A ground based interceptor missile launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on December 5, 2008.

A ground based interceptor missile launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on December 5, 2008. Navy Media Content Services by Jose Davila

West Coast Missile Defense System Remains on Hold

Following a failed test last year, the Pentagon still has not convinced Congress a California- and Alaska-based defense system is ready for prime time. By Rachel Oswald

Congressional auditors say the Pentagon is not giving Congress adequate information about its plan for testing a troubled strategic missile defense system.

Information provided by the Defense Department on options for conducting additional tests of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system is not nearly comprehensive enough to give lawmakers a solid understanding of the benefits and risks of pursuing different development and testing strategies, the Government Accountability Office said in a Wednesday report.

The Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system consists of 30 Ground Based Interceptors deployed at two states -- California and Alaska -- and a supporting network of sensors that supply information about potential ballistic missile threats. It is the country's principal defense against a limited long-range missile attack. In response to the evolving strategic missile threat posed by North Korea, the Pentagon intends to field an additional 14 interceptors in Alaska by the end of fiscal 2017.

However, the GMD system has not had a successful intercept test since 2008. The most recent attempted intercept in summer 2013 was aimed at proving that fixes to the interceptor's front-end Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle were working. It ended up revealing additional problems, though, with the missile's rocket booster technology.

The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency was ordered by Congress in the fiscal 2013 Defense Authorization Act to provide lawmakers with a report on the testing plan for the strategic antimissile system. The assessment was to highlight the "feasibility, advisability, and cost effectiveness of accelerating GMD's testing pace," the report states.

Congress' internal watchdog found that the report provided by the Pentagon looked at just one testing option -- redesigning and testing the divert thrusters of the kill vehicle, which help to steer the component while in flight. But even in assessing that component, the Defense Department's report included sparse information about options related to cost and schedule.

The GAO auditors also found that due to the July 2013 intercept failure, which involved an earlier version of the kill vehicle, it would be "premature" for the Missile Defense Agency to make decisions about the schedule and nature of further testing of the EKV component until an ongoing review of the failed test is finished.

The report concluded that the Pentagon was unlikely to be able to successfully speed up the pace of testing the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system, due to its previous testing history and the increasing complexity of the next planned trials.