Raytheon Co.’s latest interceptor warhead intended to protect the U.S. from intercontinental ballistic missiles successfully completed an initial flight test to determine whether a guidance flaw has been fixed, according to the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer.
The launch wasn’t designed to destroy a dummy target representing an enemy missile headed to the U.S. Instead, its goal was to verify that a remedy had been found for a classified flaw in the warhead’s guidance system discovered after such an intercept test failed in December 2010.
“The test was a very important step forward as we move toward a return to intercept,” Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, said in an e-mailed statement. He said the Pentagon “will assess the very large amount of data we received” and use that to prepare for the next intercept test.
The “kill vehicle” made by Waltham, Massachusetts-based Raytheon is a 120-pound (54-kilogram) spacecraft about the length of a broomstick. It looks like a telescope mounted on a pack of propane cylinders. It is supposed to pick out a target amid decoys and debris and destroy it by smashing into it high speed. The warhead is launched off a missile made by Orbital Sciences Corp.
Iran, North Korea
It’s part of a $35 billion system of ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California that hasn’t successfully destroyed a target since December 2008. The system managed by Chicago-based Boeing Co. is intended to protect the U.S., including Hawaii, from a small number of missiles fired from Iran or North Korea.
“This test is particularly timely in light of recent threats from North Korean leaders of upcoming long-range rocket and nuclear weapons tests aimed at the United States,” Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said today in an e-mailed statement.
Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who heads the committee, agreed with Kendall that the initial test was a step forward.
“Given the problems resulting from years” of producing the warhead even as it remained in development, “we need to make sure this system works as we are properly taking the time and effort to get it right,” Levin said.
Confirmation that the guidance system’s flaw has been fixed would permit the first effort to intercept a test target since the failure in 2010.
Richard Lehner, spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency, said in an e-mail that it “may be weeks before we can assess performance.” Lehner said an intercept test may occur sometime in April to June.
Raytheon’s standing as the sole source for the warhead may be in jeopardy. Under a mandate from Congress in the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill, the Missile Defense Agency will study whether to open the next version of the weapon to competition.
The Missile Defense Agency made progress last year as it redesigned and tested components of the warhead, which costs $30 million apiece, “and established more stringent” requirements for parts and manufacturing, Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of operational testing, said in his annual report this month.
The test over the weekend was an important diagnostic assessment, Cristina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office, who manages the watchdog agency’s oversight of missile defense, said in an e-mail.
“If the test was fully successful, then it is an important step” to returning the ground-based program to development flight testing, she said, adding that the GAO hadn’t yet seen the missile defense agency’s analysis of the results.
The next flight test will be crucial in determining whether the agency lets Raytheon resume production of the new warhead, which has been on hold since January 2011, Chaplain said.
“Rigorous non-intercept flight tests are important in proving the effectiveness and operational capability of ballistic missile defense weapons and their various components,” Wes Kremer, Raytheon Missile Systems vice president of air and missile Defense Systems said in a statement.
The test “allowed us to challenge” the warhead “in a series of realistic outer-space environments, which gives us a broad range of data prior to moving toward an intercept scenario,” Kremer said.