The US government plans to spend $300m (£180m) to redesign the troubled ‘kill vehicle’ of the country's missile defence system as part of the 2015 budget request.
The US Missile Defense Agency said it wants to overhaul the Boeing-managed ground-based missile defence system after a string of test failures in recent years.
The kill vehicle, built by Raytheon and designed to hit and destroy enemy missiles in flight, is considered to be the system's weakest link as it has failed in multiple test flights. The agency is now proposing to fit the vehicle with a new long-range radar and fund complementary measures to help the system better identify, track and potentially destroy enemy missiles. The changes should be implemented by 2020.
Missile Defense Agency director Vice Admiral James Syring admitted the Bush administration's decision to deploy the missile defence system in 2004, though aimed at countering "a very real threat", cut short systems engineering and testing. A slower process would have avoided some of the problems seen now, he said.
Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall told a conference last week that the reviews of the programme had revealed "bad engineering" on the current system
According to Syring, reforms were urgently needed now, especially given Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's decision to add 14 more interceptors to the 30 in place in California and Alaska.
"The final step now is to step back ... to now look at this from a bottoms-up design standpoint and not just keep making reliability improvements ... on the margin," Syring said.
The Pentagon said the new kill vehicle would be built with a modular, open architecture and designed with common interfaces to make upgrades easier, and help broaden the vendor and supplier base.
Syring said decisions would be made soon on how to proceed with the redesign of the kill vehicle, factoring in schedule, cost and price. He did not rule out a competition despite the tight schedule of buying 14 new interceptors by 2017.
"I would not shy away from competition if that was the right answer," said Syring. He said the acquisition plan would help inform plans for buying the new interceptors, something now due to begin in fiscal 2016.
The government's funding of early design work on a new common kill vehicle by Raytheon, Boeing and Lockheed Martin meant the agency could choose from three "viable industry concepts", he said.
Missile defence is one of the biggest items in the Pentagon’s annual budget, making up $8.5bn, including about $7.5bn for the Missile Defense Agency.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the budget, which was shaped by a major review of the US defence strategy, underlined the continued importance of missile defence, along with space, cyber and special operations, giving rapidly emerging threats.
The fiscal 2015 budget also continues to fund that work, Syring said, noting that the effort was aimed at developing a kill vehicle that could be used on a ground-based interceptor, a Standard-Missile-3 or some future system.
Syring said a review of a 5 July intercept failure was ongoing but officials were nearing an understanding of the root cause. It was not an issue involving simple quality problems, he said. The next intercept test is planned for this summer.
The requested budget also funds a seventh Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery built by Lockheed, and 31 THAAD interceptors, as well as 70 new Missile Segment Enhancement missiles built by Lockheed for a cost of $420m. Raytheon builds the AN/TPY-2 radar used by the THAAD system.