FAIRBANKS -- While the successful missile test over the Pacific Sunday increases the likelihood for a $1 billion addition of 14 missiles at Fort Greely by 2017, the Missile Defense Agency hopes to start flight tests in 2018 of a "kill vehicle" that would replace those it plans to buy for the new missiles.
The question of whether it is worth spending $75 million per missile on a kill vehicle -- a device with sensors and an on-board computer intended to hone in on a target high above the Earth -- that the Pentagon says should be replaced by 2020 continues to divide supporters and critics of the missile defense system.
The current plan before Congress is to spend $99.5 million in the next fiscal year to start designing the replacement. A new version would be more reliable, more available and easier to maintain, test, produce and upgrade, the agency said in its budget overview in February.
The Obama administration announced plans in 2013 to add 14 missiles at Fort Greely, largely in response to missile-rattling by North Korea, but the expansion plan needed a successful intercept to get the go-ahead. The Alaska congressional delegation contends that the countdown for the 14 new missiles should be underway.
Critics say it is a waste to buy more units of a kill vehicle that has already been deemed deficient and not as reliable as it ought to be. The system has had a poor record so far, mainly caused by the political pressure to do something fast, they say. The weekend test was the first successful intercept in nearly six years.
"The problems are so great that the Obama administration has decided to redesign the kill vehicle and replace the existing versions," the Union of Concerned Scientists said.
"Time and again, the process for developing and procuring these kill vehicles has been driven by politically motivated timelines, rather than sound technical procedures and oversight," the group said.
The Government Accountability Office said about $4.5 billion is expected to be spent between 2013 and 2017 on the Ground-based Midcourse Defense plan, pushing the total to about $41 billion since 1999.
But flight testing on the system is not expected to be complete until 2022, the GAO said, creating a continuing high risk for failures because the system has been put into use without advance testing. The cost of fixing the newer kill vehicles already in place will be about $1 billion, GAO said.
The Alaska congressional delegation and other missile defense proponents say the additional 14 missiles would make the nation safer while waiting a few years for a more reliable kill vehicle. Sen. Mark Begich said the 14 new missiles are "crucial," while Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she "strongly supports" the idea and Rep. Don Young said they would have been built years ago but for the delays ordered by the Obama administration.
Boeing is the prime contractor on the project, while Raytheon built the kill vehicle. The agency says early indications are that all aspects of the system worked as planned when an interceptor launched from California knocked down a target fired from the south Pacific Sunday.
Missile Defense Director James Syring, a vice admiral, told Congress this spring that if the just-concluded test proved a success, the agency would resume taking delivery on missiles and get to the full complement of 40 missiles at Fort Greely and four in California by 2017. An agency spokesman said no timetable has been set and that the weekend test results have yet to be examined in full.
Kill vehicle concerns
Most of the focus is on the performance of the "exoatmospheric kill vehicle," dubbed the EKV, the 140-pound device that has to hit the incoming missile outside of the atmosphere and stop it with blunt force.
In the event of a missile attack by North Korea, the EKV would detach from the rocket in space and take aim at an incoming missile, using onboard thrusters and infrared sensors.
While some have compared the challenge to hitting a bullet with a bullet, a spokesman at the Pentagon last week said it is more like hitting a BB with a BB.
According to the Missile Defense Agency, the first intercept flight test of an "operationally configured" EKV from an operational site took place in 2006, after former President George Bush declared the system operational.
Flight tests on EKV prototypes began in 1999. A newer version of the EKV, now deployed on about 10 of the 30 interceptors, went into use in 2008, which was also before an intercept test.
The test Sunday, in which an interceptor launched from California knocked down a target fired from the south Pacific, was the first successful hit for the newer version of the kill vehicle, out of three attempts.
Syring told reporters at the Pentagon March 4 that the EKV is essentially a prototype and that the "system engineering cycle was cut short" to get it into place quickly. He said enhancements have been made along the way, but it is no longer enough to make improvements "on the margin."
"There's been a long-standing need to increase the reliability of the EKV, and we've seen some of that with a couple of the flight-test failures that have happened over the last three or four years," Syring said in March.
He said that to "stay ahead of the threat" the system needs a new kill vehicle and a new radar system by 2020.
The agency began refurbishing Missile Field 1 at Fort Greely a year ago with the goal of filling 14 more silos with missiles and the existing EKV design.
Srying said the redesign of the kill vehicle and the construction of a new radar system, which may be built in Alaska -- perhaps at the Clear Air Force Station -- are the two most critical components of the system going forward.
In a presentation at the Brookings Institution in early June, an official with the Department of Defense said the missile defense system was deployed in a hurry and the nation has to get on with designing the next generation of kill vehicle for the rockets.
"This is part of a sensible, prudent, spiral development," said Peppino Debiaso, the director of missile defense policy for the department.
Phil Coyle, a senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said that it is not sensible to deploy 14 more missiles at Fort Greely because the kill vehicle is not reliable. He also said that to date the Missile Defense Agency has not committed to a redesign of the kill vehicle and continues to make improvements "on the margins."
Dean Wilkening, a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, told the group at Brookings that the system was rushed into existence for political reasons and it is hard to improve a prototype. He said it is unfortunate that it wasn't redesigned eight years ago, but there were other priorities.
He said a redesign of the kill vehicle is probably long overdue, but the question is whether there will be enough money to build a new one and to fix problems with the kill vehicles already installed in Alaska and California.
He said he thinks the technology could work, but one of the problems with the system over the past 16 years is that proponents have exaggerated the ballistic missile threat to the U.S. But there are uncertainties about when the threat may North Korea may arise, he said.
By Dermot Cole