The U.S. missile-defense test that failed to intercept a target this month was stymied when a Raytheon Co. (RTN:US) warhead didn’t separate from its booster rocket during the final flight stage, a Pentagon official said.
The $214 million test on July 5 replicated the altitude and speed of a North Korean missile and was the longest-range interception yet attempted, Vice Admiral James Syring, head of the Missile Defense Agency, told a congressional panel today.
The test involved the first use of an Aegis-class ballistic-missile vessel to detect and track the target fired from the Marshall Islands. It passed data to personnel from the Army’s 100th Missile Defense Brigade who fired the interceptor from a silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The Pentagon has failed to achieve a successful interception using the ground-based system since December 2008. The two previous tests, in 2010, used a newer warhead from Waltham, Massachusetts-based Raytheon than the one in this month’s launch. Eight of 16 ground-based tests have failed since they began in 1999.
On July 5, “every part of the system worked as designed up to the failure” of the warhead to separate from the booster rocket, Syring told the Senate Defense Appropriations subcommittee in the first public discussion of the failure’s cause.
The separation failure marked the third time that has occurred in the 16 tests, Philip Coyle, a former head of Pentagon testing, said in an e-mailed statement.
Syring didn’t discuss why the hit-to-kill warhead failed to separate. The malfunction is being assessed in a failure-review board that may take as long as four months to complete.
The ground-based system of 30 interceptors in Alaska and California, managed by Boeing Co. (BA:US), had been in a testing hiatus after the previous two failures with the new warhead. Syring said today that the new version is scheduled to be tested in March.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said that successful testing of the new warhead is a prerequisite for the Pentagon’s plan to add 14 more interceptors in Alaska by 2017 to the 30 already in place there and at Vandenberg to counter what U.S. officials say is an advancing North Korean threat.
The added interceptors, built by Orbital Sciences Corp. (ORB:US), would cost about $75 million each, Syring said. The cost to expand the missile defense shield comes to $1 billion when funds to improve silos at Fort Greely in Alaska are included.
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