Raytheon Co. (RTN) will resume production of warheads for the Pentagon’s ground-based missile defense system by July 31 after the first successful interception of a dummy incoming missile since 2008, according to the military’s No. 2 official.
The successful test last month validated the “extensive and, I would say, exquisite engineering work” the U.S. Missile Defense Agency put into finding and fixing previous flaws, Admiral James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview in which he disclosed the plans to resume production.
It will be the first tangible step in expanding to 44 from 30 the number of interceptors in Alaska and California intended to protect the U.S. if North Korea or Iran deploy intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The expansion was announced last year by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who made it contingent on the successful interception by the latest model warhead, which failed two tests in 2010. A third test, using an earlier model made by Waltham, Massachusetts-based Raytheon, failed in July 2013.
“We are going to move ahead” because the June 22 interception of a mock missile “was just as smooth as it could be,” he said. The warhead “did everything it was supposed to do -- all the little maneuvers. It executed perfectly.”
The agency is also planning to perform an “easy fix” to as many as 20 older-model warheads, currently in silos, to prevent the repeat of a battery-related anomaly that caused the July 2013 failure, he said.
Separately, Boeing Co. (BA), the prime contractor for the $34 billion system, will receive a contract within 60 days to retrofit as many as 10 newer warheads now in silos.
“The June test does not justify expanding the system,” Tom Collina, research director for the Arms Control Association, said in an e-mailed statement.
The interceptor “has hit the target just once out of three tries,” he said. “How can the Pentagon have confidence in a system with a 33 percent success rate? No president could ever depend on such an unreliable weapon. We should be trying to make the system better, not bigger.”
Asked about the 33 percent record, Winnefeld said, “There are people out there who want us to fail because they don’t like missile defense. So they are happy when we have a failure.”
“What they are ignoring is that programs mature” and “when you have something as technically advanced as trying to hit a BB with a BB you are going to have failures.”
Cristina Chaplain, a U.S. Government Accountability Office director who tracks the program, said the interception “is a major step in getting the program back into development” and showed “the benefits of pursuing rigorous and systematic engineering.”
The Missile Defense Agency faces “continuing challenges during another eight years of development testing to include fixing already delivered interceptors” and starting a replacement program, she said. The agency should “apply the lessons it has learned and will take a more disciplined approach to ensure that effort is successful,” she said.
Winnefeld said, without providing details, that the Raytheon warhead distinguished the mock missile from measures meant to confuse it.
“There were a decent number of countermeasures” with the mock missile, he said.
Production will resume with the final assembly of nine hit-to-kill conventional warheads that are now in pieces and parts at Raytheon’s Tucson, Arizona, facility.
Assembly was halted in late 2010 after a second failed intercept that year of the latest model warhead.
These nine warheads will be followed by an additional eight assembled in 2015 and nine more in 2016, according to Missile Defense Agency data.
Raytheon will receive $150 million in previously withheld payments as the first nine warheads are assembled.
Today’s system “is something the U.S. military, and the American people, cannot depend upon,” said former Pentagon tester Phillip Coyle in an e-mail statement. “MDA is rightly planning to redesign the existing” warheads “due to poor performance and low reliability.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Tony Capaccio in Washington at email@example.com