Reports Fault U.S. Anti-Missile Approach

Wade Boese

Two recent reports found that U.S. anti-missile systems are being developed and fielded largely without long-term arrangements to operate them or sufficient input from the military services. Unless current practices change, the reports indicate existing and future systems might not be supported or maintained over time.

In an unclassified report sent to Congress, a panel with the private Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) concluded that the approach taken by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) to meet President George W. Bush’s goal to swiftly deploy anti-missile systems “has been less successful in fostering the planning and preparation needed to adequately address future operations of deployed systems and follow-on procurement and sustainment.” The 20-member panel also noted that the military services designated to operate the systems “have not been heavily involved” in preparing for that responsibility, including specifying weapons requirements.

The August report, obtained Sept. 29 by Arms Control Today, was directed by Congress as part of the fiscal year 2008 defense authorization bill signed into law last January. One of the panel’s co-leaders was retired Gen. Larry Welch, who has headed several reviews of anti-missile programs, including a 1998 report that warned U.S. projects risked a “rush to failure.”

The latest findings correspond to the results of another study published in September by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which conducts investigations for Congress. The GAO reported that the MDA and the military services “have not routinely worked together on support planning” and that several anti-missile systems lack future support plans. In general, the GAO warned that “the difficulties in transitioning responsibilities from MDA to the services have complicated long-term planning.”

Rick Lehner, an MDA spokesperson, e-mailed Arms Control Today Oct. 17 that the agency is “engaging with all the military services to improve operations and sustainment activities and funding.” He added that the MDA has “a lot of responsibilities based upon the sheer number of programs and technologies we manage, and we do a great job.”

Formerly the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization until the Bush administration renamed it in January 2002, the MDA is tasked with deploying anti-missile systems “as soon as practicable.” On Dec. 17, 2002, Bush ordered limited deployments of ground-based long-range interceptors and sea-based shorter-range interceptors before the end of 2004. (See ACT, January/February 2003.)

The MDA succeeded in stationing a handful of interceptors in Alaska, but the IDA report noted that the “achievement was facilitated by the limited goal of an initial capability without specific performance requirements.” To date, the system has scored seven hits in a dozen intercept experiments.

Encouraged by the Bush administration, the MDA’s approach to anti-missile systems is known as spiral development. The aim is to develop and field initial capabilities quickly and then augment and improve them over time.

The IDA panel contended that, for midcourse intercept systems, which include the approximately two dozen deployed interceptors of the ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) in Alaska and California as well as the ship-based Aegis system, “the balance between qualitative improvements and deploying more of existing capabilities should be strongly in favor of qualitative improvements. Without such a focus, the current system capabilities will become obsolete.” The panel further stated, “[A] trend toward more deployments of current capabilities would seriously degrade the ability to increase the future capability of BMDS [the Ballistic Missile Defense System].” The BMDS encompasses all of the separate U.S. anti-missile systems.

The MDA, according to a statement provided by Lehner, views the panel’s findings as “consistent with the overall premise of our spiral development acquisition approach.” He stated, “[W]e have always planned on qualitative improvements to both the land-based and sea-based midcourse defenses.” For an example, he cited the agency’s effort to build smaller kill vehicles so that a single interceptor can carry more of those lethal devices to take on more than one target.

The IDA panel stressed that the MDA needs to focus on its primary role as a research and development agency, including putting a “renewed emphasis” on science and technology, and to pass systems procurement and operations responsibilities to the services. The MDA currently oversees or participates in operating some deployed systems and has not concluded arrangements for the military services to take over running and paying for some of the defenses, one notable exception being the Aegis system.

The IDA panel recommended that the MDA involve the services more in establishing performance requirements and testing objectives. The panel contended the MDA has had “too little interaction” with other Pentagon stakeholders and pointed out that the agency’s approach to developing capabilities “needs to involve the ultimate user throughout” to ensure that the product is “militarily useful.”

The GAO also urged that the MDA engage the services more, including in establishing long-term support plans. The congressional watchdog noted that five of the seven systems that it reviewed lacked agreements identifying who was accountable for the costs of operating and supporting the systems after 2013. Such arrangements are important, according to the GAO, because 70 percent of most weapons systems’ costs stem from their operation and support. The GAO noted that the MDA since 2002 has spent about $57 billion on developing and procuring the initial elements of the BMDS.

The Pentagon and the MDA contend they already are progressing along the lines encouraged by the IDA panel and the GAO. But in response to the GAO report, the Department of Defense also argued that because of the urgency of the threat or military need, sometimes “it may be unwise to slow or delay fielding of BMDS capabilities until every step is taken to complete operation and support planning.”