Strategic missile defense failures: who’s to blame?

, senior scientist | September 8, 2017, 1:04 pm EDT
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In Wednesday’s Washington Post, columnist Marc Thiessen blames Democrats’ historic skepticism about missile defense for the poor state of these systems today, but that’s a misrepresentation of its history.

What is the poor state of the Ground-based Midcourse System (GMD) due to?

In our 2016 report, we looked back at the history of the development of the GMD system since its origins in 2002.

The Bush administration exempted the missile defense development program from the normal oversight and accountability processes required of other major military systems, with the goal of quickly fielding the GMD system. These exemptions allowed the Pentagon to cut engineering cycles short and to field poorly tested equipment; the haste with which the system was fielded ensured this would be the case.

Today this poorly tested equipment makes up key parts of the fielded GMD system. Nearly all of the GMD interceptors—the core of the GMD system’s defensive capability today—were fielded before their design had been successfully intercept-tested even once.

This flawed approach—not a lack of money– is responsible for most of the problems with the system. The GMD system’s test record has been notably poor, with just nine successful intercepts out of 18 tries, despite the fact that the tests are heavily scripted for success. Identifying the cause of these failures and fixing the already-fielded interceptors has cost considerable time and money. The GMD system continues to have major schedule and cost overruns.

Yet, it is not just the execution of the program that has been problematic, it is the approach to the task of hitting a missile with a missile. A scathing 2012 National Academy of Sciences study called the GMD system “deficient” with respect to all of the study’s fundamental principles for a cost-effective missile defense, and recommended a complete overhaul of the interceptors, sensors, and concept of operations.

Insufficient oversight has not only exacerbated the GMD system’s problems, but has obscured their full extent. Obama administration attempts to improve oversight and accountability without bringing missile defense under the normal processes have led to ongoing problems. These include projects that have been started without sufficient vetting and later canceled, and components that are being fielded based on imposed deadlines rather than technical maturity—in some cases with known flaws.

Build more or fix the system?

Is following the Bush plan the right idea? The full complement of 44 interceptors envisioned by the Bush plan will be fielded by the end of this year. Yet Pentagon testing officials assess that the GMD system has not yet demonstrated an operationally useful capability.

The Missile Defense Agency’s (MDA) decision to build and field additional untested interceptors rather than systematically fix all known flaws also ignores specific advice on how best to balance a sense of urgency with the responsibility to build a cost-effective and high-quality system. A top-level recommendation of the 2008 “Welch report” (produced by a panel headed by retired Air Force Chief of Staff General Larry Welch) on missile defense concerned this balance:

For mid-course intercept systems, 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 regardless of the numbers of interceptors deployed.

For the GMD system, however, the balance has been strongly in favor of building more of the existing capabilities, presumably to provide reassurance domestically and to allies. Rushing minimally tested hardware into the field may give the appearance of a defense, but it does not reliably protect US cities.

Did the US abandon promising programs prematurely?

Thiessen suggests that missile defense programs have been abandoned prematurely. In reality, this was the overdue discarding of wasteful, unworkable programs.

Regarding the three programs Thiessen mentions: Airborne Laser, the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, the Multiple Kill Vehicle, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates strongly criticized these (and their supporters) in the New York Times in 2009:

I have found since taking this post that when it comes to missile defense, some hold a view bordering on theology that regards any change of plans or any cancellation of a program as abandonment or even breaking faith. I encountered this in the debate over the Defense Department’s budget for the fiscal year 2010 when I ended three programs: the airborne laser, the multiple-kill vehicle, and the kinetic energy interceptor. All were plainly unworkable, prohibitively expensive and could never be practically deployed—but had nonetheless acquired a devoted following.

In fact, Congress contributes to going down the rabbit hole of wasteful programs in two ways. First, Congress is not providing strict enough oversight of Pentagon proposals, being neither skeptical enough nor requiring robust analyses of alternatives up front, with in-depth analysis of feasibility, costs, and risks.

Second, the weakened oversight system and the politicized nature of missile defense leave strategic missile defense vulnerable to missile defense advocates in Congress adding their own unnecessary or unvetted projects to the missile defense budget. Indeed, several times Congress has generated new and unasked-for efforts, such as a proposal for a third continental interceptor site on the US East Coast. Despite having no validated requirement for such a site, and in spite of testimony from the MDA director that other priorities for improving strategic missile defense are more pressing, congressional advocates of an East Coast site have included mandates in budget legislation intended to fast-track the process for building a third site and have added unasked-for money to the budget for it each year since 2012.

Congress has also pressed for a return to discarded ideas, such as the Bush plan for land-based Ground Based Interceptors in Eastern Europe and space-based boost-phase interceptors. Congress added money to the fiscal year 2016 budget to study the feasibility of a space-based boost-phase missile defense layer—despite having several years ago received the advice it solicited from the National Academy of Sciences on this very question. The NAS recommendation on space-based boost phase missile defense, which it estimated would cost at least $300 billion for a limited capability, was unequivocal:

The total life-cycle cost of placing and sustaining the [space-based boost-phase] constellation in orbit is at least an order of magnitude greater than that of any other alternative and impractical for that reason alone.

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  • J_kies

    Writing as someone that watched the entire process ‘up close and personal’ – Laura captures the essence and substance precisely. MDA lacks external review for the credibility of their concepts. No aspect of the ABL, son of ABL (current UAV/BPI effort) or the other ‘technology’ efforts are based on either gaps in the architecture (no actual architecture) or a systematic study for more technically effective means of threat negation.
    The Fletcher Panel described the problem in 1984; SDIO explored the full range of options and culled non-credible ideas. ABL was not recommended; neither was MKV or KEI like efforts. This has been an expensive exercise in bad science and bad engineering by cynical companies for profit.

  • Ryan Alt

    The thing has never once been tested under realistic conditions even against the tiniest assault, let alone something at least approaching a reasonable attack. Failing to hit their one and only sitting duck of a target under conditions that are as contrived, favorable and unrealistic as they can possibly be made to be, speaks volumes. I think it would be very interesting to see the US and Russia agree on a truly realistic test. They could set aside a six month period during which one of Russia’s new Yars missiles is launched. The US is not given the precise launch time, location, or planned trajectory, they just know that at some point during this six month period the missile will be launched without warning. I don’t think GMD would even have a chance against six RV’s mixed with 50-100 realistic decoys. Obviously they will never do this even though it would constitute the first true test.