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Major Missile Defense Test Planned for Vandenberg Air Force Base This Month

Ground-based interceptor will try to hit target weapon launched from Kwajalein Atoll in test similar to threat from a North Korean missile

With the world watching, missile defense crews are gearing up this month for a critical test involving an interceptor that will be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in an attempt to hit a target that will take off from the central Pacific Ocean.

During testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Defense Subcommittee last week, Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said the upcoming intercept flight test remains “my highest priority.”

Missile Defense Agency officials remained mum about the test date for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense program, only saying it’s planned for this summer or this month.

At the hearing, however, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, referred to the test as being June 22.

Officials won’t confirm the test date until the Air Force has issued notices to aviators and mariners, warning them to remain out of the area due to a launch from Vandenberg, Missile Defense Agency spokesman Richard Lehner said.

For this test, a second-generation Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle launched from Vandenberg will attempt to intercept a target launched from the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, formerly the Kwajalein Missile Range, approximately 4,200 miles southwest of Santa Barbara County.

“You noted that the whole world will be watching this test, not just friends of the United States but even our enemies,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the subcommittee chairman, before asking how realistic the test will be and what circumstances had been built into the scenario to give the interceptor an advantage.

A Ground-Based Interceptor launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base in 2013 as part of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk file photo)
A Ground-Based Interceptor launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base in 2013 as part of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk file photo)

Syring said the test will be “very operationally realistic” and similar to the threat from a missile launched by North Korea against the United States. The test also will include countermeasures to test the system.

The Ground-based Midcourse Defense system involves the kill vehicle riding on top of a multistage, solid-fueled booster, or Ground-Based Interceptor. Once released by the interceptor booster, the kill vehicle should head toward the target using kinetic energy for a direct hit to destroy the target.

This month’s launch comes after the missile-defense program had mixed results with Vandenberg tests last year.

“In January of 2013, we conducted a highly successful nonintercept flight test and confirmed we’re on the right path to return GMD to sustained flight testing,” Syring said. “I am confident we have fixed the problem we encountered in the December 2010 test and I look forward to conducting the intercept test ... later this month.”

The January 2013 mission involved launching the second-generation kill vehicle without any attempt to intercept a target. The test “demonstrated the successful dampening of the vibration environments that affected the navigation system and resulted in the failure” of the December 2010 test, officials said.

But last summer, the program encountered another test failure, this time involving an upgraded first-generation kill vehicle, which has received “numerous improvements” since its last successful test in 2008. In all, the first-generation kill vehicle has achieved three successful intercepts during tests.

The intercept couldn’t occur because the kill vehicle failed to separate from the booster’s third stage, which Syring blamed on something “very simple.” He declined to elaborate during the unclassified hearing.

“We’ve accounted for this issue in the upcoming flight test and we are working toward a correction to the entire fleet before the end of this year,” he said.

The Missile Defense Agency has requested $7.46 billion for the fiscal year 2015 and more than $1.3 billion will be for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense segment.

Instead of making reliability improvements each year, Syring said Missile Defense Agency officials are requesting $99.5 million in funding for fiscal year 2015 to begin the redesign of the kill vehicle.

“The new EKVs will be more producible, testable reliable and cost effective, and eventually replace the kill vehicle used in our current GBI inventory,” he said.

The new EKV would employ a modular design with common interfaces and standards, making upgrades easier and broadening the vendor and supplier base, he added.

The nation has some 30 interceptors on alert, with most of them in Alaska and four at Vandenberg. By 2017, military officials hope to have 44 interceptors on alert.

Missile defense program officials also are exploring adding a third site for interceptors on the continental United States. A study identified potential sites for the further environmental review. Those sites are Fort Drum, N.Y.; Naval Air Station Portsmouth SERE Training Area in Rangley, Maine; Ravenna Training and Logistics Site, Ohio; and Fort Custer Combined Training Center, Mich. The Environmental Impact Statement will take approximately two years to complete.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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