Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) missile defense system ground operations passed a dry-run test to reduce risks in a planned KEI booster flight later this year, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and North Grumman Corp. [NOC] announced.

The KEI pathfinder missile, fully functional with the exception of inert motors, was tested with range instrumentation, launch operations personnel and launch procedures. That dry-run test included checks of vehicle preparations, ground operations and range safety systems.

Testing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., used a full-scale, flight-like booster using inert rocket motors and flight-qualified structures to fully validate all interfaces with the booster, ground support equipment and facility structures.

Once the booster was completely assembled, it was moved to the launch pad by the same transporter erector that will be used for the actual launch. The pathfinder booster was then lifted onto the launch stool by crane, duplicating the process that will be used for the actual booster. After these launch preparations, the pathfinder team rehearsed the countdown procedures that will be used during the test flight, and also rehearsed safety procedures that would be followed if the inert missile failed to launch.

Northrop is the KEI prime contractor for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) program. Raytheon Co. [RTN] is the lead for interceptor development, and Orbital Sciences Corp. [ORB] integrates the booster and prepares range operations to execute the booster flight.

While KEI was conceived as a very high-acceleration interceptor to kill enemy missiles in their boost phase, just after being launched from a pad or in-ground silo, it also has been discussed as a possible system to hit enemy weapons in their midcourse or terminal phases of ballistic flight.

However, at present, the entire MDA approach to killing enemy missiles in their boost phase has been thrown into question. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates April 6 unveiled a proposed defense budget for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2010, that would involve research and development work on KEI, and also wouldn’t buy any more airplanes for the Airborne Laser (ABL), a program led by The Boeing Co. [BA]. ABL is the other leading missile defense system designed to take out enemy missiles of any range in their boost phase of flight.

Gates and Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they now wish to rethink the approach to boost-phase missile defense systems, although they note that the optimal approach is to annihilate enemy missiles in their boost phase, before the enemy weapon has an opportunity to deploy multiple warheads or confusing decoys or chaff.

KEI is designed to be a globally deployable, mobile missile defense system. The production system will feature state-of-the-art components. Its highly maneuverable kill vehicle will be carried by a very fast acceleration/maneuverable missile that is cold gas-launched from a mobile platform and guided by a unique new sensor-fusing fire control capability.

This integrated weapon system provides a persistent (24/7), all-weather capability to destroy intermediate and intercontinental ballistic missiles in their boost to midcourse phases of flight.

“Successfully completing pathfinder ground activities is a critical milestone leading towards KEI’s first flight demonstration later this year,” said Anthony Spehar, Northrop vice president and KEI program manager. “While other tests still remain prior to the booster flight, we continued to gain confidence from the thorough and deliberate approach taken by team members to ensure all aspects of the booster flight are carefully planned, reviewed and executed, including contingencies.”

The KEI program is managed by MDA in Washington, D.C., and executed by the KEI Project Office in Huntsville, Ala.