back to article Missile defence FAIL: US 'kill vehicle' space weapon flunks test

The US Missile Defence Agency has suffered another embarrassing failure in a live test conducted last week over the Pacific. An Exo-Atmospheric Kill Vehicle. Credit: MDA What a space-combat weapon actually looks like. The trial saw a medium-range ballistic missile target lift off from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    So the picture looks like the EKV is mounted upsidedown? and presumably its the solid metal plate (bottom of picture) that <s>does</s> is suppose to do all the damage... looks like a good 200kg's worth...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      American version of the Bulgarian Umbrella

      If the design is still the same since the days of Star Wars (which I think it is) some of it should open up like an umbrella (around 5m diameter). Bulgarian umbrella for nukes, made by Americans :) Instantly lethal. If on target of course. The stuff on the bottom looks like the front portion of the payload housing of the missile. So unless I am mistaken, this actually takes off bottom up compared to what is on the picture and the yellow bit opens up to a 5m diameter killer umbrella once outside the atmosphere.

  2. GeorgeTuk

    Oh dear...

    ...wouldn't want to be relying on that. Admittedly its the last line but since it barely does it in a test then the chances of intercepting a multiple ICBM or even a multiple CBM ( the enemy isunlikely to launch one at a time!) are going to be slim at best!

  3. Blofeld's Cat

    Love the picture

    That looks like a real engineer's place with its coiled up pipes, mysterious tank, pulley and chain, box of rubber gloves and the "limit of floor" sign.

    I suspect there are two white-coated men just out of shot, scratching their bald heads and looking perplexed...

    Boffin 1: "Are you sure this is what we ordered?"

    Boffin 2: "It said on the box it was an EKV."

    Boffin 1: "You don't think they've sent us a combi-boiler again do you?"

    Boffin 2: "No they wouldn't try that twice would they. Did you read the instructions?"

    Boffin 1: "Nah. Just help me rip the rest of the packing off and we'll bolt it on top of the rocket..."

    1. lawndart

      the saga continues

      Boffin 2: "Doesn't it remind you of those security robots they were having trouble with in England? You know, the ones that seemed to sprout circular saws and other alarming bits of kit?"

      Boffin 1: "Run for it lad. Run!"

  4. Alan Firminger


    Implied is that the interceptor and the missile have to collide. That requires three dimensional navigation to within 0.5 metres timed within about 50 microseconds. I am not surprised the test failed.

    1. Ian Michael Gumby


      Putting aside that the only good thing about ABM tech is that it got the US and the Russians to the peace table and reduced the then threat of a 'nuclear doomsday'...

      You have to admit that its really a cool application of technology.

      I guess its a lot easier on trying to hit a controlled inbound missile than it is to try and crash a space craft in to an asteroid/comet moving at interstellar speeds...

      1. M Gale

        Re: Ok (also epoch fail)

        Not really so easy. Asteroids and comets don't have evasive manouvering capabilities, and tend to have very predictable movements.

        Missiles, as people here have already stated, not so predictable.

        <strike>Also is it just me or is everyone's post time coming up as Jan 1st 1970? Epoch fail?</strike>

        Scratch that. It's coming up as 1970 when you click the "withdraw" button though. Someone made a boo boo when re-hacking the comments section?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Down

      5m, not 0.5

      If the interceptor design has not changed since Reagan Star wars it is 5, not 0.5. The design I remember from those times was supposed to open an umbrella. It is a neat optiimisation problem - size of the umbrella vs precision of interception. 5m by the way is not particularly bad. Most modern missiles can achieve that provided that the "notoriously buggy X band radar" gets the tracking info right and provided that the target does not maneuver. Considering how little it needs to maneuver to avoid being killed and how easy is to achieve that "little" trying to build such an intercpetor is very much in the realm of throwing good money after bad.

  5. despicable me


    Well the interception didn't work. but did they manage to avoid a total fail?

    Did the ballistic missile successfully hit the United States?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      We'd have had endless press reports of billions of dollars worth of improvements

  6. Alex Walsh

    It doesn't work.. how many have the MoD ordered then?

  7. Pete 2 Silver badge

    Rather lucky, really

    Fortunately for the americans there is no possibility that anyone is ever likely to fire a nuclear missile at them - although the complete lack of any credible threat has never been known to stop them spending money on defences (or should that be: on their buddies' defence companies) in the past.

    In the thermodynamically [i.e. snowflakes chance in hell] minute chance that a small pacific island does develop WMDs, and decides to lob one at the yanks, I won't mind if they say "I told you so".

  8. Poor Coco

    I know why it failed!

    They forgot to take off the oh-so-patriotic maneuvering-thruster caps emblazoned with freedom-loving eagles.

  9. Steve 13

    it's a test

    If it were fully functioning and guaranteed to work already then they wouldn't be testing it would they!

    You want to minimise failures during testing, but it's never likely to go through testing without any. So why should they be embarrassed?

  10. cannon
    Big Brother

    USA global terrorists

    the only threat we have is from the USA & our own western governments who are controlled by the corporations, who are hell bent on making money any way they can even if it means poisoning and killing us all.

    If you doubt this watch GasLand

    wake up slaves....

  11. Anonymous Coward

    0,01 Degrees out at 300 miles = a miss diameter of......

    "What should have happened then is that the EKV should have used its small manoeuvring thrusters to get itself directly in the warhead's way."

    So am I correct in thinking they are trying to directly hit a target a couple of hundred miles away, with a closing velocity of n000 MPH (was it even manuvering for this test?, as would be expected with a good MIRV, or coping with decoys?)

    Kinetic kill looks elegant on paper, but I would suspect they would get better results with space born equivelent of a shotgun (saturate the target area with lots of fragments, as per most Air-to-Air missles)

    I wonder how the generals will explain this one to congress, "there was a verifiable deviation in the test data accumulation"?????

    1. PT

      They will explain it to Congress this way...

      "More development is required, and we will spend X,000,000 dollars of the budget in each of your Congressional districts".

  12. Zolko Silver badge

    Buy Yank

    They should have bought it from the US.

    Apart from that, is this the kind of stuff they want to deploy in Europe to protect us from Iran ?

    1. g e

      Ah but we got something bigger

      Now if someone can just fit a barrel & sights to the LHC....

  13. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    How many $$$ went on those patriotic nozzle covers?

    Really, how tacky.

    Also, seriously, there should be nuke on this thing so that missing by half a meter won't make the difference between success and failure.

    1. multipharious

      Nuke anywhere near the Ionosphere?

      An airburst in the Ionosphere is an EMP. The strength of the intercept device would be directly relational to the coverage of the resulting neo stone age. I think they are trying to intercept outside of the atmosphere though...not sure if an exo-atmospheric intercept using a small tactical size device is a good idea either. Satellites, ISS, and so forth.

      I agree with you on tacky though. Fugly.

    2. Anton Ivanov

      There used to be

      The 1975 era interceptor programme and the first generation russian interceptors were nuclear armed. The rumour mill says that Russians are going for HE warheads now. It is a nobody knows as all sources show "conceptual art" for their missiles and sites and I have yet to see a single picture.

    3. g e

      Another vote for really tacky

      Tacky & *cheesey* in fact

      That is all

  14. TheOtherHobbbes

    No boom today - always boom tomorrow

    Mmm - I love the smell of government make-work in the morning.

  15. ratfox

    It's the thrusters

    Their strength should be in Newtons, not pound force

    ...The one with the Martian Chronicles book in the pocket...

  16. John Mangan

    Reminds me of the scene in 'The West Wing'

    where a scepticla President Bartlett received the results of the latest failed MD test with the immortal words, 'Good Grief Charlie Brown!"

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Better than that...

      The episode I recall went something like...

      "It fulfilled eight out of ten of its objectives"

      "But it missed: it was a failure"

      "It was not a failure: it fulfilled eight out of ten of its objectives"

      "It missed: it failed"

      "It did not fail ..."

  17. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    IIRC the last time they tried this they went with a metal net

    More surface area and with the closing speed just as effective.

    You'd hope they'd learned something from the 80's

  18. Anonymous Coward

    Self Defeating Technology

    Hit-to-kill works only against opponents who don't have any reasonable aerospace engineering capability.

    Everybody else will just mount the same little thrusters on their ballistic warheads and have a computer generating a little thrust every 1/3rd of a second, based on random data from a noise diode. These are overlayed to the normal control commands of the guidance system. Much easier than the defensive system, as it does not matter if you miss by 100 meters when lobbing a nuke at LA.

    This makes the incoming warhead's path much less precisely predictable and then hit-to-kill will not work.

    But certainly one way to keep America's Best Engineers away from commercial work, so China and Germany LOVE THIS !

    1. SkippyBing

      ICBM Accuracy

      Generally the idea with cold war era ICBMs (i.e. those actually in service not whatever North Korea might eventually come up with) is to be able to target the missile silos of the other side so you destroy them before they're launched. To counter this the land based silos have incredibly strong protective covers, to the extent that missing by 100m would in fact be a fail.

      Having said that if they can't hit one re-entry vehicle how they'd cope with the 10 you'd expect from a standard ICBM is beyond me. Although I suspect it's beyond them as well which makes you wonder what other use it could have?

      1. Charles 9

        Hit it before it goes MIRV.

        I think the idea is you hit it before it goes MIRV on you. Hit it high up, but while it's STILL going up. MIRVs, IIRC, don't deploy until they go over the top--otherwise, their flight plans aren't as predictable.

        As for a detonate-on-kill, since it's nominally halfway between you and the enemy, you stand as much chance of being blasted with an EMP as the enemy, so a "hot" launch is usually not advised.

      2. Anonymous Coward

        @SkippyBing: Just Move the MIRV Bus

        I admit that adding thrusters just for the purpose of random movements will generate new R&D cost and it will degrade the primary function of the delivery system, the delivery of a warhead with as much weight as possible. Substantial movements will mean substantial fuel and weight for tanks, thrusters and all the control systems (valves, batteries, computer, test systems etc).

        Still, it is possible and I would even argue that a good engineer can make such a "tumbling" system with the same precision as a ballistic system.

        In theory, the sequence of thruster impulses would cancel each other out and the trajectory could look like a corkscrew. Or like a half corkscrew with s-figured trajectories in three different planes.

        In reality, thrusters are not 100% exact and accelerometers aren't perfect either. Yet the accuracy of accelerometers is primarily determined by time and not by the trajectory.

        What follows from that is that experienced Russian, German, French or American engineers could certainly make a "tumbling" MIRV Bus and "tumbling" MIRVs with competitve accuracy. If an additional radar sensor is used, there will be zero accuracy difference.

        I assume tumbling is one of Topol-M's features, in addition to decoys.

      3. multipharious


        Dead on. First Strike is always to get the enemy's vehicles before they are able to complete their warm up sequence (after there is a launch detection that initiated the command.) The warm up takes essentially 20-30 minutes after initiation, and flight time from launch detection depending on trajectory is under that.

        Second strike is military targets (ranking does not need to be written here) with EMPs going off steady over the enemy. Population centers do not even figure in unless they are strategically important...which since they have no silos in them...are not.

        The concept of "winning" is based on getting as much as possible before it launches.

  19. shinanygnz

    Back to the Future?

    They did have nukes on the end of some interceptors back in the day (50s & 60s), then they discovered the joys of high altitude EMP and what it did to electronics on the ground, and then there's the various treaties that are supposed to stop that sort of thing.

    IIRC (I'm supposed to be working, so haven't checked my possibly faulty memory), the 80s era ASAT weapon deployed a wire net behind it to increase the chances of interception, but actually hit in the couple of tests before they canned the project. You don't need to hit with much at closing speeds of several thousand mph to make a mess of the target.

  20. Syren Baran


    Tell those boffins to stop watching Matrix.

    In which world do you defend yourself against bullets by grabbing a gun and shooting down the incoming bullets?

    Shooting down a supersonic rocket with an other supersonic rocket head on (even if it has thrusters) sounds like a similarly bloody stupid idea.

  21. Anonymous Coward

    Can't kill a good idea

    @ Syren Baran: This is politics, so it doesn't matter whether it can work.

    Politician: "You say it won't work. How about we double the budget for the physical sciences / NIH / ..."

    1st Scientist: "This is physics, it'll still not work"

    2nd Scientist: "No way you can shoot down that bullet"

    23rd Scientist: "I think it can work. Here is my account number."

    Politician: "I found a scientist who can make it work!"

  22. Luna Tick


    Dungetit. You do a test to see if things work. If they don't you go back to the drawing board. How's that "embarrassing"?

    1. James Loughner


      There was money in the pipeline to deploy the silly thing.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      If only they would go back to the drawing board

      But they've sunk so much money into this project that it won't be killed by anything short of a Congressional veto, holy water and a stake through the heart. Bearing in mind the Republicans are entirely loopy about missile defence there is precisely zero chance of anyone sitting down and saying 'this is a crappy idea, why don't we...?'

  23. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    How smart is this thing?

    Thinking of the bomb in DarkStar.

    They launch this into space - it's cruising around enjoying the view when suddenly a speeding test missile hurtles towards it - naturally it's going to try and get out of the way.

  24. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge


    Now that el'reg and Lewis have leaked this sensitive information that is damaging to America are we going to see an arrest and an extradition request from Wales - over the photos from last years outward bound team building exercise?

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The gloating over failure?

    It's ironic that some fools are actually gloating over the failure of advanced technology designed to save their arse.

  26. Joe Cooper
    Paris Hilton


    The anti sat shot with the SM3 was dramatically harder. I don't know why this particular gizmo is boring, but it's an engineering problem. Hitting a bullet with a bullet is a bad analogy because the final stage guides itself to the target. This has been accomplished multiple times before and has nothing to do with tracking the sat before hand; the unpredictable nature of the solid fuel rocket stages, atmosphere and (in the case of ship based missiles) means that it is only possible to do this by working out the details in the final stage.

    These mid course shots should be easier. The prior stages do need more delta v to reach the target but that is only a matter of size and money. The target is at its lowest speed - dramatically slower than a satellite - and subject to minimal aerodynamic forces.

    As more difficult shots have been done before, including the already deployed SM3, it is fair to say this is embarrassing.

    As to whether or not the whole the whole concept of missile defense is a good idea, I don't know. Haven't thought about it.

  27. Captain Thyratron

    See, folks, this is the point of testing.

    That you don't know if it'll work and that you want to find out what's wrong with it before you actually need to use it. Testing isn't about showing off something that already works, or there'd be no need for it.

    I wouldn't call this much of an embarassment (or did you think that hitting a vastly supersonic thing with another vastly supersonic thing is easy, and that the other, more mature programs intended for a similar purpose don't have years of misses and failures in their development history? Remember what it took to get THAAD working--most of the time?), though I'm sure the people who like to attack easy targets in the news take great glee in it. The embarassment would be if nobody tested military hardware before it entered the field. Possibly--hell, quite likely--the SM3 will end up filling at least part of this interceptor's role, but there's something to be said for coming up with a few different designs and seeing which one ends up working best. Of course, that requires testing, and so does ironing out as many of the kinks in any given design as possible before a fair comparison can be made.

  28. Anonymous Coward

    Perfecting The Tumbling MIRV / MIRV Bus


    1.) Put the best IR camera system you can get on top of the vehicle (warhead or bus)

    2.) Perform infrequent tumbling to challenge anything incoming to operate thrusters

    3.) As soon as the IR camera picks up the hit-to-kill vehicle, start aggressive and frequent tumbling.

    Hit-to-kill typically uses IR for terminal guidance, so the technology is there. This approach will save fuel and allow for the most violent maneuvers when it is required. Also, payload will be maximized.

  29. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    @See, folks, this is the point of testing.

    Although the nice thing about NOT testing an anti-nuclear missile shield is that you don't get many customer complaints if it fails.

  30. mhenriday
    Thumb Down

    Of course the test was successful -

    somebody made a hell of a lot of money producing it and will make even more testing to find out why it couldn't do what it was ostensibly designed to do. And some US congressmen/women) got an extra nice Christmas present from some nice lobbyists to make certain it all happened. And the poor suckers that pay for it all got a little extra coal in their stockings, so they could keep the home fires burning. A win-win situation for all !...


    1. Dave 15

      The test WAS successful

      It showed whether the system worked.

      That is the point of testing.

      The system might not be successful, but the test was - it proved something!

      Anyway, I do wonder why it is necessary for both vehicles to travel quite so fast, if the interceptor was somewhat slower it could then have more time between detection and interception to get in the right place

  31. Anonymous Coward


    The control system has sophisticated AI to help it hit the target.

    Maybe it evolved and chose life?

  32. Tim Cockburn
    Black Helicopters


    The testing is all a front for the research to make us ready in case the aliens arrive

  33. Rogerborg

    Limp wristed nancy boys

    The Commie plan to defend Moscow was (and as far as I know still is) for the Inner Party to flee for bunkers deep underground, while airbursting nukes overhead to slag any incoming warheads at a safe(*) distance. Soviet pragmatism at its best.

    (*) Safe for the Inner Party - the Outer Party and Proles are glowsticks either way.

  34. kain preacher

    Corporate welfare

    I'm surprised they didn't fake the test, um skew, um optimized the test. But when I she stuff like this I thing of Corporate welfare . This seems like using a bullet to shot another bullet. Except you are using a spring field bolt action rifle (enfield for those across the pond) and the enemy has 20mm Vulcan cannon .

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