NMD Program Again Criticized by Independent Review Panel

Wade Boese

CONCLUDING NEARLY THREE years IN A FOLLOW-UP review to a February 1998 report warning that the national missile defense (NMD) program was on a "rush to failure," an independent panel informed Congress in November that despite a program restructuring that "reduced program risks," NMD efforts are replete with test delays, management problems, hardware shortages and an underestimation of the challenges of intercepting ballistic missiles. Based on its findings, the 12-member review panel, headed once again by retired Air Force General Larry Welch, recommended that the planned June 2000 deployment readiness review be considered a "feasibility" rather than a "readiness to deploy" assessment, which the panel said could not be made until at least 2003. If additional delays occur, the Welch panel advised both reviews be deferred.

President Clinton signed legislation July 22 that calls on the United States to deploy an NMD system against a limited ballistic missile attack as soon as "technologically possible." Clinton, however, has repeatedly stated that a deployment decision, which he will make in July 2000, will be based on four criteria: technological readiness, the maturity of the so-called "rogue nation" ICBM threat, cost factors and arms control considerations.

While describing as "sensible" a January 1999 program restructuring that shifted the target deployment date for an initial NMD operating capability from 2003 to 2005 in order to permit more flight tests before critical decisions, the Welch panel-composed of retired military officers and technical experts in the field-found that delays in ground and flight tests, as well as delays in developing key simulation and testing facilities, "are compressing the schedule." Because the altered schedule is still "highly demanding," any further delays should be accompanied by delays in decision making in order to reduce program risks.

In fact, the panel claims that the resources currently available for simulation development and integrated ground tests are "inadequate to provide the information needed" for a deployment readiness decision in July. The review frankly states that current plans to lower program risks associated with the delays "did not provide much confidence to the panel."

According to the panel, a "demonstration of readiness to deploy will not come until 2003 at the earliest." (Emphasis added.) The system's final configuration will not be determined until 2001 and the first integrated test of the intercept booster and exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) will not take place until 2003.

In general, the Welch panel warns against allowing "calendar milestones" to drive the deployment decision rather than "performance milestones." Program managers were called on to not sacrifice "performance requirements and basic system engineering and design functions...to the calendar since no decision will produce successful deployment until the system can be shown to perform as required." The panel also cautioned against letting concerns of having an "emergency" deployment capability detract from the overall program.

Management of the NMD program is described by the panel as having "unusual fragmentation and confusion about authority and responsibility." In particular, government managers were assessed as not having "authority commensurate with the responsibility of running the program," while Boeing, the company tasked with actual production, did not have firm contracts in place with some of its major subcontractors. Boeing was also regarded as putting too much emphasis on integrating program elements rather than on the performance of those elements.

Perhaps most seriously, the panel judged both government and private program managers as continuing to underestimate the difficulty of developing a reliable hit-to-kill capability, which demands that the interceptor physically hit an incoming ballistic missile in order to destroy it-a task often described as "hitting a bullet with a bullet." The panel noted that such a capability has only been successfully demonstrated twice in comparison with at least eight failures. (The review panel completed its report before a prototype's successful October 2 intercept of an ICBM target. See ACT, September/October 1999.)

The Welch panel singled out the EKV program as lacking adequate spare parts and development articles, a situation that is "driving flight test delays." The lack of a spare for an important part, the inertial measurement unit (IMU), on the EKV caused a delay in one flight test, and may delay an additional test because the manufacturer of the IMU discontinued that line of its business.

Questions were also raised as to whether or not the EKV, being built by Raytheon, would be able to withstand the very high accelerations and severe vibrations of the advanced booster on which the deployed EKV will be mounted, as opposed to the accelerations of the lower-performance surrogate booster that will be used for tests until at least 2003. Though Raytheon's risk management program "appears to be well conceived, well structured and well executed," the company shares the panel's view, according to the report, that the coupling of the EKV to the advanced booster is a "high risk to the program."

The panel also expressed concern that the flight tests encompass "very few geometries and intercept conditions" For example, integrated flight tests 7-13 will be conducted using a single geometry. The data derived from those tests will then be used to "anchor" computer-generated simulations that will assess the system's effectiveness against incoming targets with many trajectories and under a variety of conditions that an NMD system charged with protecting the entire United States would face. The panel indicated that the validity of those simulated tests would be "compromised seriously by the level of extrapolation that will be required to assess capability over the required flight envelope." Finally, the report notes that the NMD Test and Evaluation Master Plan is still in draft form and recommended that it be readied "expeditiously."

The Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, which is responsible for overseeing all U.S. efforts for defenses against ballistic missiles, formulated an internal two-page response to the Welch panel's report that reportedly concurred with most of the panel's findings and recommendations. The response, however, has not been made publicly available.