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Pentagon May Hasten Missile Intercept Retest After Latest Failure

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

Technicians prepare a U.S. Ground Based Interceptor for placement at an Alaska launch facility in 2012. The Defense Department might soon schedule a new test of a GBI variant that missed an intercept target in a trial launch earlier this month, a high-level Pentagon official said on Wednesday (U.S. Missile Defense Agency photo). Technicians prepare a U.S. Ground Based Interceptor for placement at an Alaska launch facility in 2012. The Defense Department might soon schedule a new test of a GBI variant that missed an intercept target in a trial launch earlier this month, a high-level Pentagon official said on Wednesday (U.S. Missile Defense Agency photo).

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Defense Department may soon add a new retest of the central weapon in the nation’s missile defense architecture after a trial intercept failed earlier this month, according to a senior Pentagon official.

The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency “is considering what should be the timing for the next test” of the Ground Based Interceptor version deployed today in Alaska and California that missed its July 5 target, said James Miller, the under secretary of Defense for policy.

Speaking on Wednesday at a breakfast forum on Capitol Hill, he said agency head Vice Adm. James Syring is examining whether a retest of the so-called CE-1 model “should precede or follow” a planned March 2014 flight trial of a more modern GBI interceptor that is set for first deployment in 2017, dubbed CE-2.

In either case, “I would like to see a test of both versions certainly within the next 12 months, preferably in less than that,” Miller said.

The potentially speedy retest comes amid acrimonious congressional debate over U.S. missile defenses, with some Democrats pushing to restrict funds for what they see as a technically flawed system and a number of Republicans calling for the Pentagon to build an additional interceptor site on the East Coast by 2018.

The most recent disappointment in a string of technical challenges for the Ground Based Interceptor was due this time to a failure of its front-end kill vehicle to separate from a third-stage rocket booster during ballistic flight, Syring confirmed on Wednesday morning in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.

A mix of 30 CE-1 and CE-2 versions of the Ground Based Interceptor are currently fielded on the West Coast: Four of them in California and the remainder in Alaska. Another 14 CE-2 models are expected for deployment in Alaska within four years. Defense leaders announced the anticipated missile defense augmentation in March, citing a heightened threat of attack from North Korea.

Miller noted that the more modern Ground Based Interceptor CE-2 model has had a rough time in testing, as well. It had a successful non-intercept test flight in January but only after two prior intercept failures.

“Based on everything I’ve seen, I have a high degree of confidence that the technical fixes that the Missile Defense Agency has put in place will address the challenges with the CE-2, but we want to test it,” the Defense policy chief said.

In fact, he said, the Missile Defense Agency should return to routinely performing flight trials of all its intercept systems more often, as it did earlier in the decade. The organization has conducted just three flight tests over the past five years.

“I’d like to see us get to a testing pattern that is more frequent than it has been in recent years, both as a matter of good acquisition and maintenance practice and as a demonstration [to would-be adversaries] that these systems work,” Miller said.

Syring said he has budgeted for two flight trials in fiscal 2014 and at least one test annually in subsequent years.

Miller voiced confidence, as did Syring, that although the precise cause of the latest CE-1 test failure remains under study, the problem can be fixed.

“We had an unusual anomaly in this test,” he said. “I don’t understand why we did not have the effective separation” of the kill vehicle, he said. “But I believe that that’s something that ought to be relatively easily resolvable.”

Media reports have suggested that the test failure this month occurred because of a battery problem, but the Missile Defense Agency has not publicly confirmed that.

Correction: An earlier version of this article inadequately portrayed the mix of CE-1 and CE-2 Ground Based Interceptors currently on deployment, and should have described a successful January flight test as not having featured an intercept attempt.

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