Anti-missile interceptors that would be used to defend the United States against a nuclear attack from North Korea have at least one of two serious technical flaws that could leave them susceptible to experiencing "failure modes" that would result in "an interceptor fleet that would not work as intended," a Government Accountability Office report
The Pentagon was informed of the issues last summer, reports the Los Angeles Times,
but postponed corrections, telling federal auditors that acting immediately would slow down an expansion of the national homeland missile defense system and interfere with the production of new interceptors.
And now, all of the 33 interceptors that are deployed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County, California, and at Ft. Greely, Alaska, have one of the defects. Ten of those same interceptors, as well as eight more being prepared for delivery at some point this year, have both defects, reports The Times.
The flaws, said the GAO, could disrupt systems that are used to steer the interceptors toward incoming enemy missiles. Four of the rockets are at Vandenberg, and 29 are at Ft. Greely, and make up the Ground-based Midcourse Defense, or GMD, system.
The missiles come out of underground silos to respond to attacks, and on top of each interceptor is a five-foot-long "kill vehicle" that separates from its booster rocket and flies alone to crash into an enemy warhead.
The system was first deployed in 2004, after fears of attacks grew following the Sept. 11 attacks, and has cost more than $40 billion.
One of the flaws, the report reveals, is in the wiring harnesses in the kill vehicles. An unsuitable soldering material was used in harnesses in at least 10 of the interceptors that remain part of the fleet after they were deployed in 2009 and 2010.
GAO analyst Cristina Chaplain, lead author of the report, said that same material was used in eight more interceptors that will be put in the silos this year.
The material is insufficient, the report said, because it is vulnerable to corrosion in the damp underground silos, and could hinder the harnesses' ability to supply power and data to the kill vehicles guidance systems.
But when Boeing alerted the government to the issue, it did not insist that the defective harnesses be repaired or replaced, and Missile Defense Agency officials "assessed the likelihood for the component's degradation in the operational environment as low and decided to accept the component as is," the report said.
Another defect is in a component called a divert thruster, which maneuvers the kill vehicles while in flight. All of the 33 interceptors have that thruster. The eight interceptors to be added to the fleet this year will have the same component, GAO officials told The Times, and there are no plans to fix the thrusters.
Contractors are working on an alternate thruster, with the first test flight using it to be held later this year. The GAO wanted the Pentagon to postpone adding the eight new interceptors into the fleet until the test is done, but the Defense Department rejected the suggestion, according to the GAO report.
Richard Lehner, a spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency, said in a statement to The Times that officials have a "comprehensive, disciplined program" in place to regarding the issues noted by the GAO.
"We will continue to work closely with our industry partners to ensure quality standards are not only met, but exceeded," the statement said.
Boeing declined comment on the issue, The Times reported.
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