This story was updated with a Defense Department confirmation of the test failure.

A Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and Navy test intercept of a Raytheon [RTN] Standard Missile(SM)-3 Block IIA from Hawaii reportedly missed its target on Wednesday, according to a report from CNN.

The MDA was unwilling to speak to the test result when reached for comment, but did confirm the test occurred this morning.

An SM-3 Block IIA missile interceptor is launched from the USS John Paul Jones in a Feb. 2017 test called SFTM-1. Photo: Missile Defense Agency.
An SM-3 Block IIA missile interceptor is launched from the USS John Paul Jones in a Feb. 2017 test called SFTM-1. Photo: Missile Defense Agency.

“The Missile Defense Agency and U.S. Navy sailors manning the Aegis Ashore Missile Defense Test Complex (AAMDTC) conducted a live-fire missile flight test using a Standard-Missile (SM)-3 Block IIA missile launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility, Kauai, Hawaii, Wednesday morning,” agency spokesman Mark Wright said in a statement.

The CNN report cited “several administration officials” that said the test was aimed at testing the Aegis Ashore concept ahead of a likely Japanese purchase of the system to bolster its defenses against North Korean ballistic missiles. Japan first announced it was interested in the Aegis Ashore system last August, when it announced it plans to increase its missile defense systems overall (Defense Daily, Aug. 18).

In this test the SM-3 Block IIA reportedly missed an incoming warhead launched from an aircraft in Hawaii.

The report said the Defense Department is not acknowledging the failure publicly due to tensions with North Korea and sensitivities around its participation in the upcoming Winter Olympic Games, being held in South Korea.

On Thursday Defense Department spokesperson Dana White confirmed the failure in a press briefing.

“We can confirm it. And it did not meet our objectives, but we learn something all the time with these tests and we learned something from this one. And we’ll continue to improve our capabilities.”

The SM-3 Block IIA is being jointly developed by the MDA, Japan, and Raytheon to defend against intermediate and medium-range ballistic missiles that could be fired by North Korea or Iran. This interceptor has not been fielded by either country yet, but it planned to start deliveries to the U.S. Navy by the end of this year, the program executive for Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense said last March (Defense Daily, March 15, 2017).

The Block IIA is a longer-range model compared to the Block IA and IB interceptors, featuring a larger kinetic warhead and improved search, discrimination, acquisition, and tracking functions. It also uses larger rocket motors aimed at being able to target more sophisticated threats and protect larger regions.   

Block IA ad IB interceptors are currently deployed on U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers and Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers, Kongo-class Japanese guided-missile destroyers, and the Aegis Ashore site in Romania.

Currently one Aegis Ashore site is operational in Deveselu, Romania while a second site is being built in Redzikowo, Poland as part of NATO’s ballistic missile defense system geared at protecting the alliance from ballistic missile threats from places like Iran.

Aegis Ashore is a land version of the Aegis system on U.S. Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers and Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers.

The first intercept flight test of the SM-3 IIA, launched from the USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53) guided-missile destroyer, successfully intercepted a ballistic missile target last February (Defense Daily, Feb. 6, 2017). Unlike Wednesday’s test, that one was based off an Aegis destroyer.

Then, in June, the second SM-3 IIA missile intercept failed. The John Paul Jones detected, tracked, and launched an interceptor at a medium-range ballistic missile target launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility, but the interceptor failed to hit its target. (Defense Daily, June 23).

The second test failed because a sailor on the John Paul Jones accidentally pressed a button causing the interceptor to break engagement and self-destruct.

The Aegis Combat System that tracks and guides weapons to targets is built by Lockheed Martin [LMT].

Wednesday’s reported failure comes shortly after a report by the Defense Department’s top weapons tester said it has lower confidence in the SM-3 missile reliability in the Aegis system “due to recent in-flight failures, coupled with MDA shortfalls in simulating the in-flight environment in its SM-3 ground test program, addressing failures and anomalies identified during flight testing; and implementing a rigorous configuration management and control process for SM-3 production.”

The 2017 annual report by the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), released last week, said the MDA missile ground test program may not adequately simulate the in-flight environment.

It noted several problems with software and design flaws in the Block IB model not found early on and said the agency did not thoroughly address software flaws present during recent flight testing before the tests.

DOT&E said the overall SM-3 program may need to improve configuration management and control because software design flaws and an unapproved manufacturing process change were not detected until they caused tests failures or inspections a year after production.

The weapons tester said it attributes the June SM-3 IIA failure from the sailor mistake “to a design deficiency that allows an operator to break a ballistic missile engagement with the push of a button, without having to confirm the action.”

The DOT&E report recommended the MDA conduct an in-depth review of SM-2 missile reliability “to ensure ground testing is adequately simulating the in-flight environment as observed during recent test failures;” implement processes to fix failures and anomalies identified during SM-3 ground testing before flight tests; and ensure SM-3 production configuration management, manufacturing control processes, and reporting requirements are adequate.

It also recommended the MDA work with the Navy to implement Failure Review Board (FRB) recommendations stemming from the June SM-3 failure to prevent accidental operator actions from stopping engagements with hostile ballistic missile tracks.