The results of a test later this month of the Ground Based Midcourse Defense interceptor could affect the schedule for deployment of 14 additional interceptors. (Paul Pinner / Missile Defense Agency)
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency is planning to conduct a new test launch of its troubled Ground Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptor before the end of June, almost a year after the last failed launch of the controversial program.
The ultimate success or failure of that test could have huge implications for when the US might deploy 14 more ground-based interceptors to protect the country against the threat of long-range missile attack from a foreign power.
During a panel discussion sponsored by the Brookings Institution and the Union of Concerned Scientists on Wednesday, the head of the Missile Defense Policy office at the Pentagon, Peppino DeBiaso, would only say the test would happen “shortly,” though other defense officials have already confirmed the test would happen in June.
DeBiaso also acknowledged that if the test failed, the 14 new interceptors that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced in March 2013 he wanted to buy could be delayed. Plans are still on schedule to field the new interceptors in Alaska in 2017, adding to the 30 already in place.
The GMD system, managed by Boeing, has failed its last three intercept attempts dating back to 2008, most recently in July 2013.
Appearing alongside DeBiaso on the panel, Christina Chaplain, director, acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), pointed out that despite the fact that “over $30 billion has been invested in the GMD” in recent years, “we’re still in the design phase” on the kill vehicles that actually intercept the incoming missile. The July failure alone cost the government $1.3 billion.
The system relies on a Raytheon-made “kill vehicle” to knock the target out of the air.
Even the failed tests have not reached the level of true operationally relevant scenarios, charged Laura Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists. She added that “it’s never been tested against an ICBM long-range target, or a warhead that is tumbling, or in the presence of extensive launch debris,” all factors that would have to be evaluated to truly stress the system’s ability to protect the mainland US.
Overall, there has been a “dearth of oversight and accountability” on the GMD program by the Pentagon and Congress, Chaplain said.
Still, in a May 28 speech at the Atlantic Council, Vice Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Sandy Winnefeld maintained that he was confident.
“I’m not going to sit here and predict it will be a 100 percent chance that [the June test] will be a success, but I think we’ve dramatically raised the odds it will succeed next month,” he said. Even if the test failed yet again, Winnefeld insisted, “I don’t think it would be a shot to the head. We’re still committed to this program.”
In the 2015 budget request, the Pentagon asked for $1 billion for the GMD program. ■