GAO on Missile Defense Plans: Don’t Hold Your Breath

December 22, 2010
David Wright
Former contributor

Yesterday as a proposed amendment to New START was calling for mandating an optimistic schedule for the administration’s European missile defense plan (the European Phased Adaptive Approach, or EPAA), GAO was briefing a report on the Hill warning about the undue optimism of the EPAA schedule.

This seemed especially ironic given last week’s failed test of the GMD missile defense system, which is the latest evidence of the difficulty of getting these systems to work reliably. The development of U.S. anti-missile systems continues to proceed with too much optimism and too little testing. And the spotty test record is for tests conducted under controlled conditions without realistic—or in most cases, any—decoys or other countermeasures.

On the planned European system, the GAO report states:

The administration’s EPAA policy committed DOD to a schedule before the scope of system development effort was fully understood.

… system schedules are highly optimistic in technology development, testing, production, and integration, leaving little room for potential delays.

As efforts to meet near-term commitments unfold, the schedule for delivering capabilities may be difficult to achieve and resources needed may grow.

The push to make the program schedule-driven rather than reality-driven makes no sense. For example, GAO notes that this is pushing the system into a buy-before-you-fly situation, stating that:

104 of 320 [SM-3 Block IB] interceptors—estimated at a cost of $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion—are expected to be under contract before all major knowledge points have been demonstrated.

Fewer than a third of these interceptors are intended for tests, and even those are scheduled to be built earlier than they all need to be:

Of those assigned to a test, some interceptors may be produced earlier than necessary since they deliver 1 to 2 years prior to the scheduled test.

That means that any problems discovered early in the test program—which is after all the point of testing—will be built into all of the interceptors.

Moreover, GAO notes that rushing the system into the field can lead to problems with interoperability between its parts that can result in fundamental problems.

For example, while having multiple sensors is seen as a plus for the system, GAO points out that the command and control system may not be able to combine the information from the different sensors being developed for the system. Each sensor will track multiple objects, including the warhead, the upper stage of the missile, decoys, etc. And each sensor will see those tracks from different directions and in different frequency ranges. Trying to figure out which tracks from different sensors correspond to the same physical object is a serious problem and can lead to major confusion for the system. As GAO puts it:

The system may not accurately group threat missile tracks to reduce multiple cues from sensors about the tracks, and may present an incorrect picture of the battlespace to BMDS “shooters.”

The development process seems to be guided by the principle that missile defense is so important that we simply don’t have time to do it right and make sure it works.

Even those who support missile defense should agree that doesn’t make sense.