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Missile Defense: Taking the Path of Least Resistance

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Huntsville, Alabama is full today with champions of ballistic missile defense from the political, military, and industrial spheres, braving the south in August for the 2014 Space and Missile Defense Conference.  So far, I haven’t heard any reports about the specific next steps for the Ground Based Midcourse (GMD) missile defense system, although from other sources, it looks like the Pentagon might be taking June 22’s successful intercept test with a little too much exuberance.

Bloomberg reported in July that Admiral James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that Raytheon would resume production of new CE-II kill vehicles by the end of July, barely a month after the test.  This is in preparation for building 14 more interceptors. In addition, Boeing will get started on retrofitting as many as 10 of the CE-II kill vehicles on existing interceptors in the next couple of months.

According to the Bloomberg article, these new kill vehicles will be put on interceptors at a very fast rate.  This year Raytheon will assemble 9 CE-II kill vehicles that are “in pieces and parts” in a Raytheon Tucson, AZ, facility, which will recoup the company $150 million in withheld payments.  And then Raytheon will assemble 8 more in 2015 and 9 more in 2016.  Adm. Winnefeld did not describe any new protocols that would be put in place to avoid quality control lapses such as the one that led to the January 2010 test failure.

soccer goalThis is quite exuberant for a system that has been dogged by so much failure.  While June’s successful test may show that the MDA is improving its approach, one successful test out of three does not indicate a reliable interceptor that we want more of.  It’s simply not enough information.

Missile defense advocates push back on this point by saying that failures are a part of the development process—this is true.  Though even by the MDA’s director’s own account, the GMD has not been an example of a disciplined, well-run development process.  But the differences between development and acquisition consistently get elided when it comes to missile defense.  You can’t have it both ways.  If it’s a development program, during which failure is unwelcome but part of the deal, then keep pursuing a (better, more disciplined) development process.  But buying 50% more interceptors to the tune of $1 billion is a procurement decision, best made with an in-depth understanding of the interceptors’ capabilities. Fielding 44 developmental interceptors of unknown reliability is not a “test bed.”  There are already more than enough interceptors for a test bed. This smacks of taking the path of least resistance.

Indeed, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) wrote in its July 2014 report, the MDA plans to “confirm the performance of the new components” for the CE-II in a flight test scheduled for the third quarter of 2016, just shortly before the 14 new interceptors are due to be fielded in 2017.  Since there is a two year lead time for building these interceptors, they will have to be built before they’re tested, a move made repeatedly in the beleaguered development of the GMD system.  GAO also notes that every GMD intercept test to date has led to necessary major hardware or software changes to the interceptors.  In a typical understatement, the GAO notes that acquisition best practices dictate completing developmental tests before production for operational use, lest one end up with additional delays and costly retrofits.

Buying more of these beleaguered interceptors on a rushed timeline is not a winning move.  It is not putting Tim Howard, Secretary of Defense, in the goal, someone skilled and tested under World Cup conditions.  This is hoping to make up for quality with quantity, by filling the bench with a bunch of high school goalies, paying them each Tim Howard’s salary, and hoping for the best. Who is benefitting from this scramble?  Raytheon for sure.

It’s time to step back, rationally assess what the most pressing nuclear threats are and prioritize how to deal with them.  This needs to happen while taking a sober look at how difficult and expensive the potential solutions are, and at the financial and opportunity costs.

For missile defense, we just keep closing our eyes and pulling out the checkbook.

Photo: Derrick Collins

Posted in: Missiles and Missile Defense Tags: ,

About the author: Dr. Grego received her PhD in physics from the Caltech in 1999. She was a postdoctoral researcher for three years at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, where she investigated issues in cosmology using X-ray, radio, and optical data, and numerical simulation. She has been at UCS since 2002. Areas of expertise: Space weapons and security, ballistic missile proliferation, ballistic missile defense

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  • J_kies

    ‘This year Raytheon will assemble 9 CE-II kill vehicles that are “in pieces and parts” ‘
    Why is this acceptable, heck is it even legal? Given that LTG O’Reilly issued a ‘stop work order’ for cause in that defective assembly, defective quality assurance practices and documentation were attributed as the cause of the flight failure on FTG-06; all materiel from those processes are suspect. As a minimum, the FAR mandates comprehensive materiel review board actions and screening to full acceptance standards prior to considering re-application of suspected defective parts in items bought for critical defense systems.