After suffering through high-profile quality-control issues with contractors last year, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency appears to be turning the corner on that problem. Now the MDA must deal with unsuccessful testing of its Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system.
Last year, MDA Director Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly complained of poor performance by contractors. But problems with two systems that came to light in 2010—an L-3/Coleman air-launched target and an optical block mechanism on the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system—are being resolved.
L-3 Communications subsidiary Coleman Aerospace is preparing its short-range air-launched target for return to flight in June. O’Reilly cut off funding for the program early last year after a target fizzled during a December 2009 flight test, prompting an abort. MDA Executive Director David Altwegg said the program was found to have “big-time quality problems.”
Funding became available again in May 2010 as a result of several actions taken by L-3, according to officials at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), which manages the contract. They included correction of failures in the system that builds the Short-Range Air-Launched Target.
At the time the problems came to light, Coleman was part of the L-3 Services Group; it was shifted to fall within the Sensors and Simulation Group. This better aligns Coleman’s work with that of other precision products, according to Jennifer Barton, an L-3 spokeswoman. Last March, O’Reilly said contractors would need to consider “a change in the culture so that you can produce precision instruments.”
Barton says, “L-3 took immediate action last spring by submitting and executing a detailed corrective action plan with our customer while also assigning a new onsite corporate change agent to aid in the process.” A flight-readiness review is slated for next month.
Ultimately, what L-3 has left to prove to the Pentagon is that it can produce a high-quality target. Delivery is expected by March 1, with a possible flight in June. A follow-up mission for the aborted Thaad test is slated for the fourth quarter. According to MDA’s 2010 flight-test plan, that trial will include one short-range and one medium-range target. MDA spokesman Rick Lehner confirms that a single test for Thaad is slated in fiscal 2011, which concludes at the end of September.
The cost of the errant target in December 2009 was $27 million, including expenses of the review board that was assembled to investigate why the target failed to perform its mission, according to SMC officials. They estimate the cost of the target to fly in June will be $23 million, and $21 million for the forthcoming Thaad test target.
Meanwhile, last year Thaad prime contractor Lockheed Martin was under the gun for problems designing an optical block sensor for its interceptor. The ignition chain for this missile is initiated by light, and this sensor (designed by Moog) prevents accidental launch.
Mike Trotsky, vice president of air and missile defense systems for Lockheed Martin, says he expects to complete negotiations with the government on the next lot buy of Thaad interceptors during the first quarter. Production and fielding had been held up for at least a year pending certification of the Moog part, but Lockheed received the go-ahead last September.
“On the Thaad program, we did struggle with some quality issues,” Trotsky says. “We’ve had an optical block system that required additional qualification. We’ve done that qualification.” Lockheed did not build faulty missiles, he adds; the programmatic impact was a delay in delivering the interceptors. “It’s taken us longer to deliver missiles . . . and we have been penalized by MDA for that delay.” Company officials did not say what the financial impact was.
Various contract types are being examined for the next lot of 22 interceptors in light of Pentagon acquisition czar Ashton Carter’s push to use fixed-price contracting when possible.
If quality control was a major focus for MDA in 2010, problems with Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) testing could become the agency’s major challenge for 2011. The last successful intercept trial for GBI took place on Dec. 5, 2008.
GMD, which uses the GBI as its kill mechanism, is the system fielded to provide near-term protection of the U.S. from an ICBM attack, primarily from North Korea. During his recent trip to China, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Pyongyang could have the ability to attack the U.S. homeland within the next five years. Included in GMD is a bevy of ground- and sea-based sensors.
A failure review board is investigating why a GBI failed to destroy its target on Dec. 15. A Lockheed Martin LV-2, which is designed to mimic an intermediate-range ballistic missile carrying countermeasures, was fired from the Kwajalein Atoll; the GBI was launched from Vandenberg AFB, Calif. MDA officials have simply said the target, Sea-Based X-band (SBX) radar, other sensors and the interceptor operated nominally. The Raytheon Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) deployed, according to MDA, and officials are exploring how it may have malfunctioned.
This test, a redo of another failed trial from January 2010, was supposed to be one of the most complex for GBI. In addition to the inclusion of countermeasures, the intercept geometry was challenging because it required a “head-on” hit-to-kill intercept, rather than allowing for the intercept to take place at an angle.
Each GBI test costs roughly $200 million. The disappointment in early 2010 was attributed to two major problems: One was a mechanical failure in the EKV thruster; another was a problem with the testing setup. When rocket phenomena known as “chuffing”—in which small particles and debris are expended during boost—occurred upon launching LV-2, the SBX radar was overwhelmed and failed to operate properly, missile defense sources say. This problem can be corrected by “tuning” the radar to exclude chuffing (AW&ST Apr. 12, 2010, p. 26).
SBX was the only sensor operating during this test, according to the fiscal 2010 program report issued by the Pentagon chief tester’s office. This was also the first test of the EKV Capability Enhancement II. This version was designed to address obsolescence issues and provide improved discrimination capabilities, which is why countermeasures were likely selected for the test.
Some industry officials question whether the past two GBI test failures indicate that the agency has become focused too much on the Phased-Adaptive Approach architecture, which is being deployed to protect most of Europe from an Iranian attack, to the detriment of work on GBI.
MDA testing has a twofold purpose. It must validate models so that the government can fund necessary improvements, and it must also demonstrate the system’s capabilities. The pressure for successful testing is high because U.S. policy officials believe it will deter adversaries from pursuing ballistic missile technology.
“Any time you have a test failure, it tends to detract from the system’s effectiveness as a deterrent,” says one industry source. “But I don’t think anything will come out of this that will derail the program.”
The next GBI intercept attempt will feature a two-stage GBI (those in silos in California and Alaska are long-range, three-stage versions) in the second quarter of fiscal 2012, about a year from now.