Missile Defense Oversight: Pulling the Punches

, senior scientist | April 10, 2014, 6:08 pm EST
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At the March 25 House Armed Services Committee hearing on missile defense, Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH) took a dig at what he seems to think is an unwarranted criticism of the proposed East Coast missile defense site. (He’s a strong proponent of building a new site.) He asked Vice Admiral Syring, the director of the Missile Defense Agency, what the “banter” that there is “no validated military requirement” for the East Coast site means.

VAdm Syring’s answer was that Missile Defense Agency is not bound by the normal Pentagon acquisitions process that sets required capabilities for military systems (the JCIDS—Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System—and the Joint Chiefs of Staff requirements). Rep. Turner’s point in asking this question seemed to be that while it’s true there is no validated military requirement for an East Coast site, it’s a foolish argument to make against the East Coast site since there are no validated military requirements for the missile defense system more generally.

This astounding fact is a consequence of the exceptional status missile defense has been given as a program; its raison d’être comes via presidential directives and Congressional actions, not internal Pentagon processes.  Rep. Turner may have won his rhetorical point, but it reminds us that under this setup we all have a lot to lose.

This special status, including the 2002 decision to exempt the entire missile defense enterprise from following DOD’s standard acquisition and oversight process and the setting of political timelines for complex technical achievements,  has contributed to a range of problems, including delays and cost overruns, and needing to go back to the drawing board on the GMD’s kill vehicle because of rushed, shoddy engineering.  It also appears to make  the system more vulnerable to Congress members adding in their own ideas (such as the East Coast site, a return to the Bush plan for land-based GBIs in Europe, etc.) to the mix at will to address what they personally deem to be technical or political deficiencies of the system.

Insufficient Oversight and Accountability

When the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) was established in 2002, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld saw missile defense deployment as such an urgent need that he gave the MDA exceptional flexibility to set its own requirements and manage its own acquisition to fulfill the President’s directive to provide an “initial defensive capability” by 2004.

This flexibility has come at a real cost of oversight and accountability, documented frequently by the GAO, most recently in its new report “Missile Defense: Mixed Progress in Achieving Acquisition Goals and Improving Accountability.”  One of these costs is that the MDA is not required to perform a formal “analysis of alternatives” that compares technical feasibility, costs, and risks of potential solutions to satisfy a capability need. This normally happens before technology development.

This has led the MDA down the garden path a number of times, e.g., the PTSS system and the SM-3 IIB program, neither of which had a robust analysis of alternatives, and both of which ended up getting canceled. Before allocating a dime for a third missile defense site, even for site studies, Congress should have insisted on a thorough analysis of alternatives: What is the goal of a third site, at what cost, and how do other alternatives to achieving these goals compare?  What are the risks?

The GAO report is a thorough and important document, and worth reading carefully. Insufficient analysis of alternatives isn’t the MDA’s only hamartia. The GAO refers to having repeatedly taken the MDA to task in the past about concurrent acquisition practices, and has the same criticism again in the new report:

[W]e have previously reported that the agency has used this flexibility to employ acquisition strategies with high levels of concurrency (that is, overlapping activities such as testing and production), which increases the risk for performance shortfalls, costly retrofits, and test problems.


GMD’s ongoing testing issues in conjunction with the program’s concurrent acquisition practices increase the risk that any new development or production issues will cause major disruptions to the program… Consequently, confirmation that the CE-II design works as intended has been delayed by nearly seven years and costs have increased by over $1 billion because of the CE-II development challenges and test failures.

The GAO report also notes that it is difficult for Congress to play its oversight role with sufficient rigor because the MDA does not provide a comparison of current schedule estimates against original goals and current goals, as other major defense acquisition programs do. Nor are its cost estimates, though improving, sufficiently reliable to support oversight. (The MDA is not required to get independent cost estimates before beginning product development.)  The lack of oversight and accountability is having real, expensive, and serious consequences.

It is not clear the administration sees the seriousness of the problem, either. It also set timelines for missile defense work, such as the EPAA, that are not realistic.  The Obama administration reiterated its commitment to the current acquisitions process in the 2010 Ballistic Missile Review Report and said that:

[T]here would be no benefit in bringing MDA into JCIDS or the full DoD 5000 acquisition reporting processes at this time. The current approach functions well to define requirements and acquire needed capabilities in a timely fashion

Who is Asking the Hard Questions?

Since there is no requirement for an analysis of alternatives or independent cost estimate, when does something like the East Coast site idea ever have to be rigorously justified?  Who is asking the hard questions?

The Senate proved significantly more skeptical than the House.  In the April 2 Senate Armed Services committee hearing on missile defense, Senator Udall asked all the members of the panel whether they agreed that a rigorous acquisition approach to a redesigned exoatmospheric kill vehicle was important, as well as whether they agreed with the idea of “fly before you buy.”  (They agreed.)

However, on the East Coast site subject, the Senate pulled its punches.  Senator Udall asked three of the four members of the panel which they considered a higher priority: improved sensors or a third site.  (Everyone rated the former more important.) That was as tough as the questioning got.  No one was asked why taxpayers should consider funding a new site that would cost billions to build and equip and would most certainly take funds away from getting the existing system to meet its delayed milestones, or to fix other very real deficiencies of the system.  A site without a clearly articulated benefit, which has not been rigorously compared to any other alternatives.  Or asked why taxpayers should consider funding any project that was unplanned, unasked for by the MDA, but simply a Congressional add-on.

It would have been instructive to also ask Cristina Chaplain, the author of most of the GAO studies that have documented the perils of missile defense’s haphazard acquisitions, who was present on the panel, what she thought about the East Coast site idea. That was a missed opportunity to get important feedback.

That the East Coast site idea has any traction at all is a symptom of how badly the oversight and accountability of the current approach to missile defense has been working. A poorly working missile defense isn’t just a waste of money, though—false confidence in missile defense capabilities is dangerous, and pursuing missile defenses comes with its own costs, not least complicating important relationships with Russia and China and impeding deep cuts in nuclear weapons.  A system with these kinds of risks should be subject to higher standards of rigor and accountability, not lower.

U.S. citizens and policymakers should take a hard look at the current strategic missile defense program and insist on making informed decisions about what is worth keeping and what is counterproductive to our interests.  As Sam Nunn said, “It cannot be national missile defense at all costs and at all expenses.”

We should insist on the Missile Defense Agency being accountable to Congress in the ways that other Pentagon programs are, and Congress should exercise its stewardship responsibilities thoughtfully and rigorously.


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  • Allen Thomson

    There are strong similarities between the stories concerning the GMD third site and the Orion/Space Launch System that Congress is forcing NASA to build. Neither was wanted by the ostensible user agencies and neither has any defined utility.

  • j_kies

    Bravo !

    Plausible Recommendations:
    1) Rescind MDA’s exemptions to proven oversight principles, apply full rigor

    2) Mandate specific military requirements, JROC them

    3) Eliminate USD(P) participation, additional political spin is inappropriate

    4) Conduct regular Congressional hearings on the progress of MDA towards attaining the meritorious scientific and engineering staff needed to achieve the technically difficult objectives of defending the US and our allies against ballistic missiles.

  • Laura Grego

    J_kies, appreciated. Can you expand your thoughts on this, particularly (3), what problems you see?

    • j_kies

      USD(P) isn’t an engineering, test, threat or requirements functional organization. If the waivers to oversight and exemptions to standards are removed; USD(P) has no role as ad-hoc products to substitute for regular oversight such as the 2010 BMDR (apparently ghosted by MDA) are unneeded.

  • Laura Grego

    Allen, thanks for your comment. I was wondering to what extent other programs suffer from similar problems. Any other examples? The more politically charged the context, the more oversight necessary, one might conclude.