officials on Tuesday defended their decision to delay a planned missile defense intercept test to late this year, saying more time would be needed before they are ready for the trial launch.

Testifying before a House panel, Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, who heads the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, said his organization would postpone reattempting a flight test first carried out in December 2010, when an Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle failed to hit an incoming dummy warhead.

The kill vehicle is the crucial front-end technology for Ground-Based Interceptors, the central weapon in the nation's Ground-based Midcourse Defense system.

O'Reilly's agency has 26 interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska and four of the weapons at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, which "protect the United States against a limited ICBM raid size launched from current regional threats," he told lawmakers. Pentagon officials recently announced they could field an additional eight interceptors in Alaska by 2016, bringing the total to 38.

Designed to destroy incoming enemy ballistic missile re-entry vehicles outside the atmosphere, the EKV technology has scored three flight test successes to date aboard Ground-Based Interceptors, according to O'Reilly's agency. Overall there have been just eight successful intercepts using GBI system technology in 15 flight tests.

The December 2010 failure -- one of two misses that year -- led to a redesign for Raytheon Missile Systems' EKV system, the Army three-star general said in written testimony for a hearing of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee .

During the last intercept attempt, the weapon launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California but failed to hit a target missile over the Pacific Ocean .

This year the Missile Defense Agency plans to initially conduct a nonintercept flight test of the Ground-Based Interceptor in July, using what O'Reilly called the "upgraded" EKV design. Hoping to have corrected the technical problem, the agency will then retry the more challenging intercept test by the end of 2012, he said.

"Extensive ground testing and modeling have demonstrated with high confidence" that the EKV fault was associated with "space-related dynamic environments which caused the EKV to fail in the final seconds of the test," Rick Lehner, an MDA spokesman, said in response to a reporter's questions. "The first generation EKV now deployed in Alaska and California do not have this design issue."

O'Reilly characterized the effort to achieve success in these upcoming GBI flight tests as "MDA's highest priority."

A December intercept retest would represent a 90-day delay from earlier plans, a setback that appeared to trouble subcommittee Chairman Michael Turner, R-Ohio.

"We won't see return flight tests for the [redesigned] kill vehicle for two months more than projected, [delayed] to July 2012. And the return-to-flight intercept test for the [redesigned] kill vehicle will be delayed three months to December 2012," the lawmaker said at the hearing. "Yet the nuclear missile programs of Iran and North Korea continue to expand."

Most worrisome for national missile defense is Pyongyang's "continued development of long-range missiles and potentially a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile and their continued development of nuclear [weapons]," Turner said. "North Korea is in the process of becoming a direct threat to the United States."

However, David Ahern, deputy assistant Defense secretary for portfolio systems acquisition, warned against rushing key developmental steps in the GBI program.

"The flight test pace of about one per year is the best that we've been able to do on average over ... about a decade. That's because these tests are extremely complex. There's over a terabyte of data that's collected during these tests," said Ahern, testifying alongside O'Reilly on a four-witness panel. "I'm all for testing at the most rapid pace possible, but you have to assess and analyze the results of the tests in order to learn from them."

O'Reilly added that in the case of the EKV system, he and senior program engineers opted for the new test delays after assessing findings of an expert panel that reviewed the 2010 failure.

"As we looked at the results emerging from the last flight test in the failure review board, we did identify a component that had an error that was not apparent -- you couldn't test it with the facilities on the ground," O'Reilly told lawmakers during the hearing. "So we have re-established new specifications that we believe will be robust, and we'll prove that in a flight test this summer."

O'Reilly also said he and his technical advisers were dissatisfied with quality lapses they discovered in the production of certain kill vehicle components. Neither the agency leader nor the other witnesses identified the specific parts in question.

"It was in the review of the factories and the plants themselves that we saw that we needed more stringent production processes," O'Reilly said. "Unfortunately, these devices are the very first ones you use when you build up [an] enhanced kill vehicle. And so by replacing them with production-representative devices -- actually will cause a delay, because we had to start over the production of these [kill vehicles]."

The general, who has headed the Missile Defense Agency since November 2008, said he wanted to ensure that the kill vehicle that is intercept-tested late this year would be "production representative."

Building a test weapon that matches systems that will be manufactured in quantity into the future "gives us the confidence, based on the results of a successful intercept, that in fact we can put the rest of the production line into operation," O'Reilly said.

The nonintercept test in July, though, is to be performed with "an existing part" and is aimed at demonstrating "mitigations to the problems that were discovered in the earlier flight test" with that previous-design part, said Michael Gilmore, who directs the Pentagon's Operational Test and Evaluation office.

For the December test and in future production, "they're building a new part and they have to make certain that they're building it to the right tolerances, under the right conditions," Gilmore explained, also testifying on Tuesday before the House subcommittee. "And so the intercept test, I agree, should be postponed until we can have a fully production-representative part in the test."

Representative Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., the House panel's ranking member, said she supports taking a methodical approach to fixing and testing the EKV technology.

"I've always been one of those people who thinks it's important that we get the testing right and understand what we should have before we begin to acquire any more of that," she said. "In the GMD program, which stands at about a 45 percent test success rate, it means determining the causes of the recent test failures, and [ensuring] that they're adequately resolved and corrected before buying additional costly interceptors."