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Charting a Course in Missile Defense

Agency director Syring praises test, outlines strategy for future homeland defense

A missile interceptor carrying a Raytheon-built Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle is tested.

The Missile Defense Agency’s director praised a recent test of the missile-destroying Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle Wednesday and said government and industry experts are applying lessons from the system's development to the United States' future homeland defense.

“There are a lot of lessons we have learned over the last two decades with missile defense that put in… perspective…how we [got] here today and what we need to do [in the] future,” Vice Admiral Jim Syring told experts gathered in Huntsville, Alabama.

His presentation was part of the 2014 Space and Missile Defense Symposium, a forum dedicated to fostering educational and networking opportunities between government and industry.

Syring began his presentation by highlighting the successful Ground-based Midcourse Defense system flight test on June 22. The test gave him “great confidence” in the system and its Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, the device at the tip of the interceptor that hunts down and smashes into warheads in space.

Addressing critics who downplay the test’s success and the program’s progress, Syring offered a historical retrospective on the GMD system, which was fielded by presidential decree in both Ft. Greely, Alaska, and Vandenburg Air Force Base, Calif., in 2004.

The U.S.’s main concern in the late 1990s, according to Syring, was North Korea’s increasingly aggressive testing of its long-range Taepo Dong missile, which Syring said “woke up the world” to the need for missile defense.

Syring described the fast-tracked GMD capability as a ‘test bed,’ noting the entire system, including the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, was in prototype status with a “design cycle half complete.”

Moving the entire GMD program beyond ‘test bed’ status has been no small feat, and Syring’s speech included a frank discussion on each testing failure, why those failures occurred, and how the Missile Defense Agency has continued to improve the program as part of its original presidential mandate.

In a recent Defense News article, retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Francis Mahon, former head of the Army’s Air and Missile Defense Command and former director of test at the US Missile Defense Agency, stood by the program.

“By any measure, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system’s unique operating and testing environments are extreme and its achievements to date are remarkable, as other major programs normally spend 15 or more years in development,” Mahon said.

In contrast to GMD’s rushed development and deployment, Syring said two other anti-missile systems – the Standard Missile-3 and Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense System – benefited from a more typical process of ‘build a little, test a little, learn a lot.”

“I have testified and will continue to testify that moving forward, we must fly before we buy, meaning we must fly before we field interceptors,” Syring said, noting that in the past the GMD system’s interceptors were deployed before flight testing took place. “We’ve got to learn from this.”

He noted that THAAD only hit two out of eight targets during its first rounds of testing, then underwent a six-year redesign. After the redesign, that system achieved an intercept record of 11 for 11, he said.

Syring said his current focus is expanding homeland defense to serve the nation for decades to come.

The president’s five-year defense budget allocates $700 million to redesign the current Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle to improve its reliability, potentially using lessons learned from the Standard Missile-3’s simpler, more modular design.

“Now that we have the future outlined and a clear path of where we need to be, we should not deviate from the path we’ve laid out,” Syring said.

Published: 08/13/2014

Last Updated: 04/25/2016

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