WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy and the Missile Defense Agency are investigating what caused a failed intermediate-range ballistic missile target intercept over Hawaii. But despite the failure, experts say that in the long run the SM-3 IIA has no choice but to succeed.
The January 31 test involved both the Aegis Ashore system, eventually destined for Japan, and the Army’s AN/TPY-2 radar providing target data for the missile, meaning that any number of factors including the missile could have led to the failure.
The test involved a hand off to Aegis from AN/TPY-2, adding layers of complexity to the already daunting prospect of hitting a hypersonic target in space with another missile.
In a news conference Feb. 1, Dana White, the Pentagon’s top spokesperson, offered limited details on the launch.
“We can confirm [the test], and it did not meet our objectives,” White said. “But we learn something all the time from these tests and we learned something from this one. And we’ll continue to improve our capabilities.”
When it comes to the Navy’s options for shooting down short- and intermediate-range missiles, SM-3 IIA is the only show in town. With the rising threat of North Korean missiles, there is no choice but to learn from the test and move on, experts say.
“Missed intercepts are part of what’s going to happen in missile defense testing,” said Rebeccah Heinrichs, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who specializes in missile defense issues. “We’ve gotten so afraid to fail, and when you are afraid to fail in these missile defense tests, it can really impact the whole program.”
The whole lens through which people view these tests should move away from success and failure rates and focus more on continued improvement, she said.
“Every time we miss and adapt we have a more capable system across the board,” Heinrichs said.
The SM-3 IIA is being jointly developed with Japan and is destined to be a mainstay of both the U.S. Aegis Ashore stations in Romania and Poland and the future Aegis Ashore stations in Japan. News broke in December that Japan’s lawmakers had voted to purchase the system from the U.S.
The failed test was the third flight test against an intermediate-range ballistic missile. The first test was successful. A test in June became a wash after a sailor accidentally triggered the missile’s self-destruct feature by misidentifying it as a friendly target. The third test appears to be a failure.
If all goes according to plan, the missile is slated to start being fielded this year.
The Wednesday launch was an “engage on remote,” which is a complicated shot that requires the Army’s AN/TPY-2 to hand off highly accurate data to the Navy’s Aegis Ashore system so it can kill the incoming missile. That technology has been years in the making and will forge ahead despite occasional setbacks, set Tom Karako, a missile defense expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The IIA represents block development of a long-running effort to be fielded for the defense of multiple nations,” Karako said. “The requirement for a faster Aegis interceptor isn’t going anywhere, nor is the demand for cooperative engagement capability underlying launch- and engage-on-remote.”
Just what impact the failed test has on the Navy’s ballistic missile defense efforts will depend on exactly what caused the failure. But it’s probably not an insurmountable issue, said retired Rear Adm. Archer Macy, the former head of the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense Organization.
“It’s unlikely that there is there is some fundamental problem of physics involved here,” Macy said.
Hiccups in the testing program are to be expected, Macy said, adding that people shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that hitting a missile with a missile in space is complicated.
“Does it look good? No,” Macy said. “Two out of the three launches of IIA have not gone as planned. But you do this stuff to find out and learn what you can. In the end this is rocket science.
“Nobody believes the challenges from potential antagonists are going away any time soon, and it’s not just North Korea.”
Missile Defense Agency head Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves addressed test failures in August, saying he doesn’t mind failures but wants to move fast to make the systems better.
“Missile Defense Agency and industry partners are not afraid to fail,” Greaves said. “When we fail, it will be because of a good reason, not because we weren’t prepared for a test or capability.”
The test failure comes at a particularly cruddy time for Hawaii, which in January suffered through a horrifying 38 minutes after an alert was sent to residents saying that a ballistic missile was inbound and it was “not a drill.”
The false alarm triggered discussion of how best to defend America’s islands in the Pacific and has created fresh urgency to move out as quickly as possible on bolstering missile defenses.
Former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Sandy Winnefeld wrote in a Jan. 18 op-ed in the Cypher Brief that the SM-3 IIA, combined with the AN/TPY-2, could play a vital role in Hawaii’s defense in the future.
Winnefeld argued that the military should move the AN/TPY-2 to the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai where SM-3 launchers already reside.
“To enhance the defense of Hawaii, it is only necessary to move a radar back to PMRF and load the launchers with SM-3 interceptors,” Winnefeld wrote. “This would take weeks, not years, and would cost very little. And as the North Korean threat increases, as it will, it will be a simple matter to upgrade this site with already-planned improvements to the TPY-2 radar and by installing the new SM-3-IIA missile.”
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.