Test Failure Stirs Missile Defense Doubts

The head of a key Senate subcommittee is questioning the reliability of part of the U.S. missile defense system after a failed test earlier this month.

The Defense Department maintains rocket-like interceptors in silos at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., as part of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System, designed to shoot down incoming threats such as nuclear missiles.

An interceptor launched from Vandenberg during a July 5 test missed its target over the Pacific Ocean. Now, some lawmakers are criticizing the Pentagon’s plans to spend more than $1 billion in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 in part to expand the fleet of interceptors to 44 from 30.

“It’s our responsibility to ensure that those capabilities perform as advertised,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, said during a July 17 hearing. “We know the threat is real. The question is whether our defense is real.”

The panel met to hear testimony from Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, on the agency’s fiscal 2014 budget request.

Syring said a preliminary review of the test traced the problem to something called the exoatmospheric kill vehicle — the portion of the missile that separates from the main body to “intercept” or knock an incoming projectile out of the sky.

“The kill vehicle did not separate from the third-stage booster,” he said. “It wasn’t the booster, sir. It wasn’t the guidance system. The EKV did not separate.”

Syring said he remains confident in the Boeing Co.-made system — even though it’s never actually taken out an intercontinental ballistic missile — and pledged to conduct a full evaluation of the program.

“What’s important is continued testing,” he said.

Durbin cited among his concerns the system’s mixed record of hitting targets in only 8 of 15 attempts; the high cost of testing, which runs about $215 million per exercise; and the fact that many of the interceptors aren’t operational.

Syring acknowledged that unlike the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System — the sea-based program that equips Navy cruisers and destroyers with the Aegis radar system and Standard Missile-3, or SM-3, interceptors — the ground-based system faced a more demanding development schedule that resulted in interceptors being deployed before testing was complete.

Durbin said the problem is a recurring one that affects other weapons systems such as the F-35 fighter jet, the Pentagon’s most expensive acquisition program.

“We’ve run into this repeatedly, whether we’re talking about the F-35 or others — keep producing even while you’re testing,” Durbin said. “We’ve reached a point now where we’re making some critical budget decisions and may not be able to afford that luxury. What troubles me is this is a system that still hasn’t been proven to be able to protect America.”

Syring said the agency is working on “flying before we buy any more” interceptors. It’s also exploring the possibility of developing a universal kill vehicle that could be used with both ground-based interceptors and sea-based SM-3s.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • hibeam

    Test Failure Stirs Missile Defense Doubts. Maybe we should disband the military and use that money to buy fund insane crash and burn failures like Obama-care?

  • Lance

    No I think it show we should not jump into billions into a weapon system is fully tested and is marked reliable.

    • hibeam

      We need to field this missile defense system. To find out what’s in it.

      • Russell Romick

        It is already fielded, the point the article is making is that is the problem, we are fielding these things before they are fully tested.

    • tiger

      By that standard, a lot of projects would fail. The LPD-17 class is a prime case.

    • wpnexp

      Missile system is not so much the problem as the homing/warhead system is. Should look to variants used by the SM-3 program.


    Testing is the only way to go, I am afraid. BEFORE you all say, “Oh, the Boeing Company is just trying to wring all the money it can from the US Government”, YOU try making a missile intercept system. Computer models won’t work, field testing IS the only way forwards.

  • Mr. Tiddles

    The SM-3 has an excellent intercept record. Somewhere close to 85%. Even with complex separating targets. Considering what they are attempting to do here, 85% is an amazing number.

    Their “universal kill vehicle” idea makes me nervous though. I hope they don’t replace the SM-3 with that land based POJ.

    • SJE

      Completely agree. The “universal kill vehicle” assumes that we know what works, when different systems have different and overlapping strengths and weaknesses. There is also no competition. A “common platform” concept works well in e.g. cars, because it lowers costs but it is doing so in a competetive environment. In the contractor environment, you get the F35, with numerous cost overuns.

    • blight_

      The SM-3 also has a shorter range.

      The longer the range of the missile, the more effects that error propagation will have on your intercept.

    • Werner

      only if in range, which is a 130 miles high max. ICBMs arc 300 miles overhead, far outside the SM-3 range. But the fraud must go on.

    • wpnexp

      I think strating with the SM-3 kill vehicle would be wise. Then using the extra funding, we can improve that system along the way.

    • tim

      The so-called “excellent record” is meaningless and misleading. Not once has Sm-3 ever successfully intercepted a missile of similar sophistication to missiles under deployment in Russia, or China, or France, or India.

  • mpower6428

    dumb question…

    and im just spit-ballin here but…

    why don’t we put the aegis sea based systems on the land and call it a day…?

    • tiger

      Because Boeing would whine & moan about not getting a contract…..

    • Thinto

      That would be logical, and when has the military ever been logical? Furthermore, the Defense Military Complex would not be able to pilfer billions more. And even more, Aegis is a Navy system, another service can’t use those Pukes system, they have to have one of their own!

      • Russell Romick

        The phalanx CIWS has been adapted or use to defend US forward bases. On land. I know you were just using satire to get your point over.

        • mpower6428

          im not talking about the CIWS. im talking about the long range sm-2 standard missile when handed off to a 3rd party long range radar. the same one that, when successfully tested, shot down a satellite in orbit back in 07′ (?)

          thx for playing.

    • Curt

      Of course the SM-3 can’t engage the same targets (like say ICBMs for instance) as the GMDS does, but don’t let reality intrude on your spitballing.

      • mpower6428

        it shot down a satellite.

    • blight_

      Because GMD gives you the option of hitting a target over the ocean instead of hail-mary when it’s over the target or has MIRV’ed on you.

    • Rest Pal

      probably because the aegis systems don’t really work as advertised. To wit, USS Stark.

      • tiger

        Iron Man has a ship named after him?

    • wpnexp

      Fundamentally a different system. The GMD missile has to have longer range than the SM-3 to cover the whole country or even most of it. When the SM-3 shot down the satellite, the ship maneuvered under the path of the satellite and the missile was shot strait up. Kinda hard to do when you are using a fixed land site.

  • RC Cola

    Funny … I had the same idea when I was reading this. Why not expand the sea based Aegis system and make it land based as well?

  • Dfens

    It’s funny how the debate has changed from “it’s impossible to hit a missile with a missile” to “but can we do it reliably” and yet it is still being spun as failure. The truly amazing thing is that none of those who said missile defense was impossible have ever been held accountable for their lies. As for reliability, rockets suck at that. No one has ever got more than one 9 of reliability out of a rocket.

  • lemoutonzelectrique

    Ask Roscosmos if rockets work every time they’re fired. There are expectable failures. The ones who thinks a machine will perform flawlessly every shot lives in a dream. Them Russians would certainly tell you a failed test can lead to improvements and that the real problem is when you have a succession of failed tests or failed flights. So it failed? More tests are needed to learn if that was just a quantic accident or a real systemic flaw.

    The Chineses would probably say, make 500 of ’em and fire 3 when you think only one is needed. ;)

  • hibeam

    If we can hit a missile with a missile do you suppose we could hit a uranium enrichment compound the size of 12 football stadiums?

  • Russell Romick

    I have read other comments you have made on other topics and thought you were joking or being satirical on a couple of posts but there seems to be a general trend of ignorance in your posts. How is this possible if you are reading defense news, ; ) that you have a lack of knowledge on other things but I guess it is possible. Please please please please educate yourself about what you are talking about before posting. Disband the military? Come on wake up to the real world. Obama-care crash and burn? You fail to realize both Britain, Canada, France, Australia had growing pains with their medical coverage system and ours are minor compared to theirs. Education would enhance your knowledge on these subjects. Am I all high and mighty? NO not at all, I make more mistakes and lack knowledge too but I try to learn as much as I can to improve my outlook and knowledge on the topics that interest me. I will be learning new thoughts and ideas (and find I have misconceptions) till I go to the grave.

  • Michael Shatto

    Don’t Try - Don’t Fail.

    Since Reagan, and probably before, Democrats have killed programs under development using test failures as an excuse to neuter the hated military.

    • blight_

      Would you be thinking of Clinton, finishing the job started under Bush Sr? Or Carter, killing the B-1A because he had a choice of B-52’s with ALCMs and the in-the-pipeline stealth bomber? If we hadn’t had any B-1B’s we would either have more B-52’s or more B-2’s today. I’m kind of glad they cancelled Sergeant York, but hey, we must have more malfunctioning hardware to scare the Soviets! Am also glad MBT-70 got canned: the Leopard and the Abrams came out of it.

  • majr0d

    Folks, you can fire more than one missile at a target…

    We should as a rule field weapons after they have been thoroughly tested. Problem is the enemy isn’t waiting and the potential cost of losing an American city is a very stiff price.

    The sea based system has different strengths. It is designed to target missiles in the lift or boost phase of flight. GMD does it in space in the event sea based missiles miss, aren’t present like in a surprise attack or doesn’t get them all e.g. multiple launches.

    The SM3 has had four tests and failed one. It isn’t perfect. Again, you fire more than one missile. BTW, the sea based system is also deployed before all testing is complete.

    Consider that the GMD has a higher success rate than the X47B has for landing on a carrier. Some detractors just play BFF defense program or are branch partisans.

  • Big-Dean

    If Bruce Dickinson was still around he’d say “Guess what?, I’ve got a fever and the only cure is more Aegis” ;-P

  • XYZ

    Concurrency didn’t work so well for us as a systems engineering practice back in the day, and it’s not working now. Don’t know why this lesson hasn’t been learned yet.

  • bulldurham48

    Well it does not matter why it did not work now does it, just the fact that it did not work is the problem. As for more testing, let the dummies that developed it and said it was ready pay for the new testing, then if it works we should invest more , if not, it does not work no more money. Let the defense contractor invest some of his millions in the “good project”. Then like I said if it works we should invest more, if not, his loss not ours.

  • durandal69

    Ballistic missile defense remains a boondogle solution looking for a problem. Nobody is ever going to launch an ICBM at the US. Our capability to immediately detect and locate the launch site ensure an overwhelming response that even the tin horn tyrants in N. Korea and Iran understand. Put the dollars and technical expertise in cruise missile defense and shipping container inspections.

  • Jack Nemerov

    Why not call Israeli specialists in to fix the problem.

  • Roland

    Back on the drawing board boys. Remember it is for saving people lives. Probably it needs a coordinated ideas among allies.

    • Dr. Horrible


  • Roland

    It probably need to adopt the RBS-15 missile tracking technology.

  • Tony C.

    The mid-course missile defense system built by Boeing has had the most failures of all of the missile defense systems. The Raytheon systems work well and the Lockheed Martin systems work well. Maybe Boeing should be replaced and the contract given to another company.

  • Brian B Mulholland

    Sir - I have reviewed the User Agreement, and can’t see what rule I violated with the last, deleted post. Please advise, here or by email, at your convenience. Thank you.

  • alan

    definitely doable systems as compared to ten years ago.

  • @HarryInventor

    FIRST missile-missile takedown was an obsolete BRITISH naval missile, a SEADART fired by HMS Gloucester that shot down a more modern Iraqi BALLISTIC missile during Gulf War I.
    Incidentally, the american system on a nearby amrican ship only succeeded in FIRING ON THE CHAFF of another u.s.navy ship. We can laugh about it now, of course…

    Clearly the British could do something then that the usa dreams about.

    Pity the usa has all these big noises and big ad campaigns and big loud pie holes… that result in expensive non-working trash when the Europeans just quietly get on with making things that work that are ignored and overlooked.

    Keep up the good work, u.s.military industrial complex!
    The jobs of american illiterates rely on you…

  • IPL Vadnais Heights
  • Loving America

    DT and OT developement is an experiement. Kind of like going scuba diving before learning how to swim. Success is possible, but the likelyhood of failure is going to cost many times more than learning how to swim first. It’s the “kick the can down the road” bean counting budget process that today’s administration has bought into.

    “Failure IS an OPTION???”

  • TheHipshooter

    Interestingly, the article almost implies that the Aegis Combat system is a reliable, real world combat-test proven systems. Fact is we have almost no real world experience to validate that the Aegis using whatever technology, missiles, guns etc, can shoot down incoming anti-ship cruise missile, much less the DF21D. Especially when those missiles are being fired by a very clever enemy who has literally decades to devise tactics and technology designed to mitigate Aegis effectiveness.

    As far as the DF21 D goes I am hoping we have the ability to execute a pre-emptive strike on the systems, including satellites, that will be necessary to accurately guide this ship killer to its target.

  • John Rambo
  • John Rambo

    What if we just brought back project Thor as a state leadership decapitation weapon? Robs from God.

  • JohnRambo
  • bobet link

    Very good post. I am dealing with some of these issues as well..

    • peters

      what issues are you dealing with? producing things before testing their viability (what LM has been doing with the F-22 and the F-35>?)