“What's really strikes me about ACA is the potential to shape the next generation of leaders on arms control and nuclear policy. This is something I witnessed firsthand as someone who was introduced to the field through ACA.”
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June 2, 2022
Arms Control Today

EU Confident in Iran Deal Restoration

June 2021
By Kelsey Davenport

Talks to bring the United States and Iran back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal appear to be gaining momentum, as a number of negotiators believe that an understanding is within reach.

Josep Borell, European Union Commissioner for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and his team report that “an agreement is shaping up” in talks on a U.S. return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and lifting of related sanctions, in conjunction with the resumption of nuclear commitments under the deal by Iran. (Photo:  Thierry Monasse#51SY ED/Getty Images)Enrique Mora, the lead negotiator for the European Union and coordinator of the indirect talks between the United States and Iran, said on May 19 that he is “quite sure there will be a final agreement” that restores the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). 

Speaking to reporters in Vienna, he said that the talks are “on the right track.”

The Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran in violation of the accord. Beginning the following year, Iran began to take a series of retaliatory steps to breach its commitments under the nuclear deal. The two countries are now engaged in indirect talks to restore the multilateral agreement. The other parties to the deal—China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom—are also participating in the Vienna talks. 

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russian ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, tweeted on May 19 that significant progress was made and the parties to the deal all believe an agreement is “within reach.” He expressed hope that the next round of talks “will be final.”

Iranian negotiators also struck a positive tone. Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s lead negotiator, told Iranian state TV on May 19 that “the framework and structure of the agreement has been defined” but certain clauses are still being discussed. 

Other diplomats struck a less optimistic tone. In a May 19 statement, France, Germany, and the UK said that there are still “very difficult issues ahead” and warned against underestimating those challenges. 

U.S. State Department spokesperson Jalina Porter said in a May 19 press briefing that the fourth round of talks “helped to crystalize choices that may be made by Iran, as well as by the United States,” to return to mutual compliance.

Although the United States and Iran have expressed support for returning to compliance with the nuclear deal, certain technical details have proved challenging.

Iran, for instance, has insisted that all sanctions imposed by the Trump administration after the United States withdrew from the deal in May 2018, including the non-nuclear sanctions, be lifted. That is necessary, Iran has argued, for Tehran to receive sanctions benefits envisioned by the deal. Critics of the nuclear deal in the United States have opposed lifting these measures. 

On May 20, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on state television that the “main” sanctions issues “have been wrapped up,” including those affecting the oil, petrochemical, shipping, and banking sectors.

Another challenge has been the future of Iran’s advanced centrifuges. In response to the U.S. decision to reimpose sanctions in violation of the nuclear deal, Iran has introduced into use hundreds of advanced centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, in excess of the nuclear deal’s limits. 

Advanced centrifuges pose a proliferation risk because they enrich uranium more efficiently. The machines can be dismantled or destroyed to bring Iran back into compliance with the nuclear deal’s limits, but Iran has gained knowledge from operating these machines that cannot be reversed. 

Officials did not comment on whether this issue has been resolved.

The E.U. reports an agreement is shaping up to return the U.S. and Iran to their 2015 deal.

U.S. Will Not Rejoin Open Skies Treaty

June 2021

The Biden administration has officially notified Russia that the United States will not seek to rejoin the 1992 Open Skies Treaty.

A U.S. OC-135 reconnaissance aircraft. (Photo: Department of Defense)Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman informed Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov of the administration’s final decision on May 27, the Associated Press reported. A State Department spokesperson later confirmed the news and attributed the decision to “Russia’s failure to take any actions to return to compliance” with the treaty.

Washington had raised concerns that Moscow is in violation of the treaty because it has limited the distance for observation flights over the Kaliningrad region to no more than 500 kilometers from the border and prohibited missions over Russia from flying within 10 kilometers of its border with the conflicted Georgian border regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Ryabkov criticized the U.S. decision as “another political mistake, inflicting a new blow to the European security system” in remarks on Friday to the Russian news agency Tass. “We gave them a good chance, but they failed to take it. They continue to circulate fallacies about Russia’s alleged violations of the treaty, which is completely absurd,” Ryabkov said.

When the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the accord in November 2020, President-elect Joe Biden condemned the withdrawal and expressed support for the treaty, although he stopped short of committing to reenter the agreement. Once he took office, the Biden administration opened a review of “matters related to the treaty” and held consultations with U.S. allies and partners earlier this year. (See ACT, March 2021; December 2020.)

Moscow, meanwhile, launched domestic procedures in January for withdrawing from the treaty. The State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, approved legislation supporting the move May 19; the upper house, the Federation Council, is expected to vote on the bill June 2. The bill will require Russian President Vladimir Putin’s signature. Once submitting official notice to states-parties, Moscow would kick-start the six-month period before the withdrawal takes place.

Entering into force in 2002, the Open Skies Treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities.—SHANNON BUGOS

The Biden administration has officially notified Russia that the United States will not seek to rejoin the 1992 Open Skies Treaty.

Biden, Putin to Meet in June

June 2021

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet on June 16 in Geneva, the two countries have announced.

“The leaders will discuss the full range of pressing issues, as we seek to restore predictability and stability to the U.S.-Russia relationship,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki on May 25. “We expect they will spend a fair amount of time on strategic stability, where the arms control agenda goes following the extension” of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), she said.

The Kremlin statement also emphasized that the two will discuss “problems of strategic stability.”

Washington and Moscow agreed in February to extend the treaty for five years. (See ACT, March 2021.)

Biden expressed in April his hope that, after the two leaders meet, “the United States and Russia could launch a strategic stability dialogue to pursue cooperation in arms control and security” that would build on the New START extension. 

The United States will pursue “arms control that addresses all Russian nuclear weapons, including novel strategic systems and nonstrategic nuclear weapons,” Robert Wood, U.S. representative to the Conference on Disarmament, told the conference on May 11. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented the same day that discussions must “consider the problems of strategic stability, taking into account all factors and systems without exception, offensive and defensive, which have a direct influence on this strategic stability.”

Biden first proposed the idea of a summit with Putin in April. (See ACT, May 2021.) A May 19 meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Lavrov in Reykjavik and a May 24 meeting between National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev in Geneva helped pave the way for the official summit announcement.—SHANNON BUGOS 

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet on June 16 in Geneva, the two countries have announced.

Iran Agrees to Extend Inspections of Nuclear Sites

June 2021

Iran has agreed to extend a critical temporary monitoring arrangement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for one month, the agency reported May 24. The agreement will expire June 24, leaving 30 days for Iran and the other members of the 2015 nuclear deal to restore that accord. 

Rafael Mariano Grossi (R), Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi (L). (Photo: /POOL/AFP via Getty Images)Iran suspended implementation of the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement on Feb. 23, marking an escalatory step in its scheme to intensify activities in violation of the nuclear deal. Iran is obligated to implement the additional protocol in accordance with the deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But it decided to suspend compliance pursuant to a December 2020 Iranian law designed to pressure the United States to deliver on sanctions relief. Tehran has demanded that Washington reverse all sanctions imposed since the United States unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018. (See ACT, January/February 2021.) 

An additional protocol is a voluntary arrangement that allows IAEA inspectors increased access to sites and information related to a country’s nuclear program. The aim is to verify that nuclear materials are not diverted for malign purposes. 

The special monitoring arrangement reached by Iran and the IAEA on Feb. 21 preempted Tehran’s suspension of its additional protocol and alleviated mounting concerns over the possibility of losing visibility into Iran’s nuclear activities. 

Under the temporary technical understanding, Iran agreed to continue recording and collecting certain information and committed to transfer that data to the IAEA once sanctions are eased. But the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said in a Feb. 21 statement that all recorded and collected data would be completely erased if the JCPOA sanctions were not removed by the May 21 deadline. (See ACT, March 2021.)

Although the arrangement has now been extended, the original deadline weighed heavily on diplomats in Vienna, who are entrenched in negotiations toward restoring the JCPOA. Originally agreed for three months, the arrangement was intended to provide diplomatic space so parties to the nuclear deal could reach consensus on the steps needed for a complete return to JCPOA compliance by Iran and the United States. For Iran, those steps would include a recommitment to its additional protocol, thus negating the need for the temporary monitoring arrangement. 

The IAEA will regain access to all information collected since Feb. 23 once the JCPOA is restored and sanctions are lifted. Certain details regarding Iran’s decision to extend the arrangement remain private, but it does not appear there was any gap in monitoring between the May 21 expiration and May 24 extension of the temporary agreement. 

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s representative to international organizations in Vienna, commended the extension on May 24, tweeting that “it will help maintain businesslike atmosphere at the Vienna talks . . . and facilitate a successful outcome of the diplomatic efforts to restore the nuclear deal.”

As the May 21 deadline drew near, the European members of the deal—France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—emphasized the importance of extending the monitoring arrangement. “IAEA access will of course be essential to our efforts to restore the [JCPOA], as the deal cannot be implemented without it,” they said. 

Iran implicitly pledged under the extended monitoring arrangement to continue implementing its comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA, which it is required to uphold as a state-party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Despite a modest decline in inspector presence resulting from the suspension of Iran’s additional protocol and the unique parameters of the temporary monitoring agreement, regular safeguards on Iran’s nuclear program have continued without disruption. 

Regular monitoring reports by the IAEA provide transparency into Iranian nuclear activities and assurance that, despite its violations of the JCPOA, Iran’s nuclear program remains entirely peaceful in nature.—JULIA MASTERSON

Iran has agreed to extend a critical temporary monitoring arrangement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for one month, the agency reported May 24.

UN: Biological, Chemical Agents Tested on Iraqi Prisoners

June 2021

The Islamic State group tested biological and chemical agents on Iraqi prisoners, some of whom died, according to a May 2021 UN report.

Although the existence of the extremist group’s rudimentary chemical weapons program has been known for several years, the report by the UN Investigation Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (UNITAD) revealed previously unknown experiments on human subjects.

Evidence collected by the investigation team showed that the Islamic State group “tested biological and chemical agents and conducted experiments on prisoners…causing death,” the report said. It added that “[w]eaponized vesicants, nerve agents and toxic industrial compounds are suspected to have been considered under the programme.”

A UN press release said thallium and nicotine were identified as two of the toxic lethal compounds that proved fatal when used on live prisoners in the tests, which took place after the Islamic State group seized control of Mosul in 2014. 

UNITAD obtained evidence from Islamic State electronic devices that led to the opening of the new investigation into the development, testing, and deployment of the group’s indigenous chemical and biological weapons program, said Karim Asad Ahmad Khan, who heads the team, at a UN Security Council briefing on May 10. 

Preliminary findings of that investigation, which is still ongoing, were published in the May report and “confirmed the repeated deployment of chemical weapons by [the Islamic State group] against civilian populations in Iraq between 2014 and 2016, as well as the testing of biological agents on prisoners.”

The investigation is centered on the 2014 Islamic State takeover of the University of Mosul, the 2016 attack against the Mishraq sulfur field and processing facility, and the 2016 attack on the town of Taza Khurmatu. After the university takeover, the Islamic State group repurposed the university’s laboratories for its chemical weapons program. According to Khan, domestic and international scientists and medical professionals initially worked to weaponize chlorine from water treatment plants seized by the militants. 

Islamic State laboratories also developed a “sulfur mustard production system that was deployed in March 2016 through the firing of 40 rockets at the Turkman Shia town of Taza Khurmatu,” Khan said. According to the report, these attacks “resulted in civilian deaths and injuries, including by asphyxiation and other chemical and biological weapons-related symptoms.” 

In 2017, Iraqi security forces regained control of the university, driving the Islamic State group from the campus. 

The investigation team is relying on a range of evidence from battlefield records, detainee and victim testimonies, satellite imagery, remote sensing techniques, and analysis of other related materials and videos. Since 2017, UNITAD has worked with Iraq on efforts to hold the Islamic State group accountable and deliver justice for the victims and survivors of its crimes. 

The report was published against the backdrop of the increasing use of chemical weapons worldwide. From assassination attempts in Malaysia, Russia, and the United Kingdom to repeated chemical weapons attacks in Syria, the global norm against chemical weapons use is eroding. Much has been done to eliminate declared national stockpiles, but experts say preventing the reemergence of chemical weapons as a tool of war by state and nonstate actors is becoming more challenging.—LEANNE QUINN

The Islamic State group tested biological and chemical agents on Iraqi prisoners, some of whom died, according to a May 2021 UN report.

Two of Three Missile Defense Tests Fail

June 2021

Two out of three flight tests, which aimed to integrate the Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile systems, failed because of software problems, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report published in April. 

A THAAD anti-missile battery. (Photo: Lockheed Martin via Getty Images)The Patriot weapons system is an air and missile defense system that can intercept short- and medium-range ballistic missiles in their terminal stage at low altitudes. The THAAD system is a mobile ground-based system that can defend against short-, medium-, and certain intermediate-range ballistic missile attacks at the end of their midcourse and terminal flight stages, thereby allowing interceptors to engage their targets at higher altitudes than the Patriot system would allow.

This integration has important implications for regional security, the United States, and its allies. The United States has been attempting to improve its THAAD batteries around the world, including one deployed to South Korea to deter threats from North Korea, by adding advanced radar and integrating the system with Patriot missiles. 

The flight tests, conducted jointly in October 2019, February 2020, and October 2020 by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and the Army, were intended to support what the MDA called an “an urgent regional capability called Patriot Launch-on-Remote (THAAD).” The aim was to launch the Patriot’s interceptor using THAAD radar tracking data before the Patriot system uses its own radar, which catches missiles at a lower altitude than the THAAD radar, to execute the interception. This capability would increase the coverage area of the Patriot batteries. 

The first two tests, labeled FTX-39 and FTP-27 Event 2, received “no test” and failed marks, respectively. The GAO diagnosed the problem as software related. A third test, the FTP-27 Event 1, which took place in October 2020, performed successfully by having Patriot interceptors use THAAD radar data. 

The Patriot Launch-on-Remote capability would allow the Army to use the “right missile for the right threat at the right time against North Korean submarine-launched ballistic missiles” and is supported by operational need, according to Army Gen. Robert B. Abrams, the commander of combined Korean-U.S. forces.

Although South Korea and the United States have argued that the THAAD system’s purpose is purely defensive against the threat of North Korean missiles, China has consistently opposed THAAD deployment in South Korea, arguing that the weapon undermines China’s nuclear deterrence and regional security through enhanced early detection. In retaliation for the THAAD deployment, China imposed sanctions on South Korea, targeting major industries and entitles such as the Lotte Group conglomerate, for 14 months until the two countries renormalized relations.

The THAAD system remains controversial in South Korea, where local residents and civic activists staged a sit-in on April 28 and tried unsuccessfully to block vehicles heading into the base with the system.—SANG-MIN KIM

Two out of three flight tests, which aimed to integrate the Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile systems, failed because of software problems, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report published in April. 

U.S. Arms Sales to Israel Challenged

June 2021

A proposed $735 million sale of precision-guided munitions to Israel drew intense scrutiny from Congress as fighting in that country escalated last month. 

A fire rages at sunrise in Khan Yunish following an Israeli airstrike on targets in the southern Gaza strip, on May 12, 2021. The Israeli retaliatory bombardment in May struck military and civilian targets. (Photo:  Youssef Massoud/AFP via Getty Images)A day before a cease-fire was declared on May 20, Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Mark Pocan (Wis.), and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) introduced a House joint resolution of disapproval for the sale. “Approving this sale now, while failing to even try to use it as leverage for a ceasefire, sends a clear message to the world—the U.S. is not interested in peace, and does not care about the human rights and lives of Palestinians,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a press statement.

The next day, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced a similar resolution in the Senate. It marked the end of a 15-day review period during which lawmakers could take action to block the administration from issuing licenses for the deals. 

According to news reports, the State Department issued those licenses on May 21. No vote is now expected on these particular resolutions. But at any point until delivery, expected to Israel next year, Congress could pass legislation blocking arms sales. 

When told on May 21 that the sales had already been licensed, Sanders put a hold on all State Department nominees. He lifted the hold after the administration committed to providing humanitarian aid for Gaza. Sanders’ office told Arms Control Today on May 25 that Sanders and his colleagues “would continue to push for greater debate to make sure that U.S. arms sales do not support human rights abuses.”

The potential sale drew little attention when notified to Congress on May 5, in part because it was not done according to the foreign military sales (FMS) process, which centers on government-to-government agreements and provides for notifications that are publicly available on a website managed by the Defense Department. Instead, the joint direct attack munitions and small diameter bombs were notified as a commercial sale, for which there is less transparency.

News of the potential deal surfaced on May 17, a week after fighting in Israel had intensified and Israeli forces faced international criticism for bombing civilian areas in Gaza.

An informal notification process exists for communicating these sales to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before the formal notification occurs, but the lack of public awareness is endemic to the commercial sale process, which is becoming more common and is being used for transfers of more destructive weapons. Some key rules and procedures applicable to FMS sales do not apply or have been unevenly applied to commercial sales, raising the question of whether administrations are using the process to shield themselves from public scrutiny.

For example, these commercial sales are considered proprietary agreements. Under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, the State Department withholds some information about such licenses unless the secretary of state determines “the release of such information . . . to be in the national interest.”

In recent years, votes on resolutions of disapproval have occurred most frequently in the Senate because the rules allow individual senators to ask the full Senate to consider them even if the Foreign Relations Committee does not act. For all commercial sales, senators must wait 10 days before invoking this privilege. But in the case of an FMS sale to Israel and other close partners, that waiting period is only five days. 

In 2014, Congress passed legislation that would allow for the chair and ranking member of the relevant Senate or House committee to concurrently request a predelivery notification of weapons sold under the FMS program, but did not extend that notification authority to commercial sales.

For sales to most countries, Congress has 30 days from formal notification to pass joint resolutions of disapproval that bar the president from concluding agreements. For Australia, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and NATO and its member states, that timeline is 15 days.—JEFF ABRAMSON

A proposed $735 million sale of precision-guided munitions to Israel drew intense scrutiny from Congress as fighting in that country escalated last month.

Back From the Brink? Next Steps for Biden and Putin

May 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

After more than a decade of rising tensions and growing nuclear competition between the two major nuclear-weapon states, U.S. President Joe Biden has signaled he will confront Russia when necessary. But, he also stressed, “where it is in the interest of the United States to work with Russia, we should, and we will”—specifically on reducing the risk of nuclear conflict.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks from the White House on April 15, 2021 and calls on Russia to engage in "a strategic stability dialogue to pursue cooperation in arms control and security." (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)In remarks April 15, Biden said his proposed summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin could be a launching point for talks on strategic stability and nuclear arms control. Serious, sustained disarmament diplomacy is overdue and essential, but achieving new agreements will be challenging.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean region in 2014, long-simmering U.S.-Russian tensions have risen to a boil. Disarmament discussions have been pushed to the back burner. Instead, treaty compliance disputes have dominated bilateral engagements. Meanwhile, each side is rushing to replace and upgrade its bloated nuclear arsenal. China and the United Kingdom, among other nuclear-armed states, are also increasing their nuclear capabilities.

As Melissa Dalton, acting assistant defense secretary for strategy, plans, and capabilities, recently told a House committee, “The range of Chinese and Russian nuclear modernization makes the task of making progress on further arms control all the more necessary.”

Early this year, Biden and Putin wisely agreed to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for five years. As a new bicameral congressional working group on nuclear arms control noted in its April 20 letter to the president, “Although New START is necessary, it is not by itself sufficient to tackle the threat that nuclear weapons present.”

The two sides can and must move quickly to find effective new solutions before New START expires in 2026. To make progress, they will need to tackle four difficult but resolvable issues.

Reducing strategic arsenals further. A key objective of the next round of talks should be deeper, verifiable reductions in the total number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems. In 2013 the Obama administration, with input from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, determined that the United States and Russia could further reduce their strategic nuclear forces by up to one-third below New START levels, to approximately 1,000 warheads, and still meet core nuclear deterrence goals. These limits will need to factor in new systems being developed by both sides, including hypersonic weapons.

Tackling tactical nuclear weapons. New START follow-on negotiations should also address nonstrategic nuclear weapons, beginning with a transparency agreement requiring detailed declarations on tactical nuclear stockpiles, including warheads in storage. Making progress on tactical nuclear arms control, however, should not become a prerequisite for lower ceilings on the two sides’ strategic nuclear arsenals.

Limiting strategic interceptors. U.S. efforts to further limit Russian nuclear weapons and bring China into the arms control process are unlikely to gain traction unless Washington agrees to seriously discuss constraints on its long-range missile defense capabilities. Fielding sufficient numbers of U.S. missile interceptors to mitigate the threat of a limited ballistic attack from North Korea or Iran and agreeing to binding limits on the quantity, location, and capability of missile defense systems should not be mutually exclusive.

Averting a race on intermediate-range missiles. In the absence of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the risk of a new missile race is Europe will grow. Biden, in coordination with NATO, should counter Russia’s 2020 proposal for a verifiable moratorium on the deployment in Europe of missiles formerly banned by the INF Treaty. Although imperfect, the Russian proposal is a starting point. Another option would be to verifiably ban nuclear-armed ground-launched and sea-launched cruise and ballistic missiles.

To broaden the disarmament effort, Biden and Putin could call on China, France, and the UK to report on their total nuclear weapons holdings and freeze their nuclear stockpiles as long as the United States and Russia pursue deeper verifiable reductions in their far larger arsenals.

New crises, such as the Kremlin’s mistreatment of Russian political dissidents or further Russian meddling in Ukraine, could make U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperation even more difficult. Still, as Biden notes, “[t]hroughout our long history of competition, our two countries have been able to find ways to manage tensions and to keep them from escalating out of control.”

It is by no means certain that the two sides will continue to have enough good luck, responsible leadership, and managerial competence to avoid catastrophe. Once a nuclear weapon is used by accident or miscalculation or in response to nonnuclear aggression, there is no guarantee that all-out nuclear war can be averted. Sustaining progress on disarmament is not a choice but a necessity for human survival.

After more than a decade of rising tensions and growing nuclear competition between the two major nuclear-weapon states, U.S. President Joe Biden has signaled he will confront Russia when necessary.

Inside the ICBM Lobby: Special Interests Or the National Interest?

May 2021
By William D. Hartung

As former Secretary of Defense William Perry noted, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world” because the president would only have a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them in a crisis, thus greatly increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear war.1

In 1962, Kimball, Nebraska marked its place in history when construction began on a vast complex of Minuteman Missile silos. Kimball, Co. is the center of the largest complex of intercontinental ballistic missiles in the world, with about 200 Minuteman III ICBMs in silos in the tri-state (Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming) area. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)President Joe Biden has an opportunity to mitigate this threat as he and his administration consider a Pentagon spending plan that is on track to invest $500 billion to maintain and replace the U.S. nuclear arsenal through 2028. One major decision involves the future of ICBMs.2

Over the years, there have been numerous proposals for reducing this risk, from adopting a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons to eliminating ICBMs altogether. A June 2020 report makes the case for taking ICBMs off high alert and forgoing the development of a new ICBM as first steps toward taking these systems out of the U.S. arsenal.3 A nuclear force consisting of nuclear-armed bombers and submarines would be more than sufficient to deter any other nation from attacking the United States. As MIT’s David Wright has noted, “[S]ubmarines are virtually undetectable and therefore invulnerable at sea, while ICBMs are sitting ducks. Their vulnerability has prompted the Air Force to keep them on high alert, which is dangerous and could trigger a nuclear war.”4

The commonsense case for a dyad of submarine-launched ballistic missiles and a reserve bomber force is made in detail in the alternative nuclear posture put forward by the disarmament organization Global Zero. That proposal would shift the U.S. nuclear strategy from one that engages in planning for elaborate and dangerous nuclear war-fighting to one that establishes the nuclear arsenal as a second-strike force meant to deter nuclear attacks against the United States and its allies—a deterrence-only strategy.5

A recent poll found that 60 percent of Americans favored either forgoing the development of a new ICBM, eliminating ICBMs, or eliminating all nuclear weapons, an indication that a change in current ICBM policies would have significant public support.6 In addition, nearly two-thirds of respondents expressed a preference for delaying the new ICBM, known formally as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), while continuing to extend the life of existing land-based missiles as the GBSD program undergoes a comprehensive review.

Despite that, there has been little progress in changing U.S. policy on the procurement or deployment of ICBMs, in significant part due to the activities of the ICBM lobby: nuclear weapons contractors and their allies in Congress. ICBMs have been sustained as much by parochial interests as they have by strategic need. Support for a new ICBM is tied closely to the money to be made in developing, building, deploying, and maintaining it. The Pentagon is slated to spend more than $110 billion to develop and buy the missiles and related warheads; the total price tag is projected to exceed $264 billion once the costs of operating and supporting the systems are taken into account.7

Inside the ICBM Lobby: The ICBM Coalition

One reason the ICBM force and the bases that house it have survived criticisms of their strategic utility within and outside of government has been the staunch support of the ICBM Coalition, a group of U.S. senators from states where ICBMs are deployed and maintained. The composition of the coalition has shifted over the last decade as members leave Congress and are replaced, but it has always been a bipartisan group, including senators from Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming, where the nation’s three ICBM bases are located, and from Utah, where the missiles are maintained and developed.

On key issues, the coalition has drawn support from other advocates of the nuclear triad, including senators from Louisiana, the home of Barksdale Air Force Base, which hosts the Air Force Global Strike Command and three squadrons of B-52H bombers. The coalition has been largely successful in fending off changes in the number of ICBMs, the number of bases where they are deployed, and any initiatives that might make it easier to reduce the ICBM force in the future or delay or cancel the new ICBM, the GBSD system.

Senators from states with an economic stake in the ICBM mission have included Republican senators John Hoeven (N.D.), Kevin Cramer (N.D.), Steve Daines (Mont.), Mitt Romney (Utah), Mike Lee (Utah), and John Barasso (Wyo.) and Democratic Senator Jon Tester (Mont.). Senator Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), who replaced Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) at the end of 2020, has been a vocal proponent of ICBMs and the ICBM mission and introduced several pro-ICBM amendments while a member of the House of Representatives.

Tester will have an especially influential role as the new chairman of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee. In an interview conducted shortly after he took charge of the defense panel, Tester called ICBMs “an incredible deterrent” and urged moving forward with the GBSD system. He noted, however, that he had “never served on any of the committees that give classified briefings on the threat. So we’ll be getting briefings moving forward about the threat and the deterrent levels of those ICBMs.”8

Over the past decade, the ICBM Coalition has succeeded in limiting the reduction of deployed ICBMs under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to 50, leaving a force of 400; keeping the 50 unused silos in “warm status,” ready to receive missiles again should there be a shift in U.S. nuclear policy requiring deployment of additional ICBMs; preventing the Pentagon from doing a study of the environmental and economic impacts of further reductions in the ICBM force; and helping to support the Pentagon’s plans for development of the next-generation ICBM. In doing so, the coalition has taken dozens of actions, including writing letters to five defense secretaries and a succession of chairs of the Senate Armed Services Committee and arranging meetings with key Pentagon and military officials, to make the case for continuing the ICBM mission. The coalition has also advocated for amendments restricting the Pentagon’s ability to reduce or take modest steps that could eventually lead to a reduction of the ICBM force.

Members of the Senate ICBM Coalition have benefited from generous campaign contributions from Northrop Grumman and its major subcontractors on the ICBM program (table 1).

The ICBM Lobby: ICBM Contractors

Northrop Grumman emerged as the sole contractor bidding for the new ICBM and won a $13.3 billion contract for the development phase of the system in September 2020. The company flexed its lobbying muscles in 2019 when it helped kill an amendment that would have required the Pentagon to explore alternatives to the GBSD system. In July 2020, it lobbied vigorously to block an initiative by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) that would have cut $1 billion from the budget for the new ICBM. The company will only have more lobbying clout going forward because it has named a dozen major subcontractors to work on the project while claiming that the next phase of work will generate 10,000 jobs nationwide.9 Northrop Grumman has provided no documentation for its jobs estimate.

The Northrop Grumman team has powerful tools at its disposal for fending off any changes in the ICBM program. The company and its major subcontractors have given $1.2 million to the current members of the Senate ICBM Coalition since 2012 and more than $15 million over the same time period to the 64 members of the key committees that play a central role in determining how much is spent on ICBMs: the Senate and House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittees and the Senate and House Appropriations defense subcommittees.

Perhaps even more important than campaign contributions are the extensive lobbying operations of ICBM contractors. The top 11 contractors working on the new ICBM spent more than $119 million on lobbying in 2019 and 2020 and employed 380 lobbyists (table 2).10 Although obviously not all of these lobbyists were employed to work on the ICBM issue, the substantial lobbying resources of the ICBM contractors give them preferred access to key members of Congress and help build relationships that can be leveraged for a variety of purposes.

Many of the lobbyists who work on behalf of ICBM contractors have passed through the “revolving door” from work in top governmental posts to work in the arms industry. For example, Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor for the next-generation ICBM, employed 51 lobbyists, in house and for hire, in 2020, 41 of whom came from positions in government. Prominent examples of revolving-door hires in that group have included Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, former California Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; G. Stewart Hall, the former legislative director for Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who is the ranking member on the Appropriations Committee; and Bud Cramer, a former Democratic representative from Alabama who served on the appropriations defense subcommittee and was a strong advocate for defense-related activities. Others are Jonathan Etherton, who once was a Senate Armed Services Committee professional staff member, and Shay Michael Hancock, a former staffer for Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who serves on the Budget Committee. Hancock also worked for House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.).

Another major lobbyist for Northrop Grumman is former Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who led the charge against ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, opposed New START, and is a staunch supporter of the Pentagon’s nuclear modernization program. In 2017 and 2018 alone, Kyl earned $1.9 million working for Northrop Grumman and other clients.

ICBMs and the Jobs Argument

The greatest leverage that ICBM contractors can bring to bear in support of their projects comes from their claims about the jobs generated in key states and congressional districts by the development and production of the GBSD system. Northrop Grumman has claimed that there will be 10,000 new jobs associated with the development phase of the project. This is a tiny fraction of a national work force that is approaching 160 million people, but the jobs impact is still politically important in key states and localities. A map on the Northrop Grumman website identifies more than 125 facilities run by ICBM suppliers in 32 states, averaging 80 jobs per facility. Obviously, some sites will have more than others, but this figure is indicative of the fact that most of the places represented in the 125 facilities will have a minimal number of GBSD-related jobs. As history has proven, proponents’ claims of the numbers of jobs and production locations for projects like the GBSD system are often exaggerated. Despite requests by the author, Northrop Grumman did not provide documentation for its estimates.

The strongest parochial interest in the ICBM mission comes from the states where ICBM bases are located. A closure or scaling back of activities at any of the three ICBM bases, which now employ a combined 13,000 personnel, would have a substantial impact on the state and local economies. Even so, the communities at these sites in Cheyenne, Wyoming; Great Falls, Montana; and Minot, North Dakota, would be well advised to diversify their economies as much as possible and do advance planning to provide alternatives in case their local facility is downsized or closed. Despite the strong lobby in favor of keeping and modernizing the ICBM force, strategic and budgetary pressures could still lead to a reduction or elimination of the force in the years to come.

There is a significant record of communities recovering from base closures over time, often creating more civilian employment than the base itself provided, but each case is unique. Successful conversion by no means is guaranteed, but the Pentagon’s Office of Economic Adjustment, which was established to help communities cope with the impact of base closures or reductions in defense manufacturing activities, in 2020 completed an unpublished report on 35 successful base conversions in 19 states. It concluded that after the military facilities closed, more than 157,000 new civilian jobs were created, more than double the number lost at the time of the base closure.

Successful cases had some common themes. Specific authorities were established to plan for the transition of the base in question in consultation with government, business, and community representatives. Officials thought creatively, envisioning diverse uses for the land freed up by the base closure, including everything from commuter airports and industrial/research parks to residential areas, parks, and university campuses. Most importantly, leaders commenced planning before a base was closed. Transitions can take years given the need for environmental cleanup, transfer of land, and identification of governmental or private investment funds. Yet, the effort is worth it given the prospect of new economic activity and employment at the sites of closed military facilities.

The Office of Economic Adjustment has recently been renamed the Office of Local Defense Community Cooperation. Although it retains the mission of helping communities adjust to base closures, its website does not emphasize that clearly or strongly, merely stating that it aims “to assist states and communities hosting installations dealing with a changing Department of Defense presence.” The Biden administration should make a point of ensuring that the office maintains its traditional mission of helping states and localities adjust to base closures and give it adequate funds to do the job.

There are better uses of scarce funds than spending tens of billions of dollars on a new ICBM. Whether it involves ICBM bases or ICBM contracting, virtually any other public investment would create more jobs than spending on the GBSD program. For the same amount of money, clean energy and infrastructure create 40 percent more jobs, while health care creates 100 percent more.11 If even part of the savings from canceling the GBSD program and eliminating existing ICBMs was directed toward alternative economic activities, it could provide a significant cushion as the affected communities transition to replace the jobs tied to those facilities.

Different Policy Options, Different Economic Impacts

Different options for the future of the ICBM force would have dramatically different economic impacts. The United States could greatly diminish the risk of accidental war if it adopted a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons or took ICBMs off of high alert. By themselves, such decisions would not necessarily involve any changes in the deployment of ICBMs and therefore would have no negative economic impacts on the communities where they are located.

A second policy option would be to abandon the plan to build a new ballistic missile and rely instead on refurbished versions of existing ICBMs, a substantially cheaper option. A Congressional Budget Office study estimates that the development of a new ICBM could be pushed back by at least two decades by refurbishing current systems.12 A review of studies by the Air Force, the RAND Corp., and the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggests that the life of current ICBMs could be extended even further.13 Forgoing the new ICBM would impact the contractor side of the ledger—the 10,000 jobs that Northrop Grumman claims would be involved in the development phase of the GBSD system—but would not reduce current employment levels at ICBM bases or their communities. Furthermore, because there would be some jobs associated with refurbishing existing ICBMs, the net loss of employment from canceling the GBSD program could be considerably less than 10,000 jobs.

The greatest economic impact would come from eliminating ICBMs altogether, because it could mean closing existing ICBM bases and eliminating potential jobs in the development of the new system. These economic effects would be manageable at the national level, but would require transition assistance for the impacted areas of Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming.

The Debate Continues

The decision on whether to build a new ICBM should be based on strategic and budgetary concerns, not pork barrel politics. At a time when pandemics, climate change, and racial and economic injustice pose major threats to the safety and security of the United States, it would be wise to shift resources away from unnecessary military programs to address these challenges. The Biden administration and Congress should carefully scrutinize the new ICBM program and consider canceling it outright as a first step toward eliminating the land-based leg of the nuclear triad altogether. The decision on whether to build a new ICBM should be based on the merits, not contractor lobbying and the self-interest of elected officials.



1. William J. Perry, “Why It’s Safe to Scrap America’s ICBMs,” The New York Times, September 30, 2016.

2. Kingston Reif and Alicia Sanders-Zakre, “U.S. Nuclear Excess: Understanding the Costs, Risks, and Alternatives,” Arms Control Association, April 2019, https://www.armscontrol.org/sites/default/files/files/Reports/Report_NuclearExcess2019_update0410.pdf.

3. David Wright, William D. Hartung, and Lisbeth Gronlund, “Rethinking Land-Based Nuclear Missiles: Sensible Risk-Reduction Strategies for U.S. ICBMs,” Union of Concerned Scientists, June 2020, pp. 2–3, https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2020-06/rethinking-land-based-nuclear-missiles.pdf.

4. Union of Concerned Scientists, “U.S. ICBMs Are Superfluous and Increase the Risk of Mistaken Nuclear War, Report Finds,” June 22, 2020, https://www.ucsusa.org/about/news/icbms-are-unnecessary-according-union-concerned-scientists.

5. Bruce G. Blair, Jessica Sleight, and Emma Claire Foley, “The End of Nuclear Warfighting: Moving to a Deterrence-Only Posture,” Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University, and Global Zero, September 2018, https://www.globalzero.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/ANPR-Final.pdf.

6. Aaron Mehta, “Majority of Voters Support ICBM Replacement Alternatives, New Poll Finds,” Defense News, February 5, 2021, https://www.defensenews.com/smr/nuclear-arsenal/2021/02/05/majority-of-voters-support-icbm-replacement-alternatives-new-poll-finds/; Matt Korda and Tricia White, “Public Perspectives on the U.S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Force,” Federation of American Scientists, January 2021, https://fas.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Public-Perspectives-ICBM.pdf.

7. Anthony Capaccio, “New U.S. ICBM Could Cost Up to $264 Billion Over Decades,” Bloomberg, October 3, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-03/new-u-s-icbms-could-cost-up-to-264-billion-over-decades.

8. Joe Gould, “New Senate Defense Appropriations Chair Talks Nuclear Modernization, Defense Cuts and Earmarks,” Defense News, March 1, 2021, https://www.defensenews.com/congress/2021/03/01/senate-defense-appropriations-chair-talks-nuclear-modernization-defense-cuts-and-earmarks/.

9. Marcus Weisgerber, “Northrop Announces Suppliers for New ICBM. Boeing Is Not on the List,” Defense One, September 16, 2019, https://www.defenseone.com/business/2019/09/northrop-icbm/159886/. Suppliers include Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, L3Harris, Collins Aerospace (United Technologies), Textron, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Honeywell, Parsons, BRPH, Clark Construction, Bechtel, and Kratos.

10. For data on lobbyists and lobbying expenditures from the Center for Responsive Politics Open Secrets database, see https://www.opensecrets.org/.

11. For information on defense-related jobs versus other types of expenditures, see Heidi Peltier, “War Spending and Lost Opportunities,” Costs of War Project, Brown University, March 2019.

12. U.S. Congressional Budget Office, “Approaches for Managing the Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2017 to 2046,” October 2017, p. 31, https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/115th-congress-2017-2018/reports/53211-nuclearforces.pdf.

13. Wright, Hartung, and Gronlund, “Rethinking Land-Based Nuclear Missiles,” pp. 18–19.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy and the author of “Inside the ICBM Lobby: Special Interests or the National Interest?” from which this article was adapted.

Support for a new ICBM is tied closely to the money to be made developing, building, deploying and maintaining it. Yet the American public would eliminate the weapon altogether, a recent poll shows.

Advice From a Missile Defense Sleuth: How the Defense Department Can Fix The Troubled Weapons Program

May 2021
By Cristina Chaplain

Each new administration has reshaped the U.S. missile defense vision and architecture to align with its perception of changing threats, technological advancements, program setbacks, budgets, and political considerations. The Biden administration will likely do the same. One of the most important questions the new administration will face is the direction to take with homeland defense.

Cristina Chaplain, who formerly directed reviews of the missile defense program for the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan investigative agency of Congress, testified in December 2017 before the House subcommittee on space.  (Photo: U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, & Technology)The Department of Defense is already on a path to acquire a new interceptor for the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, which is the only system designed to defend the United States against a limited intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attack from North Korea and Iran. Yet, there are questions about the extent to which the United States should rely on the GMD system given the changing threat, the system’s troubled development and expense, and the need to fund new programs such as those focused on new hypersonic threats and tracking missiles from space.

Moreover, there are questions about the role the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which is responsible for developing U.S. missile defenses, should be playing. Over the years, the agency has transitioned from one focused largely on advancing technology to one now largely focused on procurement and production. Congress and the secretary of defense have also been considering whether systems now in production or fielded should be transferred to the service branches, as originally planned or remain with the MDA for the foreseeable future and whether MDA programs should have more oversight.

The work of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), a non-partisan investigative arm of Congress, does not involve making or proposing policy, and the GAO must be independent. Nevertheless, it has a lot to offer on policy execution, including regarding the missile defense program. Thirty years of working for this agency, including directing its reviews of missile defense for over a decade, have convinced me of that. Getting the rocket science correct will be important no matter which path President Joe Biden chooses for missile defense. To this end, there are some lessons to be learned from the GMD program.

Fly Before You Buy

If there is one lesson the MDA should take from the GMD program, it is to fly before you buy. That means making sure the system works before firing up the production lines and putting new interceptors into the ground. Specifically, technology invention should be done before design, and design should be done before production. Program managers and senior leaders should use quantifiable data and demonstrable knowledge to make decisions on cost, schedule, technology readiness, design readiness, production readiness, and relationships with suppliers. The GAO has repeatedly seen these practices contribute to success in the private sector and in government.1

The GMD program did not follow this model. Shortly after its inception in 2002, the MDA was directed by President George W. Bush to deploy an initial set of missile defense capabilities by 2004. Given considerable flexibility and authority to do so, the GMD program concurrently matured technology, designed the system, tested the design, and produced and fielded a system. Although this approach allowed the program to rapidly field a limited defense, it resulted in cost increases, schedule delays, test problems, and performance shortfalls. This “rush to fielding” mandate became a more or less pervasive part of the GMD culture.

The GAO raised concerns about this approach in 2003. It warned that critical technologies would not work as intended in planned flight tests, and would result in the MDA spending additional funds to identify and correct problems by September 2004 or accept a less capable system.2 In subsequent years, the GAO documented numerous setbacks in the GMD program, many due to avoidable errors. Although problems are expected in any sophisticated endeavor, the issues are how and when then they are discovered. In the GMD program, it happened late in development, when the errors are more expensive and time consuming to fix.

In 2006, for example, the GAO reported that interceptor production slowed because of technical problems, mostly in the kill vehicle. These were traced back to poor oversight of subcontractors, too few qualification tests, and other quality assurance issues.3 In 2010, a flight test failed because of design problems with the kill vehicle’s inertial measurement unit for the interceptor. At the time of the discovery, 12 of 23 interceptors had been manufactured and delivered even though a successful flight test had not yet happened. The cost to fix and flight-test the weapon increased from $236 million to nearly $2 billion as a result of the need to conduct failure reviews, additional flight tests, mitigation development efforts, and a retrofit program.4

Quality was a persistent problem, partly due to the rush to deliver. In one case, a flight test in 2010 failed because a lockwire in the kill vehicle was not installed. The following year, a GAO review found the GMD program had to cancel a major flight test due to flaws in a telemetry unit that were discovered during final assembly. GMD officials told the GAO that in the process of accelerating the GMD schedule, they became inattentive to weaknesses in the program’s quality control procedures.5

There are reasons to question how much the United States should rely on the Ground-based  Midcourse Defense system, shown here being tested in 2019 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, including the weapon's troubled development and cost, a former Government Accountability Office investigator says. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)Some problems were not necessarily the fault of the GMD program itself, but were indicative of the program’s willingness to take risks. A flight test in 2007, for example, was unsuccessful because the target missile failed. The GAO has frequently recommended that the MDA test targets before flight tests, but this was often not done because of expediency.

The GMD program’s most recent effort to update the interceptor, known as the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV), started out with plans incorporating knowledge from the GMD program. Yet, the new kill vehicle program also ended up accepting too much risk and experiencing development challenges that set it back four years and increased costs by at least $600 million.

The RKV was intended to be more reliable, producible, testable, and cost effective, partly by using a modular open architecture that would make future upgrades easier and broaden the vendor and supply base. Among other actions, MDA plans called for conducting more flight testing before production. In 2016, the GAO viewed the plans as a positive indication of the MDA’s intent to improve its acquisition outcomes. Still, the GAO cautioned that the schedule was aggressive and questioned whether the MDA was allowing enough time for modifying and maturing technologies.6

In 2017, the MDA, responding to the growing North Korean missile threat, accelerated development while reducing the number of flight tests. The GAO found that the new plan was more likely to prolong the RKV effort rather than accelerate it. That was inconsistent with the fly-before-you-buy best practice because the MDA would begin production based on the results of design reviews rather than flight testing. The GAO reported that the RKV program was already experiencing development delays prior to the acceleration of the schedule and was operating with no schedule margin.7

The most significant development issue that emerged for the RKV in 2018 pertained to the planned use of commercial, off-the-shelf hardware and reuse of components from the Aegis system’s newest interceptor. In multiple reports, the GAO, along with some in the Defense Department, raised concerns about the use of these components as well as the aggressive schedule for the RKV. Facing time delays, cost increases, and design challenges, the Defense Department canceled the RKV program in August 2019. By then, the MDA had spent a total of $1.2 billion on development, which was $340 million more than the agency’s original estimate.8

In 2020, the agency began developing a next-generation ground-based interceptor for the GMD program. It recently awarded two contracts, with an estimated maximum value of $1.6 billion, to Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to carry two designs into the technology development and risk reduction phase of the program. The MDA plans to execute two intercept flight tests before starting interceptor production and to base decisions on knowledge about technical and design maturity rather than on some arbitrary schedule. It plans to reduce technical risk with early testing of interceptor parts and is considering having the government take a more direct role in the program rather than relying on the prime contractor to determine the technical direction of the program, as it did with Boeing.9

These are hopeful signs that the MDA may have finally learned the fly-before-you-buy lesson. The GAO recently found that the approach the MDA is using to assess progress is in line with best practices. Promoting competition in the GMD program, particularly through design, could reduce cost and encourage industry innovation. Earlier testing of parts is another GAO-recommended practice that could enable the MDA to address problems with parts without major disruptions to the program, but the GMD program’s history provides only cautious optimism.

Be Transparent

The flexibilities granted the MDA so it could meet the presidentially mandated deadline for an initial homeland defense capability also came at the expense of transparency and accountability. For example, unlike other major weapons programs, cost, schedule, and performance baselines did not have to be established or approved outside the MDA. In addition, most major weapons programs were required by statute to obtain an independent verification of cost estimates, but the MDA was not.

Compounding matters, until 2011 the MDA had employed at least three different processes to track its acquisitions. The different structures for reporting cost, schedule, and performance data exacerbated transparency and accountability challenges. Each time a process changed, the connections between the old and new planned scope and resources were obscured.

In 2011, the GAO testified that the lack of baselines for missile defense, along with high levels of uncertainty about requirements and program cost estimates, effectively set the missile defense program on a path to an undefined destination at an unknown cost. There was limited knowledge and few opportunities for crucial management oversight and decision-making concerning the agency’s investment and the warfighter’s continuing needs.10

Over the past two decades, the MDA has made incremental progress in providing Congress and others with information needed for decision-making. In response to congressional direction, for example, the MDA established resource, schedule, test, operational capacity, technical, and contract baselines for its systems. It established processes for reviewing baselines and approving product development and initial production jointly with the service branches that will ultimately be responsible for those assets. It began producing independent cost estimates. Although these are positive steps, the GAO has made additional recommendations to strengthen these processes. For example, the MDA requests a billion dollars or more in funding each fiscal year for tests, but the GAO analysis found that these estimates were inconsistent and difficult to trace. The GAO recommended detailed changes to each test in the master test plan. It also recommended improvements to the process used to calculate cost estimates for tests.11

Moreover, the GAO reported in 2020 that more work needs to be done in terms of providing clarity into testing progress. The MDA frequently revises its test schedule by adding new tests and deleting or delaying scheduled tests, in some cases multiple times. As a result, less testing is being conducted prior to delivery than originally planned, which means less data are available to understand capabilities and limitations. The GAO recommended the MDA have an independent assessment conducted for its process for developing and executing its annual flight-test plan.12

Engage Stakeholders

Since the early 2000s, the MDA has had a reputation for going its own way and being somewhat adversarial with and unresponsive to Defense Department entities that had a stake in missile defense. These include members of the war-fighting community who were the ultimate customers of MDA-developed systems, the testing community, the acquisition oversight functions within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the intelligence community, and the service branches.

In a 2008 study on the mission, roles, and structure of the MDA led by the Institute of Defense Analyses for the Defense Department, the military raised concerns about inadequate visibility into planning, programming, and budgeting; insufficient involvement in the requirements process; and insufficient attention to integrating missile defense capabilities with other joint forces. The Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the combatant commands believed warfighters needed a stronger role in setting requirements for missile defense while officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense believed that the MDA should be merged with normal acquisition processes, while retaining sufficient flexibility to respond to a wider range of threats and technology opportunities. They asked for earlier involvement in the agency’s planning efforts and independent analysis to help ensure that trade-offs were adequately examined and evaluated.13

Navy Vice Adm. Jon A. Hill, director of the Missile Defense Agency, speaks at the 11th annual McAleese Defense Programs Conference, in Washington, D.C., in 2020. (Photo: Defense Department)Although MDA flexibilities remain in place, the Defense Department has acted to increase the agency’s cooperation with its stakeholders. For example, the department established the Missile Defense Executive Board in 2007 to bring together senior Defense Department executives, representatives of the Department of State, and national security staff to review and provide guidance for missile defense. In 2008, the deputy secretary of defense created processes that enabled the military, the Joint Staff, the combatant commands, and other directorates within the Office of the Secretary of Defense to participate in and influence the development of the annual MDA program plan and budget submittal. Further, in June 2009 the MDA adopted a new approach toward test planning that integrated recommendations made by the Defense Department’s director of operational test and evaluation, among others.

Those were all important steps, but the RKV program demonstrated that more was needed. In 2017 the GAO found that the MDA requirements-setting process tended to put the needs of the developer ahead of those of the warfighter. Designs for the RKV and other new systems included trade-offs that favored fielding capabilities sooner and less expensively. Officials from multiple entities within the Defense Department warned that these trade-offs compromised performance and reliability, which could leave warfighters with weapons that were insufficient to defeat current and future threats.

A 2021 GAO report documented program meetings in 2010, 2015, 2017, and 2018 in which subject matter experts and officials within and outside of the RKV program raised concerns about performance issues that went unheeded.14 Concerns about reusing a component from the Aegis interceptor along with commercial, off-the-shelf parts were so serious that the program was ultimately cancelled in 2019.

More broadly, the GAO has recently recommended that the MDA increase its collaboration with the defense intelligence community. Although it had taken some steps to do so, a 2019 review found that the MDA provides the intelligence community with limited insight into how the agency uses threat assessments to inform its acquisition decisions. That is a serious failing given that the intelligence community is uniquely positioned to assist the MDA and its involvement is crucial for helping the MDA to keep pace with rapidly emerging threats. Moreover, this limited insight has prevented the intelligence community from validating threat models that the agency builds to test the performance of its weapon systems. Without validation, any flaws or bias in the threat models may go undetected, which can have significant implications on the performance of MDA weapons systems.15

In 2021 the GAO reported that the MDA was working closely with stakeholders on the next-generation interceptor’s requirements and acquisition strategy and on implementing specific GAO recommendations on collaboration. For example, the agency engaged the defense intelligence community in producing an analysis of alternatives to defend against new hypersonic glide vehicles. Over the past several years, officials from several Defense Department organizations have told the GAO that MDA engagement with their organizations was improving.16 The GAO’s own relationship with the agency improved under the two most recent MDA directors.

Last year, the deputy secretary of defense took additional action to involve more participants in the oversight of missile defense programs, such as requiring the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation to provide independent cost estimates before MDA program development and production decisions are made. Also, more oversight would be given to the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment and less to the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. The MDA director stated that the directive essentially codifies what the MDA has already been doing.17

Sustain Support for Lessons Learned

The steps the MDA is taking are encouraging, but adopting and sustaining an effective knowledge-based acquisition approach will be challenging. For example, more resources may be needed to mature technology, carry two contractors through design, and ensure the government can play a stronger role in overseeing the program. Yet, those funding dollars may be difficult to find given overall budgetary concerns and the need to fund the MDA’s new hypersonic and other programs.

Moreover, pressures to proceed quickly, whether they are rooted in threats, budgets, politics, industry, or all of the above, will not go away. In fact, proceeding quickly and streamlining acquisition oversight is now in vogue for the broader weapons community because it is believed the development process most weapons systems follow takes too long and hampers innovation. At the direction of Congress, decision-making for many major defense acquisition programs has been shifted from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to the service branches. The Defense Department has also begun using new pathways referenced as “middle-tier acquisition” to rapidly produce prototypes and field some new weapons systems within two to five years. It is unknown how successful these programs will be, and it may stay that way given that the Defense Department has not yet fully determined how to measure performance.

It would be prudent for the Biden administration to insist that the MDA follow better acquisition practices for the next-generation interceptor versus stepping on the gas pedal. The agency already faces a steep technical challenge in developing a homeland missile defense system that can keep pace with the threat. The past has shown that rushing programs into production merely exacerbates the inherent technical challenges the MDA already faces, resulting in delays, added costs, and questionable performance.

That is not to say that following best practices for the next-generation interceptor will enable the Pentagon to fully protect the homeland from an ICBM attack. The United States is still in the beginning phases of addressing a very complex problem, and the threat will assuredly adapt and evolve. There are technical hurdles beyond the next interceptor that need to be overcome, such as maturing a discrimination capability, making testing more operationally realistic, and ensuring that supporting systems are seamlessly integrated. There are also broader questions to be answered about what can really be expected from the GMD system and what are the best investments for addressing the threat. Until those questions are answered, it is best to make sure this new interceptor can do its job as intended.



1. U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), “Best Practices: Better Support of Weapon System Program Managers Needed to Improve Outcomes,” GAO-06-110, November 30, 2005, pp. 5–10.

2. GAO, “Missile Defense: Knowledge-Based Practices Are Being Adopted, but Risks Remain,” GAO-03-441, April 30, 2003, p. 20.

3. GAO, “Defense Acquisitions: Missile Defense Agency Fields Initial Capability but Falls Short of Original Goals,” GAO-06-327, March 15, 2006, p. 11.

4. GAO, “Missile Defense: Opportunity Exists to Strengthen Acquisitions by Reducing Concurrency,” GAO-12-486, April 20, 2012, p. 74; GAO, “Missile Defense: Opportunities Exist to Reduce Acquisition Risk and Improve Reporting on System Capabilities,” GAO-15-345, May 6, 2015, p. 63.

5. GAO, “Space and Missile Defense Acquisitions: Periodic Assessment Needed to Correct Parts Quality Problems in Major Programs,” GAO-11-404, June 24, 2011; GAO, “Defense Acquisitions,” pp. 27-30.

6. GAO, “Missile Defense: Assessment of DOD's Reports on Status of Efforts and Options for Improving Homeland Missile Defense,” GAO-16-254R, February 17, 2016.

7. GAO, “Missile Defense: The Warfighter and Decision Makers Would Benefit From Better Communication About the System's Capabilities and Limitations,” GAO-18-324, May 30, 2018, p. 72.

8. GAO, “Missile Defense: Delivery Delays Provide Opportunity for Increased Testing to Better Understand Capability,” GAO-19-387, June 6, 2019, pp. 60-61; GAO, “Missile Defense: Assessment of Testing Approach Needed as Delays and Changes Persist,” GAO-20-432, July 23, 2020, pp. 61–63.

9. GAO, “Missile Defense: Observations on Ground-Based Midcourse Defense Acquisition Challenges and Potential Contract Strategy Changes,” GAO-21-135R, October 21, 2020.

10. GAO, “Missile Defense: Actions Needed to Improve Transparency and Accountability,” GAO-11-555T, April 13, 2011.

11. Ibid.; GAO, “Missile Defense: Cost Estimating Practices Have Improved, and Continued Evaluation Will Determine Effectiveness,” GAO-15-210R, December 12, 2014.

12. GAO, “Missile Defense: Some Progress Delivering Capabilities, but Challenges With Testing Transparency and Requirements Development Need to Be Addressed,” GAO-17-381, May 30, 2017; GAO, “Missile Defense: Lessons Learned From Acquisition Efforts,” GAO-20-490T, March 12, 2020.

13. Gen. Larry D. Welch and David Briggs, “Study on the Mission, Roles, and Structure of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA),” Institute for Defense Analyses Paper, No. P-4374 (2008), ch. IV.

14. GAO, “Missile Defense: Some Progress Delivering Capabilities, but Challenges With Testing Transparency and Requirements Development Need to Be Addressed,” pp. 49-69; GAO, “Missile Defense: Assessment of Testing Approach Needed as Delays and Changes Persist,” pp. 61–62.

15. GAO, “Missile Defense: Further Collaboration With the Intelligence Community Would Help MDA Keep Pace With Emerging Threats,” GAO-20-177, December 11, 2019.

16. GAO, “Missile Defense: Lessons Learned From Acquisition Efforts,” p. 6; GAO, “Missile Defense: Assessment of Testing Approach Needed as Delays and Changes Persist,” p. 14.

17. Jen Judson, “New Pentagon Directive Will Put Programs on More Solid Ground, Says MDA Boss,” Defense News, September 10, 2020.

Cristina Chaplain retired in 2020 after working 30 years for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan investigative agency for Congress. For more than a decade, she directed the agency’s reviews of missile defense programs.

Getting the rocket science correct will be important no matter which path President Joe Biden chooses for missile defense.


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