Why Did the Pentagon Stop Work on One of Its Missile Defense "Kill Vehicles"?

David Axe

Key point: The project was too hard, costly, and time-consuming to continue.

In a move that should surprise no one, the U.S. Defense Department has ended its faltering effort to develop a new “kill vehicle” -- a kind of non-explosive warhead -- for its most powerful missile-defense system.

The Pentagon has canceled, effective Aug. 22, 2019, its contract with Boeing to develop the Redesigned Kill Vehicle.

The cancelation underscores just how difficult it is to design a kill vehicle that works at extremely high altitudes against fast-moving targets. The RKV, and the trouble-prone Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle that it was meant to replace, are supposed to strike incoming long-range rockets while the rockets are arcing above Earth’s atmosphere at 20 times the speed of sound.

The RKV would have replaced the current kill vehicle on the Ground-Based Interceptor rockets that the U.S. Army has deployed in California and Alaska. The GBIs represent America’s only defense against the most powerful, intercontinental-range missiles.

The EKV, which has proved unreliable in tests, arms the 44 GBIs currently in the force. The new RKV, which incorporates technology from the U.S. Navy’s SM-3 missile, would have replaced the EKV on the existing rockets while also arming 20 additional GBIs that the Army is acquiring.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency asked for $400 million to work on the RKV in 2019. The goal at the time was to deploy the new warhead starting in 2023. A few months later, however, the agency realized it had a problem.

In May 2019 the MDA ordered Boeing to pause work on the RKV. “We did not believe as a government team that we were ready to take that step into that critical design review,” Rear Adm. Jon Hill, the MDA deputy director, said during a March 2019 Pentagon briefing. “And so, through coordination in the department, all the way up to the undersecretary for research and engineering, we determined that the best thing to do was to go back and assess that design and take the time to do it right.”

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