Jeffrey LewisMDA Test Oddities

I am close to posting on the most recent Missile Defense Agency flight test (FTG-05).

In case you wonder why this is taking me literally days to work through (with lots of help from David Wright), read these statements by new MDA Director General Patrick O’Reilly.

Good afternoon, or as Mr. Whitman said, almost good evening. What I would like to do is go over exactly what happened this afternoon. At 1504 Eastern time, a little after 3:00, we launched a target out of Kodiak, Alaska and it did end up, 29 minutes later, with an intercept off of California using a ground-based mid-course defense system, the Aegis system, some of our satellite systems and our early warning radar system in Sacramento and also using a forward-based radar that we had located in Juneau, Alaska for today’s test only.


All right — and we showed the footage of today’s launch out of Vandenberg. As I said, the target was launched at 1504 and at 1523 Eastern Time, the target was in view and — of the Beale radar and the other sensors, and we launched a ground-based interceptor. That’s the first stage, and then it will show a separation. We’ll have other data that will come over the next 24 hours — the intercept occurred over 200 kilometers in altitude and 1,300 kilometers downrange from the launch point.


Q: Why is it hard for the target to — why is it hard to deploy countermeasures, why did that fail?

GEN. O’REILLY: Well, I can’t get into the great detail, but I can say simply, countermeasures, you try to build them to be very lightweight so that they don’t affect the original flight, but at the same time, you’re traveling at about 10 kilometers a second, somewhere around there, around 15,000 miles an hour. So at that, at that and you’re leaving the earth’s atmosphere, and you’re typically doing a lot of maneuvers at that point and at the same time you have to try to deploy two or three or four, whatever it is, lightweight objects. And that has been problematic on this particular target. The target itself is 40 years old, and it was one of some of our older missiles. Again, this was the last test using this particular target configuration, and we have a new target that is being assembled at this time by Lockheed Martin, that’ll be tested in the spring with Aegis and then follow up with a GMD later on this summer in another test. And that will be a different countermeasure system, again, a newer one.

The numbers in these passages are complete goobledygook.

— The entire scenario took 29 minutes? It is hard to believe that the interceptor was launched nineteen minutes into flight (15:23 EST) and took a full ten minutes to travel just 1,315 kilometers.

1,315 km in ten minutes works out to about 2.2 km/s. (The hypotenuse of triangle with 200 km and 1,300 km legs.) The GMD interceptor is supposed to have a burnout of like 7-8 km/s.

What, did MDA strap the interceptor to a flock of geese? That’s got to be a mistake. It probably should have taken four or five minutes for flyout. I am honestly very, very confused here.

— The countermeasures failed because the missile was traveling 10 km/s?

First, this is a 3,000 km range missile with a burnout velocity of probably around 4.5 km/s. It wasn’t traveling anywhere near 10 clicks a second. (Not that speed would explain why the countermeasures didn’t work, but he’s clearly trying to make something up on the spot and just gets confused.)

Second, ICBMs don’t travel 10 km/s. The speed is more like 7 or 8 km/s. Of course, O’Reilly also gave the measure in miles per hour — 15,000 mph, which in metric that is about 7 km/s.

So, here you what appears to be a simple error (the timeline doesn’t jibe), an apples-to-oranges comparison (talking about ICBM speeds in a test against a much slower moving MRBM) and a basic inability to convert to metric.

Other than that, everything is clear as a bell.


  1. Allen Thomson (History)

    I’d looked at similar puzzlements in an earlier test. I don’t have an explanation for the apparently slow fly-out time of the interceptor, but do have a thought about the target speeds and, possibly, some constraints on decoy deployment.

    If you look at the locations of the second and third stage range safety areas (, you see that they’re much closer together than would be expected. I suspect that means the third stage was used as an accelerator to give the target RV an ICBM-like trajectory. I.e., the second stage delivers the third stage to a point at or after the apogee of a simulated ICBM trajectory, then the third stage pitches down to impart the proper velocity vector. After which the decoys would have to deploy. Something like was done at White Sands way back when:

    Might be worth running some simulations using such a scenario.

  2. Haninah (History)

    According to the quote, “at 1523 Eastern Time, the target was in view.” I would imagine that a few minutes would be taken up between the target coming into view and the interceptor being launched. The whole process is presumably pretty quick-turn, but we’re only looking to account for a few minutes.

  3. abcd (History)

    Well, MDA also called the test a “success,” despite that fact that its central objective – how the system would work when decoys and other countermeasures were factored into the scenario – could not be assessed as the countermeasures failed to deploy.

  4. Allen Thomson (History)

    Oh, and as for the slow fly-out time of the interceptor, I forgot a possibility: that it implements some fairly extreme variety of general energy management. Meaning that it flies an energy-wasting trajectory to adjust the fly-out time, range or whatever. ICBMs do that, and so does THAAD — you can find some pictures of THAAD corkscrewing shortly after launch to reduce range:

  5. FSB

    I think it’s, like, “convenient” that the countermeasures “failed”…wink wink..nudge nudge.

    Why? It makes it seem like countermeasures are, like, OMG, like, so, like totally difficult to implement that if even the U.S. of A couldn’t do it, how could some brown people be expected to implement them successfully. Wow — incredibly difficult stuff these countermeasures. Not.

    Second, the “failed” countermeasures makes it much easier to have a successful[sic] “test”.

    I think Obering paid Blagojevich to pay off someone from Sandia to make sure the countermeasures malfunctioned.

    Spiral development alright.

    Color me skeptical.

  6. Mark Gubrud

    Even if the “countermeasures” had deployed, they would not have been real countermeasures, just props in what was, after all, not a test, but a staged demonstration.

    That is because the interceptor had been programmed with data by which to distinguish the “decoys” from the target. The signatures of the “decoys” and “warhead” were different, known to the “defense,” and not randomized.

    How do I know this? Because otherwise, if the signatures were not known or were randomized, as any serious attacker or red team would do, discrimination would be impossible, and instead of demonstrating (again) that it is possible to “hit a bullet with a bullet” (sometimes), this bogus “test” would simply have demonstrated that the shell game (antisimulation) works, and that discrimination in this case is impossible. Which is a fact that has been well known for a very long time, and never seriously disputed.

  7. KRLIG (History)

    How Do We Define Success?

    On December 5, a rocket launched from Vandenburg AFB in California intercepted a rocket launched from Kodiak, Alaska

    1. It wasn’t a resounding “success”: According to Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, head of the Missile Defense Agency, “…the target did not release planned countermeasures designed to try to confuse the interceptor missile. O’Reilly did not say what those countermeasures were, but they often include decoys or chaff to throw off shoot-down attempts.” Apparently the technology to shoot down a real enemy missile, which would have countermeasures, is not yet working.

    2.It wasn’t a truly realistic test: The “test” was very tightly controlled – everybody knew when the interceptor would be launched and its probable path (they’ve launched targets from KLC before). Furthermore, the velocity of the target drone is about 40% less than that of an actual “enemy” missile. One wonders what would happen if they actually had to scramble an interceptor with no prior warning. Now that would be a TRUE test.

    3. If the U.S. can’t launch an ICBM that works the way it should, why do we think other countries can? Neither North Korea or Iran has ever successfully fired a missile that had any chance of landing anywhere near the U.S. Right now, if North Korea got really lucky, they might be able to hit the tip of the Aleutians. We are sure the folks out there appreciate the expenditure of ten billion dollars a year to help them sleep more soundly.

    4. It’s ALL about the money: Roughly $10 billion is spent per year on the program, which is run by defense contractor Boeing Co. but includes work by most of the nation’s largest weapons makers. It is spread across three branches of the military and is composed of missiles, radar and satellites designed to intercept missiles during different stages of flight. While it might help the economy to keep all those defense contractors in business, the money could be spend more wisely on our nation’s crumbling infrastructure and to aid people being evicted from their homes.

    5. Fortunately, President-elect Barack Obama expressed skepticism about the capabilities of the system during his campaign, leading to speculation he may reduce the program’s scope. Russia has strongly objected to plans to install missile interceptors in Eastern Europe.

    6. At least the true character of the KLC has finally been admitted. According to the AP: “WASHINGTON – The Defense Department said today it shot down a missile launched from a military base in Alaska…”

    7. Finally, Kodiak, Alaska desperately needs a new high school and a new police station and jail. Our roads are a mess and infrastructure in Kodiak, Alaska and all across the United States is crumbling. Take a drive down the badly disintegrating Mission Road past the Salvation Army and ask yourself: Is Missile Defense worth it? Friday’s test cost between $120 million to $150 million.

  8. Vic (History)

    What is ignored in O’Reilly’s statement is that MDA has had a TERRIBLE problem with their targets – they’ve been responsible for numerous failures and test delays over the past several years. This is for the GMD and the THAAD program. It doesn’t speak well to their quality control measures.

  9. Stephen Young (History)

    You can see the pre-test backgrounder that David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists pulled together at:

  10. Rick Lehner, Missile Defense Agency

    In the aftermath of the flight test, this is what we have determined as the basics of the flight test: The target was launched from Kodiak, Alaska at 3:04 pm EST and at 3:09 pm EST the target was in view of the Beale AFB radar. The interceptor was launched from Vandenberg AFB, Calif. about 16.5 minutes after target launch and took about 6.5 minutes to travel 1,325 km slant range to the intercept point about 230 km in altitude, with the intercept occuring about 23 minutes after target launch. The target was traveling at a speed of about 4.7 km per second (about 10,500 mph). After the test, General O’Reilly had to get over to the Pentagon very quickly for the news conference, less than an hour after the test, so he was operating on the most basic notional information he had at the time.