Pentagon Risks America’s Homeland Missile Defense

Rocket interceptor at Ft. Greely, Alaska

Rocket interceptor at Ft. Greely, Alaska

FT. GREELY, AK (AMP) – The U.S. Missile Defense agency is ignoring its own expert recommendations and skipping tests of a key component in America’s homeland missile defense system against a “War Cloud“-like attack.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the tests would ensure the reliability of small motors designed to help keep rocket interceptors on course as they fly toward incoming warheads—presumably from Iran or North Korea.

These “alternate divert thrusters” are vital to the high-precision guidance required to intercept and destroy an enemy warhead traveling at supersonic speed—a feat likened to hitting one speeding bullet with another.

The interceptors are deployed in underground silos at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County and at Ft. Greely, Alaska. They are considered the backbone of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system (GMD) – the nation’s main defense against a sneak attack by rogue nations.

Divert thrusters are supposed to keep the kill vehicles on course during their final approach to their targets. But their reliability has been a concern for years. So the MDA developed  of a new and allegedly improved version with the alternate divert thruster.

An outside panel of experts privately advised the agency to put the alternate divert thrusters through “hot fire” testing:  revving them up on the ground to see whether they burned smoothly and delivered adequate propulsion.

But in order to stay on schedule for a planned expansion of the GMD system, none of the 40 thrusters that are being installed on 10 new interceptors will undergo hot-fire testing, government officials told the Los Angeles Times.

Forgoing the tests “increases the risk for reliability issues going undetected,” according to a newly released report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The GAO report concludes that the missile agency’s flight testing has been “insufficient to demonstrate that an operationally useful defense capability exists.”

The MDA disagrees, telling The Times “that forgoing the hot-fire testing compromises the system’s reliability” and “has assessed it is not necessary to hot fire” each thruster “prior to emplacement.”

A rocket interceptor in its silo at Ft. Greely in 2009. (John Wagner / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner)

A rocket interceptor in its silo at Ft. Greely in 2009. (John Wagner / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner)

The GMD system is designed to repel a “limited” missile attack by a non-superpower adversary such as Iran or North Korea. The nation’s defense against a massive nuclear assault by Russia or China still relies on “mutually assured destruction,” the Cold War notion that neither country would strike first for fear of a devastating counterattack.

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