Blame a Spark Plug for U.S.-Japan Missile Failure, Pentagon Says

(Bloomberg) -- A device that’s like a spark plug, not a design flaw, was behind the high-profile failure of a U.S.-Japanese missile interceptor built by Raytheon Co. in a test launch in January, a Pentagon review board has found.

The “failure review board” confirmed that the “most likely cause” of the failure was a component in the third, or uppermost, stage of the Standard Missile-3 Block IIA model, according to a Missile Defense Agency summary obtained by Bloomberg News.

The missile is being developed by Waltham, Massachusetts-based Raytheon and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. of Minato-Ku, Japan. Japan is buying the missile to bolster its onshore defenses against North Korea. It’s also the centerpiece of U.S.-European missile defense programs and is to be installed in Poland. The State Department in December approved Japan to buy four of the missile interceptors for as much as $133 million.

The “Hybrid Arm and Fire Device” that failed sets off the third-stage rocket motor that boosts the warhead into flight. The agency “was able to determine the kill vehicle attempted to complete the intercept” of a dummy incoming target but without the third-stage rocket motor propulsion, “the intercept failed,” according to a missile agency summary of the report produced in August. The component had worked in previous tests of the missile.

The agency released a statement Monday confirming the findings.

Replacing Devices

The agency said it was “instituting appropriate corrective actions to include removing, procuring new, and replacing” arming devices on existing test missiles “in order to avoid a recurrence” of the failure.

Asked whether Raytheon or a subcontractor was responsible for the failure, company spokesman Mike Doble referred all comments to the Missile Defense Agency. Mark Wright, an agency spokesman, had no immediate comment.

While the intercept failed, the Jan. 31 test demonstrated a capability called “Engage on Remote.” A ground sensor tracked the target and remotely provided data to a ground-based version of the Navy’s Aegis anti-missile system for the first-time launch of the missile from that platform, the missile agency said.

Air Force Lieutenant General Sam Greaves, head of the Missile Defense Agency, said in May before the review was finished that the emerging results gave him enough confidence that he sought and received approval from Pentagon acquisition officials to award Raytheon a $387 million contract modification to buy hard-to-make parts for the missile that weren’t related to the failure.

“Suffice it to say that” the device is “important insofar as its failure can cause an interceptor to fail in-flight,” Cristina Chaplain, a U.S. Government Accountability Office missile defense director, said in an email. Pentagon acquisition officials required the agency to hold off a full-production decision of the missile until the cause of the January failure could be identified and remedied, she said.

The failed component is “a very fine-tuned device that has to have a very high degree of durability and reliability,” she said, but “it’s basically a spark plug.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.