Finally, some good news for MDA?

The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA), much-beleaguered about the status of the missile defense system designed to protect the United States against missile attacks, can finally report good news. Sort of.

It held a test of the upgraded version of the interceptor for its Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (Aegis BMD) system. The new Standard Missile (SM)-3 Block 1A was launched off of the USS Shiloh – a first, as previous tests all used the USS Lake Erie – to hit a target coming out of the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii. MDA reports that the SM-3 Block 1A successfully intercepted a medium-range target with a separating warhead at an altitude of just over 100 miles.

This test – Flight Test Maritime-10 – is notable for several things. It’s the first intercept attempt for the upgraded SM-3. It’s the first time another country’s ship was used in a flight test: Japan’s Aegis destroyer Kirishima added its long range surveillance and tracking (LRS&T) capabilities to the test, along with an Aegis destroyer, the USS Paul Hamilton. The USS Milius, another Aegis destroyer, incorporated information from a Hawaii-based X-Band radar that is being used in lieu of the final Sea-based X-Band Radar (SBX), which is still in development. Finally, the USS Lake Erie, an Aegis cruiser (and the one that launched earlier versions of the SM-3), followed the test target’s separating warhead with the prototype Aegis BMD Signal Processor (BSP).

FTM-10 marks the seventh intercept out of eight attempts for the Aegis BMD program. (For the program’s flight test history, check out our lovely flight test chart. Of course, this will need to be updated per yesterday’s test.) This sounds very impressive, and in fact is a much better record than any of the other missile defense systems. But it ignores the detail that the guidance control system –the Solid Divert and Attitude Control System (or SDACS, as the kids like to call it) – was not used in its most advanced, multi-pulse mode. The one flight test failure of the SM-3 occurred when MDA tried to use it in that mode, but the system couldn’t take it. Since the test failure in June 2003, the system has been tested in the less-stressful (and capable) sustain mode.

This makes a difference in the maneuverability of the system. Also, the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test & Evaluation noted in a January 2006 report,

[D]uring ground tests of the redesigned kinetic warhead maneuvering system, the highest pulse thrust mode failed to consistently perform to specification. This maneuvering system was redesigned in FY05 in an attempt to address past problems with thrust response. These thrust anomalies could lead to additional design changes.

Watch this space to see how the SDACS progresses.

But let’s forget that for a minute. FTM-10 comes at a particularly fortuitous time for the United States. Although it had been planned for months, the test was held during a time of heightened tension with North Korea, with the latter threatening to hold a missile flight tests and the United States threatening to shoot it down with its missile defense system. Now, the ground-based system fielded in Alaska and California has a pretty lame track record, as I’ve written before. So why don’t we just bring in the Aegis BMD system and use it against North Korea’s putative ICBMs? According to Debra Rub-Zenko, vice president of Boeing Integrated Missile Defense,

This lethal intercept by the SM-3 KW is confirmation that the system is fully capable of its mission to defend our warfighters, homeland and allies against ballistic missile attacks.

Warfighters? Possibly. An ally? Maybe – if it’s a relatively small country that’s near an ocean. But homeland? Not a chance.

The Aegis BMD system was created, designed, and tested as a system that would defend against theater ballistic missiles. This means short- and medium-range ballistic missiles (i.e., those with ranges of 500 miles or less). Anything with a longer range and the Aegis BMD system is left eating its dust: it is too slow to be able to target an ICBM-class threat. The Aegis’ interceptor would have to be reworked to have its speed doubled, and then its its canisters on the Aegis ships would need to be redone. What the system can do is work on tracking an ICBM and networking its LRS&T data into the overall missile defense network.

So for those who would believe that our missile defense “problem” vis-à-vis North Korea has been solved…well, it wouldn’t be anyone reading this blog, as you all are far too smart (and handsome, have you been working out?) to fall for that. But people who believe that the Aegis BMD system could work against an ICBM would be sadly mistaken.


  1. Max Postman (History)

    It is well known that in previous missile defense tests we have “cheated” by intercepting a missile using data about its launch that would not have been available in a real-world situation. (This of course was not kept a secret, I don’t mean “cheating” literally). To what extent, if any, did the successful test of the Aegis BMD rely on this sort of information?

  2. Anonymous

    Just a nitpick here. The SM3-KW could be used to defend the homeland if an SRBM were launched from a submarine at the U.S. Obviously, this has a preposterously low chance of actually occuring—but technically the system would defend against that “threat”, if I understand the system correctly.

  3. Joe Cirincione (History)

    Thank you for this post and your “lovely flight test chart.” To add to Max’s query, I note in your chart that the interceptors are fired 1-2 minutes after the target is launched. It is hard to believe that the system could detect, track and target a missile in that short a time in a real world situation. Do these intercept successes thus depend on having time, place and trajectory information provided prior to lauanch?

  4. Drew (History)

    In your chart, FTM-04-02, it says: “A medium-range target missile with a separating warhead was launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility. The target had a range of 620 to 1,860 miles. It was intercepted by an SM-3 at an altitude over 100 miles….” However, you note in this post that: “The Aegis BMD system was created, designed, and tested as a system that would defend against theater ballistic missiles. This means short- and medium-range ballistic missiles (i.e., those with ranges of 500 miles or less).” So, what ranges of target missile are we talking about for the Aegis BMD system? Perhaps not ICBM, but your assertion of 500 and the other note of 600-1800 miles are somewhat far apart even for us political scientists. What are the claims and what are your views on the likely reality in capability? Thanks.

  5. DC Loser

    The DoD definition of SRBM is anything less than 1000 km. MRBM is anything from 1000-2500 km.