GAO Criticizes Missile Defense Programs

Cole Harvey

A March Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to Congress found that the U.S. ballistic missile defense system (BMDS) has been subject to cost overruns and vague accounting and failed to achieve any of its six testing objectives for fiscal year 2008, which ended Sept. 30. Nevertheless, several system elements, including 24 upgraded ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) interceptors, are being deployed before being fully tested.

The U.S. missile defense system incorporates a variety of assets, including long-range radar facilities, satellites, and missile interceptors based on land and at sea. The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has spent nearly $56 billion researching and deploying various elements of the system since 2002.

The report notes that, for the sixth year in a row, GAO was unable to assess conclusively the total cost of ballistic missile defense programs because the MDA does not provide baseline budget numbers as other major defense programs do. Nevertheless, by reviewing individual contracts, GAO estimates that MDA contractors overran budgeted costs by $152.4 million in fiscal year 2008. The Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS), a proposed group of satellites intended to monitor the globe for missile launches, exceeded its budget the most of the 14 contracts GAO examined. STSS costs exceeded budget projections by $87.9 million in fiscal year 2008, accounting for more than one-half of the MDA's red ink. The report estimates that, by the time all 14 contracts are completed, cumulative costs will exceed their budget projections by at least $2 billion and possibly as much as $3 billion.

The GMD program, which is intended to intercept ICBMs beyond the earth's atmosphere, came in under budget by almost $54 million for fiscal year 2008. The GAO notes that this rare bright spot in the MDA's budget performance is due primarily to the fact that the MDA did not emplace the three ground-based interceptors planned for fiscal year 2008 or conduct either of its two scheduled GMD flight tests.

All ballistic missile defense programs experienced testing delays, according to the report. As a result of these delays, none of the six "knowledge points" specified for 2008 by former MDA Director Lt. Gen. Henry Obering were achieved. The report concludes that, as a result of shortfalls in testing, "comprehensive assessments of the capabilities and limitations of the [ballistic missile defense system] are not currently possible."

Some elements of the missile defense system are being deployed without being fully tested, the report finds. For example, the MDA purchased 20 SM-3 Block 1A missiles in 2008, despite the fact that the SM-3 is not scheduled to be tested against a long-range missile until the third quarter of fiscal year 2009. Additionally, in response to earlier tests, the MDA began a program to refurbish its ground-based interceptors with upgraded kill vehicles and boosters. The upgraded model has not been flight-tested, yet "all 24 interceptors with this configuration are emplaced and considered operational," according to the GAO.

The fielding of missile defense assets before they have been fully tested is in keeping with the Bush administration's policy of "spiral development." In 2002 testimony before Congress, then-MDA Director Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish stated that the Pentagon was willing to field prototypes ahead of comprehensive testing, then upgrade those assets as the situation demanded. (See ACT, April 2002.) The GAO report observes that the philosophy of spiral development allowed the MDA to quickly field an initial missile defense capability, as directed by President George W. Bush. As the MDA has continued to develop ballistic missile defense, the GAO notes that the agency "has been less successful in fostering adequate knowledge of system capabilities prior to manufacturing and fielding [ballistic missile defense] assets."

The report recommends that the secretary of defense direct the MDA to test the ground-based interceptor "against a complex scene with countermeasures" and to "ensure that items are not manufactured for fielding before their performance has been validated through testing."