In relentless pursuit of a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), North Korea continues to blatantly advance its ballistic missile development as indicated to the world with its increasing solid fuel rocketry, successful staging and reentry vehicle testing as demonstrated on Feb 12, 2017 (link). Yesterday, North Korea further increased its confidence and the reliability of its ballistic missiles as a weapon of power projection to challenge the United States and disrupt the region (link). The North Korean leader on January 1st, 2017 resolved and implied to test a nuclear preemptive strike-capable intercontinental ballistic missile this year that would be capable of striking the United States homeland (link).
The United States and its population are very fortunate to have a capability in place today to defend and defeat this specific threat. A capability that is continuing to be upgraded and made more reliable with advancing technologies and testing to learn and perfect the engineering solutions of hitting a five-foot-long nuclear warhead in space traveling at speeds in excess of five miles-per-second. This capability is the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, with the first generation Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) deployed in 2004 and second generation interceptors now entering into the fleet; there are a total of 36 GBIs deployed today and eight more will be deployed by the end of 2017 in order to overmatch North Korea’s emerging nuclear ICBM threat to the U.S. homeland. The U.S. overmatch of North Korea today is in capacity of GBIs, with a high shot doctrine of first generation and second generation upgraded interceptors, a combination of tracking and discrimination sensors on land, sea, and in space that provide the current hedge of capability and confidence in protection for our population against a limited breakout of North Korean nuclear ICBMs.
It is absolutely paramount for the national security of the United States to have the most reliable GBIs and kill vehicles by increasing their discrimination capability and overall reliability, which reduces the amount of shots needed, thereby adding more capacity and efficiency to better defend the United States. A continuum of upgrades, testing, lessons learned and engineering applications based on a core competency capability, that has had nine successful intercepts since its first intercept in 1999 to the most recent GBI flight test in January 28, 2016.
A significant engineering opportunity to dramatically increase the reliability of the second generation, Capability Enhancement-II (CE-II) interceptors occurred in December 2010 after a failed intercept test, when the magnitude of vibrations in space on the new CE-II interceptor caused by the rough combustion of the kill vehicle’s thruster rockets and threw off the Inertial Measuring Unit (IMU) that oriented the kill vehicle and caused it to miss the intercept. Vibrations in space have been detected on the first generation CE-I interceptors since the beginning of their intercept testing in the late 1990s. Software adjustments were made to successfully mitigate the vibration, which led to the achievement of eight successful intercepts using the CE-I interceptors. The CE-I interceptors today make up the majority of the GBI interceptor fleet deployed in Alaska and California. The CE-I interceptor – because of its 1990s technology, computers and parts – became too obsolete to be reproduced with reliability; the United States need for more GBIs drove the development of the second generation CE-II interceptor, which had its first flight test on January 31, 2010. This test failed due to a missing lockwire on the valve of one of the divert thrusters. With the lockwire issue resolved, the second CE-II test in December 2010 missed the intercept due to vibration, discussed earlier, on the kill vehicle, and presented a pivotal engineering opportunity to resolve the competency of the second generation CE-II. To solve this, new science was established to ground-test and replicate vibrations that occur in space. Software to mitigate vibrations and hardware to cradle the IMU purposed to soften the effect of vibrations were developed, applied and proved out on the second generation CE-II interceptor. The successful intercept test on June 22, 2014, the third CE-II test, validated and demonstrated these solutions to dampen and soften external vibrations from rough combustion.
The root cause of the vibrations was the rough combustion of the four thruster rocket motors that perform the final positioning to guide the kill vehicle into the trajectory of the ballistic missile warhead in space. This was a much more challenging engineering problem to solve, and was finally identified, addressed, and validated through testing. The engineering solution was to develop brand new thrusters, called the Alternate Divert Thrusters (ADTs). This new solution and capability was successfully tested last year on January 28, 2016, along with new discrimination sensor upgrades, during a non-intercept test against a realistic ballistic warhead target in space. This most recent test proved the new thrusters’ capability to exponentially reduce the vibrations from the rough combustion of the old thrusters, and by not performing an intercept of the target missile, allowed maximum data collection from the maximum capability of these thrusters by pushing them to their absolute limits in range, maneuverability, and direction around the target, fully exhausting their fuel capacity. This success and engineering feat of the new ADTs solved the root cause—created by rough combustion—along with the success of improving discrimination, integration, and processing sensor upgrades on the CE-II were all proven and demonstrated by this test. These capabilities will be validated and integrated together along with upgrades to other parts of the interceptor to include circuit boards during the upcoming intercept test this summer, which will introduce the new CE-II Block-1 interceptor into the GBI Fleet. These upgrades will provide the most capable and reliable nuclear ICBM interceptor in the world today that will supplement the majority of first generation interceptors in Alaska and California for the protection of the population of the United States from North Korea.
On February 26, 2017, the Los Angeles Times published an article titled, “There’s a Flaw in the Homeland Missile Defense System. The Pentagon Sees No Need to Fix It,” that incorrectly challenges the reliability of the current GBIs based from the January 2016 flight test results with complete ignorance of what the configurations of the first generation interceptors are and what the test objectives were. Further, the article accuses the Pentagon of failing to address the issue of a failed electronic circuit which is not installed or applied to the majority of the fleet of current interceptors. Deployed today is a specific modernized circuit board on a separate electronic module independent of the ADT and not on any of the majority of the first generation CE-I interceptors, but upgraded and specifically produced to further reduce foreign object debris (FOD) and be put on the few CE-II interceptors in the fleet today. The upgrades to the CE II circuit boards in the further reduction of FOD continues to take place, and these upgraded circuit boards will be placed on the CE -II Block-1 interceptors that will be tested this summer and deployed into the fleet.
The success of the January 2016 test and its objectives were not dependent or affected by the failure of a circuit board. The primary objective of the test was to demonstrate the reduction of the root cause of rough combustion vibrations from the new thruster while maximizing the full capability of this new thruster in range, movement and maneuverability. There was absolutely no need to intercept the target, which would limit and cutoff the data collection from achieving maximum range, movement and maneuverability performance. All four new ADT thrusters are the same design, and having one of them power down did not affect the objective of the test, nor did it affect the secondary objective of the enhancements to the overall sensor discrimination to track the warhead from the missile target in space and its processing of the CE-II kill vehicle sensors, which gathered much needed information from the realistic missile target.
A statement in the LA Times article claimed,
Of the GMD system’s 37 operational interceptors, 34 are equipped with older circuit boards vulnerable to the same kind of incident, according to missile defense specialists, including former and current government officials.
This statement is incorrect, misleading and wrong, as is the intent of the article to its readership. The older circuit boards in the first generation interceptors are not vulnerable to the same kind incident because the one that failed on this test is not the same circuit board and configuration that is on first generation interceptors. This CE-II interceptor circuit board that failed was already scheduled to be replaced and upgraded by the U.S. Government for the upcoming CE-II Block-1 test this summer. Thereby bringing notice to another blatant complete manipulation of the actual intent by the U.S. Government and reality of the GBI situation by the LA Times and its article titled “There is a Flaw in U.S. Homeland Defense. Pentagon Sees No Need to fix it.” There is a flaw in the L.A. times and the Pentagon sees no need to fix it is the reality. In fact, there has never been a failed GBI flight test caused by a failed circuit board preventing the power-on and -off of control to a thruster or rocket motor. The electronic driver circuit boards in question are like the light switches in your house or the electronic consul in your car to turn on the engine, they are not the challenging critical engineering components of a car engine, or a light bulb, or a Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, they are a power switch; a power switch which is on a circuit board in every rocket and satellite going into space. These circuit boards on all spacecraft are designed, produced and applied to be compartmentalized and completely clean from any outside debris, for over a half century of space travel, the problem of FOD on circuit boards has been clearly studied, resolved and solutions are continually being upgraded to put forward to enable thousands of satellites to power up and power off rocket motors operating in space today.
This “much ado about nothing” from the LA Times, which quoted outdated and irrelevant sources which are most likely driven by philosophical differences from the Pentagon’s OT&E office who still are offended by the special waiver given to Missile Defense Agency (MDA) from their loss of control and political motives for the upcoming MDA testimony in Congress on today’s GMD system. The article clearly misleads the readership on the current U.S. capability deployed today to defend the population of the United States from a North Korean nuclear-capable ICBM.
The reliability of the Ground Based Midcourse Defense system and its Ground Based Interceptors today are the best they have ever been in the history of their deployment. Outstanding leadership with world class engineering, aptitude, and application from a team with the embedded culture of “we test to learn” at MDA under VADM Jim Syring’s leadership, has changed the direction of a previously “afraid to fail” culture, to a winning team that has proved out and solved the technical engineering challenges of U.S. homeland missile defense to defend itself from an upcoming limited North Korean nuclear-cable ICBM threat that is not afraid to fail.