HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Coolant blockages. Software glitches. Equipment failures.
All have plagued the leading edge technology developed by Missile Defense Agency engineers as they have worked to build a ballistic missile defense system like no other in the world.
And for their leader, Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, each of those eight failures in the 10-plus years of the nation's long-range ballistic missile defense system have been part of the research and development testing that goes along with standing up a new defense system. The important thing, he told a nearly packed auditorium at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium on Aug. 13, is that each failure served to teach lessons that have made the nation's ballistic missile defense system technologically stronger, more capable and more lethal.
"If you study the space program, and study the science and art of combustion, you will find it really is an art," Syring said. "It is very common to have combustion issues. Combustion issues with our nation's rockets date back to the early '50s. It can take years, sometimes, to work through those issues. You can have booster problems in flight."
But MDA and the nation's Ground-based Midcourse Defense system didn't have the luxury of years to work through issues. Rather, the agency was building the nation's GMD program at the same time that its interceptors and other elements were being tested.
"The thought was some capability now is better than waiting 10 years," he said. "As a result, the program has been under constant change for the past 10 to 12 years."
Syring expressed his dismay in national media reports that shed a negative light on the tremendous progress that has been made in development of a ballistic missile defense system that fulfills the presidential mandates that began with President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" speech in 1983. Reagan called for the nation to use ground-based and space-based systems to protect the U.S. from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles, and proposed the formation of the Strategic Defense Initiative. In 1993, under President Bill Clinton, the initiative was renamed the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, and then became the Missile Defense Agency in 2002.
Since those early days, MDA's workforce has worked to "ensure rapid decision making" in how to develop, improve and implement the nation's BMDS, Syring said.
The "direction and policy directive (set by President Reagan) served as an impetus for decisions made over the last decade on what capabilities we will field and how we field those capabilities," Syring said.
In the 1990-2002 timeframe, the nation's ballistic missile defense capabilities involved "several different fits and starts on the booster program," Syring said. In 1999, the system passed its first test with a successful interception, but then it was followed with two test failures -- one caused by debris that got into the system and the other by a surrogate booster that was not part of the program.
"It's important to understand failures and the complexities of failure systems," Syring said, adding that 2001 brought two successful tests and 2002 another successful test.
Those three tests "served as a basis for President (George W.) Bush's announcement in 2002 and direction to field capability in 2004 and 2005," Syring said. "We were starting to build the system for deployment."
Another test failure in 2004 -- a software error -- and 2005 -- a failure caused by a mechanical issue -- led to an independent review of the program. In December 2005, there was a successful demonstration flight followed by several successful intercept flights through 2008. At the same time of testing, the BMDS infrastructure was being built at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
Three more test failures in the 2010-13 timeframe required additional improvements to the system. A successful test in 2013 provided confidence that the GMD program was back on track. The most recent successful test occurred in June when BMDS intercepted an incoming dummy missile, further cementing the plan forward for BMDS, Syring said.
The eight test failures in the BMDS history have served to move forward the system's technology and industry's commitment to serve as a partner in developing the nation's strategic asset known as BMDS, Syring said.
"We now have a clear path and we should not deviate," he said. "The Department of Defense and Congress have supported wholeheartedly our path ahead and for that I'm appreciative."
But Syring warned that moving forward DoD must "fly before we buy" so that the nation and its war fighters can have confidence that the BMDS has the highest rate of readiness. Improvements in sensing, discrimination, architecture and capability will ensure the system will "serve the war fighter for decades to come," he said.
While the BMDS' long-range systems are moving ahead, other sea-based systems (including Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense) and ground-based systems (THAAD or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) are demonstrating capabilities that give the U.S. more options in allied relations around the world, Syring said. Of Aegis' 34 tests, only six have been failures. THAAD had conducted 11 consecutive intercept attempts since 2006.
"They haven't stood still (with THAAD). They have worked to increase the complexity of intercept over time," Syring said. "They are constantly improving the system and testing it. That gives us great confidence in its capability."
With the theme "Build A Little, Test A Little, Learn A Lot" going forward, Syring said the focus is to ensure the time needed to engineer systems, test systems and then field systems that war fighters are comfortable with and they have confidence that the systems will hit their targets.
MDA's advancing technologies in BMDS are vital to the nation's security and the security of its allies, Syring said.
"This is not a choice. This is imperative that we remain focused on these improvements," he said. "We can remain ahead of the threat if we stay focused. … Our commitment cannot be more solid."
Between 2020 and 2025, the U.S. will increase its inventory of ground-based interceptors to 44. In addition, complexities will be increased, especially in the area of target discrimination.
"We've come a long way since 2001 with a rapid directive and rapid fielding," Syring said. "We've worked to improve every design fielded. We have faced technical and fiscal challenges. We must stay committed to building capability, both homeland and regional."
Syring believes that mission will continue thanks to the committed efforts of MDA's employees and contractor force.