FAIRBANKS -- A $200 million test of the nation's missile defense system, set for Sunday morning high above the Pacific Ocean, looms large in Pentagon plans for the immediate future of the missile defense complex at Fort Greely.
If the test succeeds, the Missile Defense Agency plans to push ahead with plans to add 14 more interceptor rockets to silos at Fort Greely, 100 road miles southeast of Fairbanks.
If the test fails, the next stage in a project costing about $40 billion so far won't be quite so clear-cut.
"If it turned out to be something very simple," Vice Adm. James Syring told a U.S. Senate hearing June 11 about options in case of failure, the goal would be to "find out what happened, correct and try to get back to flight as soon as possible."
But if a key 140-pound component called the "exoatmospheric kill vehicle," or EKV, fails again, the agency will have to reconsider whether it will take delivery on EKVs already ordered by the government from Raytheon Missile Systems, Syring said.
The kill vehicle is about 2 feet wide and less than 5 feet long, with enough mass that if it hits a nuclear missile in space while moving at thousands of miles per hour, the force of impact would be enough to turn the incoming missile into space junk. The problem: Getting close doesn't count.
Some have compared the complexity of the challenge to the Manhattan Project and described it as the most difficult technological task of all time. Others have said it's akin to hitting a bullet with a bullet or making a hole-in-one when the hole is moving at 17,000 mph.
The next test of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System, or GMD, involves a target missile to be launched Sunday morning between 8 a.m. and noon ADT, from the Marshall Islands, more than 2,400 miles southwest of Hawaii.
Within six minutes or so of the first launch, the Missile Defense Agency would fire an interceptor from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast, aiming for a collision about 20 minutes later high above the atmosphere.
The test is to be controlled by the Colorado branch of what the military calls the "dual-node, human-in-control interface located in Fort Greely, Alaska, and Colorado Springs, Colorado," that operates the system declared operational by former President George Bush a decade ago. Personnel at Fort Greely are to be observers of the exercise, a spokesman said.
The existing system includes 26 interceptors at Fort Greely and four in California, but intercept launches have never been made from the Interior Alaska site because of the risk of dropping rocket stages on the land below.
"We're limited to testing out of Vandenberg. We would never and can't test out of Fort Greely," Syring told the senators.
In response to an Alaska Dispatch email question, agency spokesman Rick Lehner said it is not necessary to test from Fort Greely, citing the U.S. Air Force example of taking ballistic missiles from the Great Plains states to Vandenberg for launches:
"They don't launch from their deployment sites. The weather extremes in these northern tier states are every bit as challenging as Alaska's, but the cold weather does not degrade performance of a modern solid-fuel missile. Also, Vandenberg is an operational missile defense site so this incorporates even more operational realism into our tests."
While Fort Greely has not been used for interceptor flights, the agency did run tests up until four years ago using the state-owned Kodiak Launch Complex as the takeoff point for target rockets.
During the June 11 hearing, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, asked Syring whether there are plans to resume launching target missiles from Kodiak instead of from the South Pacific. She said there were eight tests from Kodiak.
"I'm told that that last successful intercept that we had of the GMD system was when we used the complex there at Kodiak," Murkowski said. "Are there plans to return to the complex for any launches?"
Syring said a resumption is not likely. A launch from North Korea would be, "in layman's terms, head-on" at the United States, while Kodiak does not present the same realistic scenario for future tests because the angle is wrong, he said,
He said tests have progressed to be more realistic with higher speeds and longer distances and offered to give her a classified briefing on the limitations of the Kodiak site.
Key test for missile defense
The interceptor missiles at Greely and Vandenberg are designed to propel the EKV into space, separate from the booster, and employ onboard guidance equipment and motors to try to hit a missile traveling towards it at a rate several times faster than a speeding bullet.
"If there was another kill vehicle problem, which would now make us 0 for 3 on this design, I think you would see us take a step back and assess taking delivery of the EKVs that we're planning to take delivery upon a successful flight test," Syring said.
During the last intercept test a year ago, the EKV did not separate from the rocket, but he said the agency is confident the "very simple" problem has been fixed and he expects the EKV will collide with the incoming target in space, blowing it into pieces.
He said a successful test of the kill vehicle is his highest priority.
If a real missile topped with a warhead were fired at the U.S., missiles from Fort Greely and Vandenberg would be called upon to try and shoot it down, though they would not have advance warning.
Asked by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, about "How much has been cooked?" and whether the test will be realistic, Syring said it will be a high-speed test with the target and the interceptor starting thousands of miles apart.
"I would say it's very operationally realistic," he said, though there are scripted aspects of the test for safety, such as a designated launch window.
He said with a successful flight test, the agency will start updating the missiles already in silos in Alaska and California with new equipment. "We'll begin taking interceptors out of the ground to now put those improvements that are fielded," he said.
By the end of 2017, the agency expects to have 40 interceptors at Fort Greely, four at Vandenberg and three spares.
Kill vehicle problems persist
In many ways, the command and control of the kill vehicle once it reaches space remains a persistent problem.
In January, the director of Operational Tests and Evaluation for the Pentagon said, "The flight test failures that have occurred during the past three years raise questions regarding the robustness of the EKV's design."
The report by Michael Gilmore said the agency ought to "consider whether to redesign the EKV using a rigorous systems engineering process to assure its design is robust against failure."
The government is considering redesigning the system, with the Obama administration seeking funds from Congress to start the work. Critics of the missile defense program say it would be a mistake to place additional missiles at Fort Greely with the old EKV, even if the weekend test is a success, because it has a poor track record.
Philip Coyle, a senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said if the interceptor hits its target, it will be the first time in three attempts the current version of the kill vehicle has worked as planned.
"Not bad in baseball, but not good enough to justify putting more flawed interceptors in the ground, especially when those interceptors have no demonstrated ability to discriminate real, possibly stealthy re-entry vehicles from missile junk, space debris, and/or chaff and decoys, under realistic operational conditions," he said.
Reach Dermot Cole at email@example.com.
By DERMOT COLE