The latest model of a Raytheon Co. (RTN) anti-missile warhead failed in the final seconds of a $300 million flight test last December because of a “guidance error,” according to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.
The warhead “successfully selected the correct target object, but a guidance error occurred in the final seconds before the planned intercept,” said MDA spokesman Richard Lehner in an e-mail statement.
The guidance system had a fault “related to outer space- related dynamic environments,” Lehner said, without elaboration. The specifics are classified, he said.
“It was something that occurred only in space and was not identifiable during pre-flight ground testing,” he said.
The MDA statement announced the general findings of a months-long failure review board investigation into the Dec. 15, 2010, intercept attempt -- the second consecutive failure last year that’s halted additional flight tests and final assembly of at least seven additional warheads at Raytheon’s Tucson, Arizona plant.
Ten of the new warheads are in U.S. silos as the key weapon in a $35 billion, ground-based missile defense system intended to intercept a small number missiles if they were fired at the U.S. by North Korea or Iran.
Twenty first-generation warheads on interceptors in Alaska and California “do not have this design issue,” MDA said.
Ohio Republican Representative Michael Turner, chairman of the House Armed Service’s Committee’s missile defense panel, said in an e-mail “the MDA has done a commendable job diagnosing the problem.”
“If MDA can achieve the flight test sooner, it should,” he said. At that point, it should then return to warhead production, he said.
Raytheon spokesman John Patterson referred all questions to the MDA. Jessica Carlton, a spokeswoman for Boeing Co. (BA), which manages overall the ground-based system, said the company has “worked closely” with the MDA and “has high confidence” in the failure findings.
“Boeing continues to work closely with our customer and our industry teammates on the design solution and getting back to flight,” she said in an e-mail statement.
“Extensive ground testing and modeling have demonstrated with high confidence the source of the failure,” Lehner said.
“There is no indication of any quality control problem as the cause” in this case, he said. A missing “lockwire” on a thruster caused a January 2010 failure, MDA told congressional defense committees.
Raytheon’s “kill vehicle” is a $30 million, 120-pound (54-kilogram) spacecraft about the length of a broomstick. It looks like a telescope mounted on a pack of propane gas cylinders. It is supposed to pick out a target amid decoys and debris and smash into it while flying at a combined closing speed of 6.2 miles a second. It has no explosive -- the collision alone would do the damage.
Lehner said “corrective design steps are being pursued” and will be verified in ground testing and in a non-intercept flight next year. A new intercept attempt will follow, contingent on corrections, he said.
Raytheon warhead deliveries remain halted until after the non-intercept test, Lehner said.
“In our experience, design issues similar to the one encountered here are significant and usually require a fair amount of time to understand, correct, and re-validate,” GAO missile defense analyst Cristina Chaplain said in an e-mail statement.
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