Pentagon to Redesign Missile ‘Kill Vehicle’

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The Pentagon’s proposed budget for fiscal 2015 would provide funding to redesign a key part of the nation’s missile-defense program.

The Defense Department’s spending plan released on March 4 requests more than $1 billion for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) System made by Chicago-based Boeing Co.

The system maintains a fleet of 30 rocket-like interceptors in underground silos at the Army’s Fort Greely, Alaska, and the Air Force’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., to knock down incoming threats such as nuclear missiles.

The research and development funding would be used to expand the fleet of interceptors to 44, including 40 at Greely and four at Vandenberg, and to redevelop the so-called kill vehicle that sits atop the interceptor and destroys a projectile on impact, among other initiatives, according to the budget overview.

Specifically, the Pentagon recommended “redesign of the GMD exo-atmospheric kill vehicle for improved reliability, availability, performance, and productivity,” the document states.

An interceptor launched from Vandenberg last year missed its target, becoming the latest in a series of failed tests of the system. Afterward, some lawmakers criticized the military’s plans to increase the number of interceptors despite problems with the technology.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, at the time cited among his concerns the system’s 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.

During a conference on the defense budget last week at the Newseum, Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, said the increased funding is designed in part to address the problems.

“We’ve got to fix those,” he said. “We’ve got to get some more reliable systems.”

Kendall said the interceptors have failed in part because they were designed and fielded too quickly, without the proper system engineering. While Chicago-based Boeing is the program’s prime contractor, Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. builds the interceptor and Waltham, Mass.-based Raytheon Co. builds the kill vehicle.

“We’re seeing just a lot of bad engineering, frankly, and it’s because there was a rush, there was a hurry to get something out,” Kendall said. “Just patching the things we already have is probably not going to be adequate.”

The funding includes about $100 million to begin developing a new kill vehicle, according to an article by Andrea Shalal and Phil Stewart of Reuters. In addition to Boeing and Raytheon, Lockheed Martin Corp., based in Bethesda, Md., is also reportedly working on new designs.

Overall, the defense budget would include more than $8 billion for missile-defense programs.

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.
  • Brian B. Mulholland

    I hope this is a start to a complete system re-engineering. A bigger booster wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

  • JohnnyRanger

    Not to put too fine a point on things, but these are hardly “rocket-like” interceptors, no? Rockets follow ballistic trajectories. These can (albeit within a limited envelope, given their velocity) maneuver…

    • Deuterium2H

      Hi JohnnyRanger,

      You may be confusing “rocket-like” with “ballistic”. In any case, your statement “rockets follow ballistic trajectories” is generally not the case.

      Any object which has external forces acting upon it, besides that of gravity, is neither “ballistic”, nor follows a ballistic trajectory. This is especially the case with a rocket or missile under propulsion, and a warhead that is undergoing active maneuvering. Even a JDAAM gravity bomb does not follow a true ballistic trajectory, because it is using aerodynamic forces (actively controlled fins) to change it’s course in a non-ballistic manner. Likewise, the Gemini and Apollo capsules did not follow a true ballistic trajectory, as their blunt body design and controlled AOA made them “lifting”/gliding reentry vehicles. Same applies to the Soyuz reentry vehicle. In fact, when a modern, manned reentry capsule undergoes a “ballistic” reentry from orbital velocities, something has gone wrong. See Soyuz TMA-1, TMA-10 and TMA-11 missions.

      You may be thinking of a traditional, non-maneuvering warhead from a “ballistic” missile. The rocket/missile itself is not “ballistic”, when it is in boost phase and/or the rocket motors are firing. However, when the final stage cuts out, and the warhead no longer has forces acting upon it (except gravity), then at that instant it begins to follow a ballistic trajectory.

      In the case of an ABM with a kinetic hit-to-kill interceptor, essentially no part of the system is “ballistic”, as every stage is under thrust…including the kill vehicle, which has a main motor as well as maneuvering jets providing continuous course corrections. Here, I am speaking of the operational aspects of the system. Obviously, the spent booster stages, after separation, have become “ballistic” objects.

    • Hunter76

      Much ado about nothing. A rocket is a reaction machine that’s mostly fuel. Remember rocket ships? In this case the article’s usage is understandable and economical.

  • C-Low

    Hopefully they will go with the multiple warhead design that was the original intention all along that was squashed to pacify Russia. Now Russia is back to its ole ways maybe we can quit limiting ourselves to reinforce their self esteem.

    Multiple warheads with a 50% failure rate will still kill in one shot and take away the need for multi shots to hit decoys.

  • Charles

    I’ll be real happy about Ballistic Missile Defense when they figure out two things:

    1. How to make the interceptor at least as cheap as the inbound missile (right now, the ratio is appallingly against us, and its tremendously simpler to outfox an interceptor)
    2. How to make these things as effective at killing cruise missiles. Oddly, a large number of people are very surprised to find out BMD does NOTHING to resolve a vastly more likely method of attack (far harder to trace, far easier to build, far harder to detect, etc.).

    Until then – BMD is nothing but a corporate welfare program.

  • Ben

    I wonder how well a railgun would fill this role. Sure, it’s still a little ways off, but if they could adapt it to kill an ICBM that would be infinitely cheaper.

  • hibeam

    Well Sheriff, the super insane bad guys have guns now. We said we would never allow them to have guns. Now we need to practice shooting their bullets out of the air.

  • Dfens

    Ok, this is why it is not hard to figure out what is wrong with our procurement system. So Boeing, who made a profit on every day they spent developing this missile, which is clearly why it took them so long to develop the missile in the first place and which is why the damn thing cost us out the ass for them to develop, makes a f’ed up missile. Now, because it is so f’ed up, they are going to make even more profit off a follow up program to fix what they should have done right in the first place, and that seems perfectly reasonable to the Air Force, the president, and to congress. But we are supposed to believe that the problem with our procurement system is way too complicated for mere mortal taxpayers to understand?

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    C-Low, I can’t see how any ABM system can be made as cheap as the missile warhead it’s meant to intercept. The engineering problem of firing a warhead at a geographically fixed target is far easier than the problem of hitting that warhead. If that were a defining factor, we’d never build one. We will never build a system that can cope with the saturation capacity of an attacker with a technology base within fifteen years of our own. All it can do is address the kind of threat raised by third-world actors that are unstable, such as North Korea.

  • oblatt2

    The ABM system is largely meant for political posturing – making baiting the North Koreans seem less stupid. That is why its complete operational ineffectiveness has been irrelevant – its simply a horse an pony show for the gullible.

    That it shovels money to Boeing is just part of the government subsidy that we need to keep Boeing a float, as it steadily becomes less and less competitive. They could be digging holes and filling them in as far as we care as long as we could claim its a ABM system.

  • Michael_AF_Ret

    I was involved in the Reagan Star Wars Project back in the mid-80s. The project used existing ICBM/SLBM rocket motors to develop a high velocity booster vehicle. The “kill vehicle” used many design methods for intercept and kill warheads. Nothing was left on the table. Specific kill vehicles designs were selected for their effectiveness for additional experiments. The targeting system; used after the booster phase; applied speed, atmosphere density, trajectory, nuclear warhead target possibilities, and a lot of math and physics. Success rate was 1:2. This proved the feasibility of developing an effective defensive scheme. One concept that couldn’t be tested was multiple kill vehicles against a single target. Drawing from the experience of air-to-air combat tactics, the use of multiple kill vehicles for a single target became part of the next R&D phase. Comparing the technology we used in the mid-80s and the technology of today, over 30 years later, our kill ratio of 1:2 then and the use of multiple kill vehicles today makes an effective missile defense system very likely.

  • Michael_AF_Ret

    One of my personal concerns is the Global Positioning Satellite System. China’s single mindedness about satellite kill vehicles represents an aggressive “first strike” capability. We need to watch their R&D efforts closely in this area. As the United States maintains the GPS constellation, we should be looking at methods of counteracting such attempts. GPS is being used by nearly every nation. Aircraft, ships, cars, hikers, cell phones, and technologies being developed now. The old adage, “He who holds the high ground wins the war” is very much in play today.

    • blight_

      Indeed, some redundancy to use EU Galileo, Russian GLONASS and Chinese Beidou wouldn’t be a bad idea. I expect they will hit GPS as hard as possible on day one, and we will retaliate by destroying Beidou and perhaps taking Galileo and GLONASS off the air. Both may encrypt their frequencies to stay out of the war, but they’re still sufficiently useful to put a nuke on target. Maybe with compact atomic clocks we can use low resolution resolutions and INS to regain rudimentary precision-guided weapons capability.

    • Anonymous

      Surely the military has a backup option to GPS that we don’t know about. As so much relies on it – not having a solution would be a serious strategic blunder.

      • Michael_AF_Ret

        The cost of redundancy with the GPS is prohibitive. However, I’m sure you are aware that accuracy depends on the number of satellites that can be seen. Knocking out everyone would take time; and, time means we can respond. Accuracy may suffer. But, just how close does a nuke have to hit to take out a target. Each defensive level will be affected to a greater, or lesser, degree. One backup option is new munitions that require fewer references, or lower altitude references. The only limitation is technology. As long as we don’t cut back on our R&D budget we improve our chances. And, dark projects deal with major leaps in technology. I made my comments to state the obvious – the possible limits to existing technology.

  • Michael_AF_Ret

    Very glad to see that there are “thinkers” out there. Let’s hope the real war game thinkers are a head of us.

  • Hunter76

    MAD worked well to keep us out of nuclear war and full conventional war with Russia. Arms Limitations Treaties helped both US and USSR to cut costs for nuclear weapons. We should be careful about destabilizing this with a small nuclear shield.

    What some conservatives hope is some limited missile defense system will find success in achieving confidence. That system could then be spread widely to give NATO a shield against attack. They give no thought to the enormous cost for what we’ve done 70 yr without. They give no thought to the idea the system might be over-rumpled by some kind of breakthrough.

  • voodkokk

    The Evader Technology is far superior and for every zig it gives a zag.

  • reality

    conservatives? Yep, they are the problem (cynicism) , and I don’t think Iran and North Korea are sane folks and give a sh*t about your theory on MAD. Fact is, they are nuts and if they kill a few million by lobbing over a couple dozen missiles, well, they know they will die, but what does that do for the folks in Hawaii or FAirbanks on the wrong end of that barrage? I’d rather not have those with blinders making decisions for my family, get interceptors that work better and make a boatload of them. This is not us against the Soviets or just Red China anymore, the nuke club got larger with some unsavory characters either in it or close to being in it, and those “liberals” are letting them get in despite the sanctions.

  • PrahaPartizan

    What a boondoggle! Everybody and their uncle is designing and building scram-jet powered cruise missiles which will make BMD totally worthless. By the time this BMD money pit is “finalized” the world’s nuclear powers will have moved onto deploying the hypersonic cruise missiles which can be launched from submarines or other stealthy vehicles and come in under the radar – not just over the pole as it were. Kill this defense contractor welfare program before we waste yet another dollar on it.

    • WulfTheSaxon

      “[…]hypersonic cruise missiles which can be launched from submarines or other stealthy vehicles and come in under the radar – not just over the pole as it were.”

      As much as I think hypersonic cruise missiles are formidable, I don’t think they’d be invisible to well-planned defenses – they’d have a massive infrared signature that you could detect via satellite (e.g. DSP and SBIRS/STSS).