GAO Warns Against Hurrying Missile Defense Deployment

Wade Boese

By pushing to meet President George W. Bush’s September 2004 deadline for deploying an initial, limited missile defense system, the Pentagon is deviating from a proven approach to building weapons systems and is risking fielding defenses that will not work and will cost more in the long run, warned a report released June 4 by the General Accounting Office (GAO).

Tasked with conducting studies for Congress, GAO stated that the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has “adopted practices that offer the best opportunity to develop a complex weapon system successfully.” Known as “spiral development,” those practices include developing the system incrementally and integrating components after they are successfully tested. But GAO warned that, in its haste to fulfill Bush’s goal of having a missile defense system ready by next fall, MDA is abandoning some of those practices. This revised approach “places MDA in danger of getting off track early” and “opens the door to greater cost and performance risks,” GAO cautioned.

GAO described the mission of building missile defenses to stay abreast of changing missile threats as “an expensive and risky endeavor.”

Bush’s deployment plan, in part, calls for six ground-based strategic missile interceptors to be stationed at Fort Greely, Alaska, and four more at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, before October 1, 2004. Another 10 interceptors are to be added at Fort Greely in 2005.

Each interceptor is to be made up of a powerful booster and an exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV), which is designed to home in on and collide with an enemy warhead in space. The booster lifts the EKV into space.

GAO pointed out that the booster for the interceptor is far behind schedule and has not yet been tested. In the interceptor’s eight intercept tests—five successes and three failures—a weaker, surrogate booster has been used.

MDA plans to conduct two intercept tests with a new booster before the 10 interceptors are to be deployed next year, but two competing versions of the booster have not yet been flight-tested.

More generally, GAO critiqued past testing as insufficiently challenging. GAO noted that all the tests essentially repeated the same scenario and were carried out at slower speeds and shorter ranges than what a real intercept would require. “As a result, testing to date has provided only limited data for determining whether the system will work as intended in 2004,” the report stated.

GAO indicated that more thorough testing before deployment could save future costs by avoiding the need to replace or repair components that do not perform properly.

At this time, MDA is estimating that it will spend $50 billion on missile defenses between fiscal years 2004 and 2009. But GAO noted that this figure is incomplete because it only includes research and development costs and does not account for production, operational, and maintenance expenses.

GAO recommended that MDA conduct a more comprehensive calculation of how much missile defenses might cost and for the Pentagon to start budgeting for those additional expenditures. Otherwise, GAO cautioned that the Pentagon might not have the necessary funding to build and field future systems without cutting spending for other weapons programs. MDA responded to the GAO report by saying it will prepare “life-cycle” cost estimates.

Two Democratic Senate missile defense skeptics seized on the GAO report to charge that the Bush administration’s deployment plan is being driven by politics. The deployment date is several weeks before the 2004 presidential election.

Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) declared in a June 3 statement with Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) that “[f]ielding such an unproven system may pick up political points with some people, but it won’t contribute to the defense or security of our country.” Reed echoed Levin: “The President’s decision to deploy an untested national missile defense system still seems to be motivated more by politics than effective military strategy.”

MDA defended its approach. In a prepared statement regarding the GAO report, MDA spokesman Rick Lehner stated, “In the face of this credible [missile] threat and technical challenges, MDA has structured the program to manage and reduce risk to fielding an effective, though limited, missile defense capability by the fall of 2004.” He described MDA as “highly confident” that it will achieve its goal.

The GAO report is not the first to warn against developing missile defense systems to meet a specific timetable. In February 1998, a group of independent experts headed by retired Air Force General Larry Welch characterized the Pentagon’s missile defense programs as being on a “rush to failure.”