The U.S. National Missile Defense System Turns 10

October 3, 2014
Laura Grego
Former contributor

So, happy anniversary to you, Ground Based Midcourse missile defense (GMD) system.  I see that the traditional 10-year anniversary gift is tin or perhaps diamonds, though your best friends seem to be favoring tons of concrete.

Ten years ago, on September 30, 2004 the George W. Bush administration declared that the GMD system had achieved a limited deployment option (LDO) capability, meaning the system was now capable of being turned on and used if necessary.

Despite declaring the mission was accomplished, much work remained to be done.  For example, only five interceptors were in place that day, and it would be almost exactly two years before an intercept test of the kind of interceptors that were fielded was even attempted.  It was another year beyond that—on September 28, 2007—before an intercept test was successful.

Cutting Corners

This cart-before-the-horse kind of approach was a consequence of setting an ambitious and unrealistic timeline.  The system needed to be built out of existing technology; there was not time to complete a full engineering cycle with appropriate development and testing.  In fact, many of the standard Department of Defense regulations on developing, testing and acquisition of military systems were significantly relaxed or discarded in service of meeting this timeline, and have not been reinstated in the intervening decade.  Setting aside the standard Pentagon requirement of “fly before you buy” has established a culture that has been hard to shake off.

In fact it appears that all 30 of the interceptors in today’s system were fielded before their interceptor type had been validated by a single successful destruction of a target in an intercept test.  At best, George Lewis writes, “a few of the CE-I versions of the GBI interceptor may have been deployed one or two days after it first successfully killed a target in a test.” Ten years on, the system is still limping through developmental tests, with operational tests not scheduled for years yet.

This isn’t just my assessment. Talking about problems with the GMD system this past February, Frank Kendall, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, said:

“The root cause was a desire to field these things very quickly and really cheaply. The detailed engineering that should have been applied to these early designs wasn’t there … We are seeing a lot of bad engineering, frankly, and it is because there was a rush [to field].  … Just patching the things we have is probably not going to be enough, so we are probably going to have to go beyond that.”

The GMD project is a valued program, as signified by the $40 billion dollars invested and a refusal to consider putting limits on it in order to engage Russia or China on nuclear issues. But there’s no commensurate level of seriousness keeping a sharp eye on the quality of the hardware and software being purchased, or evaluating what the real potential of the system is, or comparing its costs to other ways to mitigate the nuclear threat.  A decade of this approach is enough.

We all want to be secure from the threats posed by nuclear weapons, but we have to keep our eye on the ball and invest resources strategically and where they matter the most.