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Electrical Leak Suspected in U.S. Missile’s Failure

March 25 (Bloomberg) -- An electrical leak from a battery may have prevented a Raytheon Co. warhead from separating from its booster rocket in a missile-defense test that failed in July, according to findings emerging from a Pentagon review.

The “most likely root causes” are a combination of electrical leakage during activation of the warhead’s battery after launch and the “susceptibility of some” components to such leaks, according to a Jan. 23 letter to Congress that wasn’t previously made public.

The failed test has clouded prospects for the Pentagon’s plan to increase the number of Orbital Sciences Corp. booster rockets in silos to 44 by fiscal 2017 from 30 today. The 14 added rockets would be equipped with a new warhead. The missile-defense system is aimed at fending off a potential attack by a small number of intercontinental missiles from countries such as North Korea or Iran.

The weapon in the test that failed on July 5 was a model first deployed in 2004 that today arms 20 of 30 interceptors in silos in Alaska and California. Before the failure the warhead had scored three straight interceptions of test targets, according to the Missile Defense Agency.

Boeing Co., based in Chicago, is the prime contractor on the ground-based system of radar, interceptors and command centers. Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences assembles the booster that’s equipped with a non-explosive warhead made by Waltham, Massachusetts-based Raytheon. Falls Church, Virginia-based Northrop Grumman Corp. builds the command-and-control network.

System Costs

The U.S. has spent $24 billion on ground-based missile defense intended to protect the continental U.S. and Hawaii, and that amount will grow to $30 billion by 2019, Vice Admiral James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, told a House Armed Services Committee panel today.

In response to the findings on the failed test, the Missile Defense Agency plans to improve the warhead’s battery “and implement a fleet-wide software change” for the 20 already in the field that are the same version, Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, wrote House Armed Services Committee members in an update on the continuing review.

Crucial to expansion of the missile-defense system is success in testing the newer warhead that had two failures in 2010, the first caused by a quality defect, the second by a design shortfall that wasn’t detected in ground testing. The Missile Defense Agency and Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s top tester, have said the new warhead has been improved and is ready for an interception test.

More Testing

While the agency has screened the newer warhead’s battery and took steps to ensure it won’t fail, “ongoing testing and analysis may require” delaying the test for several months until an improved battery is available, Kendall said.

He told lawmakers he expected final results from the review of the test failure by March 31.

John Patterson, a spokesman for Raytheon Missile Systems, didn’t immediately return a phone call and e-mail seeking comment.

Rick Lerner, a spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency, said he had no comment on Kendall’s letter.

Syring had said at a budget briefing on March 4 that the July failure wasn’t caused by a quality defect.

Quality Review

Separately, the Pentagon’s inspector general said in October that it had begun a quality review of Raytheon’s record in manufacturing the interceptor.

The Missile Defense Agency is proposing four programs to improve interceptor reliability, according to a 16-page report to Congress submitted in January and labeled “For Official Use Only.”

The programs are needed to “achieve a higher probability ‘of engagement success’” against intercontinental ballistic missiles, according the report.

The fiscal 2015-2019 budget plan for the Missile Defense Agency calls for $4.39 billion for continued development of the ground system, $189 million for a new “common kill vehicle” that could replace the Raytheon warhead and $619 million to buy additional interceptors and other equipment.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tony Capaccio in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Walcott at Don Frederick

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