The Pentagon is readying a first-ever attempt to intercept an intercontinental ballistic missile target -- designed to represent a threat, with countermeasures, that U.S. intelligence believes North Korea or Iran could one day field -- during a major flight test of the Ballistic Missile Defense System, an event that aims to expand the shield against a limited long-range rocket attack against the United States.
The Missile Defense Agency, along with other arms of the Defense Department, is preparing a test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system that will mark the first intercept attempt of a Ground-based Interceptor armed with a second-generation warhead -- the Capability Enhancement-II Block I Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, according to agency spokesman Chris Johnson.
"It will also be the first intercept of an ICBM-range target," Johnson said. The test is designated Flight Test Ground-based Interceptor-15 (FTG-15).
The long-planned missile defense test was originally scheduled for the first quarter of fiscal year 2017 but according to Johnson has been delayed until "early 2017." The test comes as North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un, according to press reports, said in a New Year's Day address that Pyongyang is planning in 2017 a first flight-test of an ICBM.
MDA director Vice Adm. James Syring, previewing FTG-15 during an address in January 2016, said: "We're getting now out to the long-range and closing velocities that certainly would be applicable from a North Korea- or Iran-type of scenario."
In addition, the flight test aims to validate a number of recent improvements to the Ground-based Interceptor, including changes to the warhead and the booster in a package that represents the most up-to-date version of the GBI, pairing a CE-II Block I warhead with the Configuration 2 (C2)/Consolidated Booster Avionics Unit for the Integrated Boost Vehicle.
Should the GBI pass muster during the flight test, MDA would proceed with plans to buy 10 additional CE-II Block I interceptors.
"The addition of the CE-II Blk 1/C2 GBIs to the operational fleet is contingent on the outcome of FTG-15,” Johnson said. Boeing is the GBI prime contractor, Raytheon builds the EKV warhead and the booster is built by Orbital ATK. The system also includes a communication system and a suite of computers that calculate a fire-control solution.
MDA has worked in recent years to identify improvements to both the kill vehicle and booster to address "parts obsolescence and eliminated several reliability concerns found in the older GBIs," Johnson told Inside Defense.
"Improvements to the EKV include a redesigned Alternate Divert Thruster (ADT), an upgraded communication subsystem link, and the reshaping of the electrical harness," the agency spokesman said.
In January 2016, MDA flew the CE-II warhead for the first time in a non-intercept shot -- dubbed Controlled Test Vehicle-02+ (CTV-02+) -- that aimed to validate design changes, an event the agency says “enhanced” confidence in the new kill vehicle.
"This flight test successfully evaluated the performance of the redesigned ADT," Johnson said.
"The CABU upgrade consisted of improvements to the avionics package, the booster controllers, inertial measurement unit, and addressed communication hardware obsolescence," said Johnson.
The development of the C2 integrated boost vehicle involved integrating new components -- flight controllers, booster controller, inertial navigation systems and ignition safety components -- as well as modifying existing components, according to MDA. "With a redesigned booster avionics module layout, obsolescence mitigation and fewer parts, this new design is more producible, reliable and maintainable than the current C1," Johnson said. The "C1" is the currently fielded GBI boost vehicle.
"We anticipate boosting our confidence level of the CE-II Block 1 EKV and C2/CBAU IBV design upon the successful completion of an intercept test planned for 2017," the MDA spokesman said.
Missile defense experts have estimated it could take another three years for North Korea to develop an ICBM that could reach the United States.
MDA has divided the Ground-based Midcourse Defense capability into a pair of distinct projects -- Enhanced Homeland Defense and Robust Homeland Defense -- establishing a unique modernization objective and timeline as it works to simultaneously manage an operational capability and improve it.
The Enhanced Homeland Defense (EHD) capability phase, which takes the program through 2018, is primarily focused on increasing the GBI inventory to 44 by the end of 2017. MDA plans to grow the GBI fleet currently deployed at Ft. Greely, AK, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, from 30 with an additional 14 through 2017 to keep ahead of projected North Korean threats.
FTG-15 is one of three remaining major test events associated with the EHD phase; the other two are FTG-11 in 2018 and an associated ground test either this year or next.
The next phase of the program is the Robust Homeland Defense (RHD) capability phase, which is focused on GBI upgrades beginning in 2019 that center on improving the GBI with a Redesigned Kill Vehicle and a new booster design -- the C3.