Graham Warwick/WASHINGTON DC

The US Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) says its objective for the next test of the National Missile Defence (NMD) system will be to demonstrate the "hit-to-kill" capability of the exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV).

Although ground-based radars for the NMD system will be on line for the third integrated flight test, scheduled for late September/early October, the test will focus on the kinetic EKV's ability to intercept and destroy a ballistic missile re-entry vehicle.

"We have never done hit-to-kill," says a BMDO official, admitting that the test will be "somewhat contrived" to demonstrate the "end game". Instead of using the NMD radars for tracking and guidance, the target booster and ground-based interceptor will be pre-programmed to deliver the re-entry and EKVs into a "basket" within which the all-important intercept can be achieved.

After release of the EKV by the interceptor, the test will be representative of a real intercept, the official says.

A deployment readiness review is planned for next June, after just five test flights. The review will determine whether the system is capable of being deployed by 2005, but a deployment decision will have to come from Congress and the President, the official stresses.

Key to the decision-making process will be selection of a site for the ground-based interceptors. The baseline programme requires the ability to protect all 50 US states, including Alaska and Hawaii, from the threat posed by a "rogue nation" capable of launching fewer than 10 "unsophisticated" ballistic missiles. This requires only 20 silo-launched interceptors.

Two deployment sites have been identified: Grand Forks in North Dakota and Ft Greely in Alaska. Interceptors can be deployed in North Dakota within the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, as Grand Forks is a US ballistic-missile base, but would not provide the required coverage. Deploying the NMD interceptors in Alaska would protect the entire USA, but will require renegotiation of the ABM treaty.

Given a commitment to deployment, a second programme review planned for mid-2001 to approve the start of site construction would be "the tripwire for the treaty", the official says. The second review will follow the seventh test flight - the first to combine the EKV with the operational interceptor.

A third programme review, planned for early 2003 following the critical design review for the production EKV, would approve production and deployment of the system. Current plans call for the baseline NMD to become operational "towards the end of 2005", the official says.

Source: Flight International