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Boeing, MDA Look to Next Missile Defense Test, After Successful FT-2 Mission

By | September 11, 2006

      The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and its industry partners, led by Boeing [BA], are eyeing December as the timeframe for conducting the next major flight test of the system in place to protect the United States from long-range ballistic missile attack, according to senior officials from both organizations.

      The next flight mission, designated Flight Test 3 (FT-3), will be largely a repeat of the engagement scenario used in the most recent flight mission of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system that occurred at the start of this month, Scott Fancher, Boeing vice president and program director for the GMD program, told reporters last week.

      During the Sept. 1 exercise, FT-2, a GMD interceptor missile fired from the central California coast successfully destroyed a target missile in space over the Pacific Ocean. It was the first time that the GMD system has successfully knocked a target out of the sky since October 2002.

      The GMD system is already in place in parts of Alaska and California. It is principally geared against the threat of North Korean launching a long-range missile at the United States.

      “The next test is really currently planned to be very similar to [FT-2],” Fancher said. “The target will also be launched out of Kodiak, [Alaska]. We will use the Beale radar in central California to provide targeting information, and the interceptor will also be launched out of Vandenberg Air Force Base, [Calif.] to intercept the target in flight.”

      “Of course,” he continued, “we will gathering additional data on system performance and additional experience in conducting these very complex integrated tests with the warfighter participating as they did in the last test.”

      Boeing and MDA officials have characterized FT-2 as the most comprehensive and realistic mission for the GMD system to date. The FT-2 success was a big boost in confidence for the system, which, for various reasons, has had a blemished record in flight tests to date.

      “This is about as close as we can come to an end- to-end test of our long-range missile defense system,” Air Fore Lt. Gen. Henry Obering said of FT-2 while briefing reporters shortly after the conclusion of the test on Sept 1. “I don’t want to ask the North Koreans to launch against us. That would be a realistic end-to-end test. Short of that, this is about as good as it gets.”

      Fancher said FT-2 was significant because it achieved all of its primary and secondary objectives in successfully detecting the target missile, which was launched from Alaska, and then initiating the GMD’s defensive sequence of tracking and engaging it. The test featured components such as the GMD interceptor in their operational configuration–as opposed to prototype versions–and actual soldiers manned the command consoles and directed the engagement as if it were an actual war.

      The intercept of the target was an added plus that went beyond the test’s objectives, Fancher said. But unlike FT-2, “interception is a primary test objective of this next test,” he said.

      FT-3, as currently planned, will not include any countermeasures, said Fancher. They are designed to stress the GMD system’s ability to distinguish a warhead from other objects like balloons that an enemy might employ to confuse it. FT-2 did not feature any countermeasures.

      However, Obering said he will render a final decision in this regard once the results of FT-2 has been thoroughly examined.

      “It will depend on the data analysis that we do from this test, and then I’ll make that decision,” he said. “It normally takes us at least 60 days to go through all of the data and to get [feedback from] all the various engineer teams.”

      The GMD program has been slowly recovering from a rough period of flight test setbacks caused by quality control issues that started in December 2002 when the GMD interceptor’s kill vehicle did not separate from the booster in flight.

      The Raytheon [RTN]-built Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle sits atop the booster and is designed to deploy in space and then find the threat missile’s warhead and obliterate it by colliding with it. Orbital Sciences [ORB] manufactures the current GMD booster, which is called the Orbital Boost Vehicle.

      Bechtel builds the GMD booster silos, while Northrop Grumman [NOC] provides the GMD battle management element.

      The two succeeding flight attempts also failed, both these times even before the interceptors left the ground, due to software glitches and hardware anomalies with the booster silos.

      The MDA chartered independent reviews and, together with Boeing, instituted greater quality control oversight, more thorough test preparations and expanded the test infrastructure overall to add fidelity to the ground testing that support the flights.

      “We have made significant changes over the last 12 to 18 months to improve our execution of the program,” said Fancher. “We have today a much more disciplined, well-defined, in-depth, test execution process, many more reviews, and much more disciplined risk management.”

      The MDA and Boeing say FT-2 was the third successful mission in the comeback. Last December, the operational configuration of the GMD interceptor flew for the first time, and in February, a target missile flew past the Beale radar to test that sensor’s ability to track the missile and feed targeting data into the central U.S. battle management network for ballistic missile defense.

      The GMD is part of the broader U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense System that is envisioned to protect the American homeland, as well as U.S. friends and allies from all types of ballistic missiles.

      “Basically, what we did today is a huge step in terms of our systematic approach to continuing to field, continuing to deploy and continuing to develop a missile defense system for the United States, for our allies, our friends, our deployed forces around the world,” said Obering on Sept. 1.

      He said he is “very confident” that the GMD system would perform well in an actual crisis based on all of the simulations and ground and flight tests of it to date, now anchored by the results of FT-2.

      “We had no defense in the United States against a long-range missile that was launched at the United States…for many, many years,” said Obering. “And so this is the first time that we’ve been able to demonstrate a capability that we do have, in fact, using the operational configurations of the interceptors, the operational radars, the operational fire control system.”

      That said, he and Fancher said GMD flight tests will continue incrementally to increase in difficulty and complexity.

      “We’ll continue to challenge ourselves with respect to presenting more complex threat suites,” said Obering. “We will continue to look at azimuths, different intercept geometries, et cetera.”

      “But,” he continued, “what we saw [with FT-2] was a very realistic trajectory for the threat, for the target, and a very realistic trajectory, a very realistic intercept altitude and intercept speeds for the interceptor against the target.”

      The MDA wants to integrate the mobile Sea-Based X-band Radar (SBX), built by Boeing and Raytheon, into the GMD system later this year. The SBX, sitting in Hawaiian waters, tracked the target missile during FT-2, but its data were not fed into the battle management to support the engagement sequence. The radar’s host oil-drilling platform is being enhanced to make it more robust for operating in Alaskan waters, its intended home.

      Even if FT-3 turns out to be basically a repeat of FT-2, it will still be worthwhile, said Fancher.

      “It will allow us to gain more insight, if you will, more data on the system’s performance against a consistent set of conditions,” he said. “While it sounds boring from a general perspective, it can be important from an engineering perspective.”

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