With a convulsive rumble, followed by billowing flames and exhaust, a sleek 60-foot rocket emerged from its silo at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.
It was a test of the backbone of the nation’s missile defense system. If North Korea or Iran ever launched nuclear weapons against the United States, the interceptors at Vandenberg and remote Fort Greely, Alaska, would be called on to destroy the incoming warheads.
Scientists conducting the test at Vandenberg on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010, had left little to chance. They knew exactly when the target missile would be launched from an atoll in the Marshall Islands 4,900 miles away. They knew its precise dimensions, expected trajectory and speed.
Based on this and other data, they had estimated the route the interceptor’s heat-seeking “kill vehicle” would have to follow to destroy the target.
Within minutes, the interceptor’s three boosters had burned out and fallen away, and the kill vehicle was hurtling through space at 4 miles per second. It was supposed to crash into the mock enemy warhead and obliterate it.
At a cost of about $200 million, the mission had failed.
Eleven months later, when the U.S. Missile Defense Agency staged a repeat of the test, it failed, too.
The next attempted intercept, launched from Vandenberg on July 5, 2013, also ended in failure.
The Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, or GMD, was supposed to protect Americans against a chilling new threat from “rogue states” such as North Korea and Iran. But a decade after it was declared operational, and after $40 billion in spending, the missile shield cannot be relied on, even in carefully scripted tests that are much less challenging than an actual attack would be, a Los Angeles Times investigation has found.
The Missile Defense Agency has conducted 16 tests of the system’s ability to intercept a mock enemy warhead. It has failed in eight of them, government records show.
Despite years of tinkering and vows to fix technical shortcomings, the system’s performance has gotten worse, not better, since testing began in 1999. Of the eight tests held since GMD became operational in 2004, five have been failures. The last successful intercept was on Dec. 5, 2008. Another test is planned at Vandenberg, on the Santa Barbara County coast, later this month.
The GMD system was rushed into the field after President George W. Bush, in 2002, ordered a crash effort to deploy “an initial set of missile defense capabilities.” The hurried deployment has compromised its effectiveness in myriad ways.
“The system is not reliable,” said a recently retired senior military official who served under Presidents Barack Obama and Bush. “We took a system that was still in development — it was a prototype — and it was declared to be ‘operational’ for political reasons.
“At that point, you couldn’t argue anymore that you still needed to develop and change things. You just needed to build them.”
Dean A. Wilkening, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., offered a similar assessment. Wilkening served on a National Academy of Sciences panel that issued a 2011 report on missile defense.
GMD remains a “prototype system” that “has performed less well than people had hoped,” he said at a May 28 policy conference in Washington, D.C. “If you’re going to rely on that as an operational system, one shouldn’t be too surprised that it does tend to fail more than you’d like.”
At a separate conference this month, Wilkening called the system’s test record “abysmal.”
The Los Angeles Times interviewed missile defense scientists and current and former Defense Department officials, and reviewed thousands of pages of congressional testimony and reports by the Government Accountability Office, the Pentagon’s independent testing office, the National Academy of Sciences and the Defense Science Board.
Official pronouncements about the GMD system, The Times found, have overstated its reliability.
Early on, the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer told Congress he had high confidence an attack could be foiled by firing one to three missiles at each enemy warhead.
Under that scenario, “the effectiveness would be in the 90 percent range,” Defense Undersecretary Edward C. “Pete” Aldridge Jr. told the House Armed Services Committee in 2003.
Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating, then head of the U.S. Northern Command, was even more emphatic when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2007: “I appear before you today as confident as I know how to be in the employability and efficacy of that system.”
But given GMD’s record in flight tests, four or five interceptors probably would have to be launched to take out a single enemy warhead, according to current and former government officials familiar with the Missile Defense Agency’s projections.
The system’s 30 interceptors — four at Vandenberg and 26 at Fort Greely — could be overwhelmed by an attack with multiple missiles.
The threat would be even greater if enemy missiles were outfitted with decoys or shed metal debris, which could confuse GMD’s radar and sensors.
Despite GMD’s problems, influential members of Congress have protected its funding and are pushing to add silos and interceptors in the Eastern U.S. at a potential cost of billions of dollars.
Boeing Co. manages the system for the Pentagon. Raytheon Co. manufactures the kill vehicles. Thousands of jobs in five states, mostly in Alabama and Arizona, depend directly or indirectly on the program.
The Obama administration, after signaling that it would keep the number of interceptors at the current 30, now supports expanding the system. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called for deploying 14 new interceptors at Fort Greely by late 2017.
Missile Defense Agency officials declined to be interviewed for this article. A spokesman, Richard Lehner, said in a statement that the agency was working “to conduct component testing and refurbishment of the interceptors currently deployed to … improve their reliability.”
The agency’s director, Vice Adm. James D. Syring, told a Senate subcommittee Wednesday that officials had identified the causes of the two most recent flight-test failures, and that the underlying problems had been fixed, or would be by the end of this year.
Asked about the system’s ability to defend against an attack with multiple missiles, Syring said his goal was to “greatly improve where we are today in terms of the number of interceptors that we fly at each threat.”
Raytheon referred questions about GMD to Boeing, the prime contractor for the system.
A Boeing spokesman, Dexter Q. Henson, said the company “remains confident in the system’s ability to defeat potential adversaries.”
Missiles launched from North Korea or Iran probably would fly over the Arctic Circle on their way to the U.S., the most direct route. The GMD system is designed to destroy incoming warheads at roughly the midpoint of their arcing journey, as they begin their descent toward Earth — hence the term “midcourse.”
Intercepting a ballistic missile is a supreme technical challenge. Scientists liken it to hitting one speeding bullet with another.
The GMD system’s bullet is the 5-foot-long, 150-pound kill vehicle. During flight, it is subjected to extreme stresses: blazing heat and violent vibrations, followed by frigid temperatures outside Earth’s atmosphere. Each kill vehicle has more than 1,000 components. The slightest glitch can foil an attempted intercept.
“Fly, then buy” is a maxim in the defense and aerospace fields, meaning that customers should wait until a complicated new system has been rigorously tested before purchasing.
With GMD, the government’s approach was the opposite: “Buy, then fly.”
Then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld exempted the Missile Defense Agency from standard procurement rules and testing standards, freeing it to use research and development money to buy and deploy a system quickly.
The rocket interceptors were essentially prototypes rather than finished products when put in the field. The first model of kill vehicle was not flight-tested against a mock warhead until September 2006 — two years after the vehicles had been placed in the silos.
Because each of the kill vehicles is handmade, no two are identical. A fix that works with one interceptor might not solve problems with others. The piecemeal approach has left the system short of spare parts for critical components.
Pressure to produce and deploy the interceptors at a breakneck pace made it difficult to revise engineering drawings to correct shortcomings exposed in flight tests or keep up with technological advances.
One senior official involved in the system described his frustration at learning that some computers aboard the kill vehicles lacked the processing power of common cellphones.
About a third of the kill vehicles now in use — the exact number is classified — are the same model that failed in the 2010 tests, according to people familiar with the system who spoke on condition of anonymity. That model has yet to intercept a target.
Because interceptors used in test flights burn up when they reenter the atmosphere or are lost in the ocean, scientists have been hard-pressed to pinpoint the causes of the failures.
But some of the system’s problems can be traced to the kill vehicles’ internal guidance center — the electronic brain that dictates final speed and trajectory.
This crucial component, called the “inertial measurement unit,” malfunctioned in preliminary factory testing and during seven subsequent flight tests, according to interviews with missile defense scientists and federal auditors and reports by the GAO and the Pentagon’s testing and evaluation office.
Scientists suspect that intense vibration during the interceptors’ ascent is the cause of some of the test failures. A GAO report in April described vibration as a “systemic problem.”
It could take years of additional engineering work to solve this and other technical problems in the kill vehicles, scientists said.
Lehner, the Missile Defense Agency spokesman, said vibrations were successfully dampened in a January 2013 flight test. The test did not involve an attempt to intercept a target.
Philip E. Coyle III, who oversaw several early test flights as the Pentagon’s director of operational testing and evaluation from 1994 to 2001, said that even the system’s eight successful interceptions should be viewed skeptically because of the staged conditions.
“The tests are scripted for success,” said Coyle, who has also served as a science adviser in the Obama White House. “What’s amazing to me is that they still fail.”
Engineers who have worked with the system acknowledge that because each kill vehicle is unique, even a successful test might not predict the performance of interceptors launched in combat.