Some Pentagon projects to build missile defense systems are showing progress, but it remains uncertain whether key elements set for deployment this September will work as intended, according to an April 2004 report by the General Accounting Office (GAO).
“System effectiveness will be largely unproven when the initial capability goes on alert at the end of September 2004,” the GAO concluded in its latest critical review of U.S. missile defense programs. The congressional watchdog further charged that lawmakers and other policymakers might not be fully aware of the various defenses’ true capabilities because the programs are always in flux and lack criteria and benchmarks for measuring progress.
The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) oversees research and development of U.S. missile defenses. It is currently striving to field the initial elements of some of those systems by this September in accordance with a deployment goal set by President George W. Bush in December 2002.
A long-range ballistic missile launch by North Korea, which has not flight-tested such a missile, is postulated as the near-term threat driving the fall deployment. MDA Director Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish testified to senators April 21, “[W]e have very high odds of engaging and successfully destroying the threats that we think we’re going after right now.”
The GAO did report that construction of the new ground-based interceptor base at Fort Greely, Alaska, remains on track, but it said that the initial deployment would be scaled back during 2004 and 2005.
Current MDA plans comprise deploying up to 20 ground-based interceptors at two sites, putting nine sea-based interceptors aboard three ships, and upgrading two land-based radars and outfitting 10 ships to help track enemy ballistic missiles.
Earlier plans called for up to 20 sea-based interceptors and 15 ships with improved missile-tracking capabilities. The number of deployed ground-based interceptors is also likely to fall short of expectations because of interceptor test and production delays, GAO predicted.
Moreover, GAO questioned whether the interceptors that will be deployed would work as intended. The report pointed out that both the ground- and sea-based interceptors have had problems with their kill vehicles and that subsequent technical fixes have not been verified through flight testing. The kill vehicle is the component designed to seek out and collide with an enemy warhead in space.
More broadly, the interceptors have only been subjected to a modest number of “highly scripted” developmental tests that do not replicate realistic conditions—a limitation that GAO recommended should be remedied by subjecting the systems to more challenging experiments.
The Pentagon has heard such critiques in the past and replied as it has before that real-world testing of missile defenses is only possible after the systems are built and deployed.
Under its new spiral development approach, the Pentagon aims to field weapons systems earlier in their development cycle and improve them incrementally. Such an evolving system is more responsive to new or changing threats and provides some defensive capability sooner rather than later, the Pentagon argues.
Although acknowledging that such flexibility may be useful in helping defenses keep pace with threats, GAO reported it also diminishes program accountability.
GAO called upon MDA to establish future cost, schedule, and performance baselines for its programs, so Congress can exercise better oversight and the armed services can more accurately budget how much a particular defense will cost them to procure and operate.
Current MDA estimates place the cost of missile defense programs at $53 billion between fiscal year 2004 (which began Oct. 1, 2003) and fiscal year 2009, but GAO said the total does not include figures for buying, producing, operating, and maintaining future systems. The sum does include deploying the initial missile defense elements because those activities are categorized as research and development.
One system experiencing significant cost overruns and development delays is the Airborne Laser (ABL), which is a plane armed with a laser to destroy ballistic missiles soon after their launch. Earlier estimates put the system’s development cost at $2.5 billion and projected that the first aircraft might be available as early as 2003, but the program’s budget has doubled and its earliest deployment date has slipped by at least two years. GAO said the program’s difficulty was “substantially underestimated.”
GAO judged two other MDA programs more favorably. It assessed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) to counter short- and medium-range ballistic missiles near the end of their flights as ahead of schedule and below budget and the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS), designed to track ballistic missiles from orbit, as “on track for meeting performance requirements.” GAO cautioned that unforeseen problems could still arise.
Ground-Based Midcourse Missile Defense* Intercept Tests
|Oct. 2, 1999||Hit|
|Jan. 18, 2000||Miss|
|July 8, 2000||Miss|
|July 14, 2001||Hit|
|Dec. 3, 2001||Hit|
|Mar. 15, 2002||Hit|
|Oct. 14, 2002||Hit|
|Dec. 11, 2002||Miss|
*Formerly known as National MIssile Defense.