By Dave Ahearn

The Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) first stage motor passed a static-fire test last week, officials reported.

That leaves just one more static fire test remaining on the ballistic missile defense stage 1 motor, and two more static fire tests on stage 2 next year.

Officials with the KEI program said the interceptor will have a first stage burn of about 35 seconds, and second-stage burn of about 24 seconds.

The interceptor is envisioned as effective in taking out an enemy weapon similar to some missiles that North Korea has in inventory.

Aside from demonstrating the motor, the test also checked the avionics package for the booster, including thrust vector control guidance, according to briefers.

KEI is a defensive shield for killing enemy missiles in their most vulnerable phase of flight, the boost phase, while the enemy weapon is emitting an easily-tracked white-hot exhaust flame, and before the enemy missile has the opportunity to emit multiple warheads or confusing chaff or decoys.

Northrop Grumman [NOC] is the prime KEI contractor providing systems engineering and battle management/fire control, with team members including Raytheon [RTN] responsible for the kill vehicle that actually destroys the enemy missile. Some 15 other subcontractors work in the program, including Alliant Techsystems [ATK].

The teleconference briefing for defense journalists was provided by Anthony Spehar, Northrop vice president and KEI program manager; Chuck Ross, Raytheon Missile Systems KEI vice president, and Bill Condas, ATK vice president for strategic systems.

President-elect Obama is seen likely to cut missile defense programs, according to some observers.

But with repeated successes during development, briefers said they have no reason to believe at this point that Obama, after he takes office, would move to kill or greatly cut funding for the KEI missile defense program.

“Right now, we don’t have any reason to believe we won’t be part of…missile defense” programs in the multi-layered U.S. shield against enemy weapons, Spehar said.

The leading boost-phase missile defense shield is the Airborne Laser (ABL), with prime contractor Boeing BA] contributing a heavily-modified 747-400 jumbo jet platform and systems integration; Northrop providing the laser systems, and Lockheed Martin [LMT] the beam control/fire control system. ABL is proceeding on schedule and meeting its milestones, headed toward a missile shoot-down test next year.

Should ABL succeed in its target missile shoot-down test, KEI might become a system killing enemy missiles in their midcourse of flight, military analysts have speculated.

On the other hand, however, briefers last week indicated that KEI could be “complementary” to ABL in annihilating enemy missiles in their boost phase just after liftoff, assuming that both KEI and ABL continue to successfully meet their requirements.

Also, while KEI is to be mobile and land-based, it could become sea-based on a variety of vessels, including the future cruiser, CG (X), which would be built sometime in the next decade; on DDG 51 Arleigh Burke Class destroyers; on submarines; or on a large cargo-type ship, according to briefers.

The Navy plans to have some 18 surface warfare ships converted to the advanced Aegis ballistic missile defense system by the end of this year, with more ships likely to be converted later.

Those Aegis platforms can use the Raytheon Standard Missile-3 interceptor now.

A KEI interceptor is bigger, so the rough conversion ratio is that one KEI could fit where three SM-3s can be mounted now.

That KEI static-fire test last week, the fourth of five planned for the first stage motor, was conducted at the ATK facility in Promontory, Utah.

This also represented the first of two planned flight configuration tests, focused on performance of the onboard thrust vector control subcomponents, and the motor’s thrust and ballistics outputs.

Raytheon oversaw the test as the team’s lead for interceptor development.

“We are very confident from the results of this test that our first stage will perform as designed when we get to the actual test flight next year,” Spehar said.

“We will maintain our focus on mission assurance and safety as we advance to the next static fire of the first stage motor, which will be a test of the full flight configuration motor.”

Designed and built by ATK, the first stage rocket motor burned successfully to completion and met all test objectives. Initial results from the test matched expectations for mechanical and ballistic performance. Detailed data collected during the test will be used to verify the motor’s performance.