Missile Defense Performance Top Concern

Wade Boese

A congressional investigative body recently concluded that operation of the Pentagon’s fledgling missile defense system “remains uncertain and unverified.”

Last fall, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) installed six long-range, ground-based ballistic missile interceptors in Alaska and two more in California. MDA also completed upgrading two early warning radars for tracking ballistic missiles and linked all these elements together with an expansive command and control communications network. Although President George W. Bush and top Pentagon officials said the system would be ready for action before 2005, it has yet to be declared operational, and test interceptors failed to leave the ground in the system’s last two experiments. (See ACT, March 2005.)

MDA Director Lieutenant General Henry Obering told lawmakers at an April 7 Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee hearing that the system would now enter a “performance and reliability verification phase.” More strenuous test preparations and greater accountability for commercial contractors working on the system will be key aspects of the new phase, the general stated. These steps follow on the heels of Obering’s appointment of a new supervisor for testing readiness. (See ACT, April 2005.)

Obering expressed his frustration over the recent test failures at the hearing. “It’s almost like we can’t get our star quarterback on the field because he keeps tripping over the bench,” the MDA director stated.

Still, Obering said he had confidence in the system’s basic functionality. General James Cartwright, commander of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), said at the same hearing that the system currently constitutes a “thin line” defense or “emergency capability.” STRATCOM oversees operation of deployed missile defenses.

David Duma, who is in charge of the Pentagon’s weapons testing office, noted April 7 that, despite having the equipment, operators, and procedures of the system in place, “[w]hat we don’t have is a demonstration that they all work together yet.”

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), which conducts studies for Congress, shares Duma’s assessment. In a March report, GAO concluded that past missile defense testing provides “some degree of confidence that the [system]…will operate as intended” but has not demonstrated the defense “can operate as an integrated system.”

GAO attributed its conclusion to the rudimentary and scripted nature of earlier intercept tests in which the system scored five hits in eight attempts. The agency also noted that those tests used prototype and substitute components rather than “production-representative hardware and software.”

The interceptors currently deployed in Alaska and California are comprised of two primary elements—a booster rocket and an exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) that zeros in on a warhead for a collision—that have not been flight-tested together. In addition, the deployed EKV has been upgraded from earlier tested versions; a third of its software and hardware components are new. At the Senate hearing, Obering said, “I am confident that the kill vehicle will work…but we have yet to prove that.”

GAO warned that the strategy of deploying elements before they are fully tested, known as spiral development, could prove costly if they do not work as predicted and need to be repaired or replaced. The Pentagon has spent $85 billion on missile defenses since 1985, and MDA is planning to spend an additional $66.5 billion through 2011, according to GAO.

That figure does not include full operational and maintenance costs for systems fielded in the future because those remain unknown. GAO noted that operational and support costs for weapons systems are generally more than double that of development and procurement costs.