Two Interceptors Launched From California To Swat ICBM In Most Ambitious Missile Defense Test Yet (Updated)

The experiment has been more than a decade in the making and marks a critical juncture for the United States' rickety missile defense shield.

FTG-06b
U.S. Department of Defense—Public Domain

The U.S. military has conducted an important missile defense test from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. While officials at the base have declined to give any details about the experiment so far, earlier reports said it would be the first salvo test of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system, or GMD, against a mock intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM.

Vandenberg confirmed the launch occurred at around 10:30 AM local time, according to local media reports. Individuals reported seeing two distinct trails, further indicating that this was the salvo test. On Mar. 24, 2019, Bloomberg had been first to report that the experiment, officially known as Flight Test Ground-Based Midcourse Defense-11, or FTG-11, was most likely coming today.

The Missile Defense Agency's latest budget request for the 2020 Fiscal Year, which came out earlier in March 2019, describes FTG-11 as follows:

"Flight Test Ground-based Midcourse Defense-11 (FTG-11), a 3-stage CE-II Block I and 3-stage CE-II Salvo intercepting GBIs launched from VAFB, against an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) target with associated objects, launched from Reagan Test Site (RTS) to test operational realism of the GMD salvo capability. Salvo intercept test requires additional resources from previous missions to support multiple interceptors: additional range support for mission execution and safety systems, silo refurbishment of two silos, additional data collectors, and additional post mission analyses."

"CE-II" refers to the latest operational iteration of the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) on top of the Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) missile. The EKV is a kinetic "hit-to-kill" weapon that physically slams into the target at high speed to destroy it. You can read more about the U.S. military's overall concept for mid-course missile defense and its challenges here.

"Associated objects" in this case are decoys meant to confuse the interceptors and the tracking network to draw the interceptors away from their intended targets. The video below offers more detail about how these kinds of countermeasures work in general.

This salvo test is an extremely important test for the GMD, since it reflects an untested strategy to improve the system's overall effectiveness. The EKVs have continually proven to be less than reliable during previous experiments, with half of the previous 18 test shots being failures. 

None of this has come cheap. As of 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated that the GMD's total program cost was around $67 billion since the system first entered development in the 1990s.

The last GMD flight test, FTG-15, which occurred in May 2017 and was the first against a mock ICBM, was a success, according to the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). MDA also deemed the experiment before that in 2014, FTG-06B, involving the intercept of a shorter-range ballistic missile surrogate, successful.

MDA

GMD interceptor in its silo.

Given the EKV's track record, MDA has looked toward a new strategy involving firing a salvo of multiple interceptors in rapid succession against a single target to improve the likelihood that the target is destroyed. In addition, if the first intercept is successful, the second EKV could use its sensors to provide valuable confirmation of the kill, allowing missile defense units to quickly refocus their attention on other threats. 

But none of this means the salvo method is easier. "The test has been delayed by over a decade, as it may be the most challenging test in the program’s near-30-year history," Cristina Chaplain, the director for space and missile defense systems related projects at GAO, told Bloomberg by Email.

So, finally having FTG-15's results will be an important first step in validating this concept. There are already concerns that the increase in the probability of kill from a salvo might be negligible if the EKVs remain unreliable in general. 

Raytheon, which is responsible for the EKV design, is already working on a replacement. In January 2018, Boeing, the prime contractor on the GMD program, leading a team that includes Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, won a $6.6 billion contract for additional interceptors, a new launch silo, and the development of a Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV). This was all driven in no small part by North Korea's debut of the Hwasong-15 ICBM the year before, which by every indication gives Pyongyang at least some capability to strike the United States proper. 

As such, the original goal was to test the first RKV in the 2020 Fiscal Year. Unfortunately, this schedule has now gotten pushed back by at least two years due to technical difficulties with the improved design. On March 22, 2019, the Pentagon announced it was adding more than $4.1 billion to the Boeing-led team's 2018 GMD contract, in part due to the RKV delay.

Regardless of whether FTG-11 turns out to be a success or failure officially, there will also be significant questions about how much the test actually reflects a real-world scenario. The vast majority of previous GMD experiments have been highly scripted and involved mock targets that do not mirror threats from North Korea or any of America's other potential adversaries. Experts have also criticized the decoys used in previous tests as being not representative of the countermeasures that the interceptors are likely to face.

This test also underlines the reality of just how unproven and immature the system still is after many years of development and tens of billions of dollars spent. The fact that a salvo intercept has never been attempted against a single ICBM even after 40 interceptors have been installed in Fort Greely, Alaska is telling. At this point, even defending against an attack by a rogue state such as North Korea seems questionable at best, but this test could inspire better confidence in the system, even if to just a limited degree.

MDA

Hopefully, we will get more information about FTG-11 soon to get a better understanding of the test's parameters and its results. We will update this story as more information becomes available.

UPDATE: 5:30pm EST—

ABC News has now reported that MDA declared the test a success, but without offering any more details.


UPDATE: 6:15pm EST—

MDA has now released an official statement that includes the following details:

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency, in cooperation with the Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense, U.S. Northern Command, and elements of the U.S. Air Force Space Command’s 30th, 50th, and 460th Space Wings, conducted a successful test today against an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) class target. This test was the first salvo engagement of a threat-representative ICBM target by two Ground Based Interceptors (GBI), which were designated GBI-Lead, and GBI-Trail for the test.  The GBI-Lead destroyed the reentry vehicle, as it was designed to do.  The GBI-Trail then looked at the resulting debris and remaining objects, and, not finding any other reentry vehicles, selected the next ‘most lethal object’ it could identify, and struck that, precisely as it was designed to do. 

The threat-representative ICBM target was launched from the Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, over 4,000 miles away from the two GBI interceptors, which were launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

During the test, space, ground and sea-based BMDS sensors provided real-time target acquisition and tracking data to the Command, Control, Battle Management and Communication (C2BMC) system.  The two GBIs were then launched and the Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicles successfully engaged the target complex, resulting in an intercept of the target.

Initial indications show the test met requirements. Program officials will continue to evaluate system performance based upon telemetry and other data obtained during the test.

As was the case with FTG-15 in 2017, this statement does not offer specific details about the "threat-representative ICBM target." As noted, in the previous test, the surrogate ICBM was not representative of North Korea's Hwasong-15.

In addition, it is interesting to note that the statement includes the caveat "Initial indications show the test met requirements." After the 2017 FTG-15 test, MDA released a statement with a slightly different caveat that pointedly noted "the test met its primary objective."

UPDATE: 6:50pm EST—

We now have unofficial video of the test, as well.

UPDATE: 9:20pm EST—

Northrop Grumman has issued the following statement about the test, as well:

In an unprecedented display of accuracy, Northrop Grumman Corporation, (NYSE: NOC) as the strategic partner to prime contractor, Boeing, successfully provided the weapon task plans for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system Ground Based Interceptors (GBI) during the first dual interceptor mission against an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) target for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA).

 “This critical test of the nation’s defense shield showcases Northrop Grumman’s launch vehicles and our battlefield management and fire control capabilities,” said Dan Verwiel, vice president and general manager, missile defense and protective systems, Northrop Grumman. “We are proud to play an integral role on a system that is so vital to the security of our country. This was a very challenging test and I congratulate the MDA and the entire team on their excellent performance.”

During the GMD flight test, known as FTG-11, a Northrop Grumman-produced ICBM target threat was fired from a launch complex at Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site in the Marshall Islands. Northrop Grumman’s ground systems integrated data from a space sensor with data from land and sea-based radars, created a battle plan, communicated with the silos to launch two ground-based interceptors powered by the company’s boost vehicles, and guided the interceptors to the target where the kill vehicles destroyed the threat.

“Today’s mission was the most complex GMD test conducted thus far,” said Rich Straka, vice president and general manager, launch vehicles, Northrop Grumman. “This was the first time Northrop Grumman had three rockets operating at the same time; two interceptors launched against our target, and the systems worked as planned.”

As the strategic partner of The Boeing Company for the MDA’s GMD program, Northrop Grumman provides the deputy program director and is responsible for the development, integration, operations and sustainment of the ground systems and interceptor boost vehicle. Under contract directly to MDA, Northrop Grumman designs, builds and launches the ICBM target rocket.

UPDATE: 3/26/2019—

MDA has now released its own official video, which includes an "on-board sensor view" from the EKV's perspective and separate clips of the actual moment of intercept.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com