FAIRBANKS — The missiles in the ground at Fort Greely are designed to propel an immensely complicated 140-pound device into outer space at a moment's notice.
The small spacecraft on the top of each rocket is an "exoatmospheric kill vehicle." It carries no explosive charge.
Rather, once it gets into space, it uses its own propulsion system, guidance data from the ground and onboard sensors to position itself for a high-speed head-on collision with a rocket headed toward the United States. A smashup at many thousands of miles per hour turns both incoming and outgoing objects into millions of pieces of space junk.
That's the theory.
But the rushed schedule for deploying the kill vehicles, starting more than a decade ago, led to operational problems, a new report from the Inspector General office of the Department of Defense says. The schedule contributed to a series of test failures before a successful $200 million flight test in June, the report says.
"A combination of cost constraints and failure-driven program restructures has kept the program in a state of change," said the Inspector General, an independent watchdog agency that advises the executive branch and Congress.
"With more than 1,800 unique parts, 10,000 pages of work instructions, and 130,000 process steps for the current configuration, EKV repairs and refurbishments are considered by the (missile defense) program to be costly and problematic and make the EKV susceptible to quality assurance failures."
Pentagon officials had been waiting for a successful test before restarting production on 14 missiles to be added to Fort Greely by 2017, a $1 billion project. Bloomberg News reported in July that Raytheon Co. had been cleared to build more kill vehicles as part of the Alaska expansion plan.
The Inspector General said it is conducting two assessments of the kill vehicle program. It released one this week identifying 21 major quality assurance problems and 26 minor problems.
Some of these dealt with computer software, record keeping, tracking modifications and program analysis. As of late July, all but four of the issues had been resolved, the report says.
A second IG report is to assess the reliability of the kill vehicles now in place on the 26 missiles at Fort Greely and the four in California. That report will be classified, the agency said.
In the meantime, debate continues on the speed at which the kill vehicles are to be replaced, with the Pentagon saying that by 2020 a new version will be needed. The new missiles at Fort Greely would be installed with the existing model because the new one does not exist.
In 2012, the National Academy of Sciences called for a new design with improved sensors and more maneuverability in space. Congress is considering plans to spend nearly $100 million to start the redesign work.
The Government Accountability Office has said, by 2017, about $41 billion will have been spent on the missile defense program since 1999.
Laura Grego, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote this week that one notable feature of the EKV is that large numbers were deployed without advance testing to meet what was deemed an immediate threat by the Bush administration from North Korea. The "breakneck pace" has not been re-evaluated since then, she said.
"While undisciplined industrial processes in a system that needs to work the first time cannot be tolerated, the way the system is set up seems to make failure inevitable. This presumably could be addressed in the planned EKV re-design process — but only if it can be done with integrity, appropriate oversight, and without undue time pressures," she wrote.
Phil Coyle, former director of testing at the Pentagon, wrote that the IG report "reinforces the need to replace the EKV with a new, larger and more capable" model as proposed by the National Academy of Sciences. He said the system is not dependable, as demonstrated by the test failures.
A spokesman for Raytheon, the manufacturer of the EKV, said all but one of the problems identified by the IG with Raytheon's role have been corrected.
"The recent successful flight test demonstrates our commitment to improving the kill vehicle's quality and reliability. Raytheon's EKV was deployed in 2004 as a prototype because of urgent national defense priorities. We welcome the opportunity to redesign the EKV and look forward to working ?closely with the Missile Defense Agency and our industry partners to make the kill vehicle more producible and reliable," said Raytheon spokesman John Patterson.