By John D. Isaacs and Samuel M. Hickey
In the recently completed Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Congress takes some significant steps toward reining in the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and its wayward acquisition strategy.
In the bill, Congress levels criticisms at the Pentagon’s handling of missile defense programs, reduces the missile defense budget, and requires reports from the Secretary of Defense and the Comptroller General on MDA’s alignment within the Pentagon and the plan to replace a recently cancelled interceptor program, respectively. Further, conferees are sending a $300 million message to the Pentagon about its management of U.S. missile defense by shifting funds initially planned for new systems “to address excessive cost growth and programmatic delays.”
Since 2002, the MDA has been fielding missile interceptors for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system as quickly as possible and was gifted special acquisition flexibility to meet Presidentially directed timelines. The GMD system’s stated mission is to defend the U.S. homeland from long-range rogue state missile threats. The system’s acquisition strategy is known as spiral development. Essentially, the strategy is to incrementally deploy technology as it becomes available, often at great expense, and improve upon existing components as the technology continues to develop.
This strategy has produced nothing but delays, cost overruns, and false promises of security. Nearly two decades and more than $174 billion dollars later, MDA has fielded only advanced prototypes and does not have a reliable kill vehicle for its interceptor. In highly scripted tests, the GMD system has failed more times than it has succeeded.
Congress had long tolerated these failures, but it seems the straw that broke the camel’s back was the cancellation of the multi-billion-dollar Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV) program in August 2019. (The “kill vehicle” is the actual mechanism that intercepts and destroys enemy missiles.)
The Government Accountability Office found that “the cost to develop the now-canceled Redesigned Kill Vehicle program for homeland missile defense more than tripled, and the program’s schedule slipped by four years.” The ineffective RKVs were never deployed, even though they were intended to replace ‘90s-era kill vehicles that were also of dubious quality. The CE-II kill vehicle was deployed on interceptors in the field from 2010 to 2015 before it ever successfully intercepted a single test target.
The MDA is now planning to build a new interceptor, the Next Generation Interceptor (NGI). The NGI is intended to take into account the failures of the RKV, but also contend with challenges presented by decoys and other countermeasures present on modern long-range offensive missiles. MDA hopes to deploy this new kill vehicle by 2028, but the safer bet might be sometime in the 2030s; or even more likely, never.
Congress is increasingly skeptical, as they should be.
The MDA, which has often escaped tough Congressional oversight, is again feeling more pressure from lawmakers.
First, Congress is mandating a report from the Secretary of Defense on moving control of MDA from the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering to within the portfolio of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment. Such a move would mean that the “fly before you buy” procurement mantra would be a requirement for buying and deploying any new systems.
This small, but necessary, move would also give Congress greater insight into program development via one of the Pentagon’s annual Selected Acquisition Reports, a public Pentagon report on the costs of major weapons programs.
Second, Congress has moved to prevent any modifications to the acquisition strategy without detailed communication from the Secretary of Defense. Further, they are calling into question whether the Trump Administration has met its requirements under last year’s NDAA to report to Congress on the plan for developing the NGI.
Finally, Congress is now requiring that the Pentagon immediately initiate a new interim interceptor program to be fielded by 2026. Given MDA’s past failures, it is not clear what a new program would look like and how it would avoid previous technical problems. Fortunately, Congress also insisted upon independent cost estimates of the program as it develops and bars production of the new system until two successful flight tests are conducted. It also requires that the interim interceptor be developed in coordination with the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment.
Collectively, these moves and the $300 million budget cut represent a much-needed increase in oversight. For the first time in years, lawmakers seem to be interested in revisiting and reviewing U.S. missile defense investments, the structure of MDA, and the rules it follows. For a program launched in 2001 with as few restraints as possible, Congress may be finally tightening the leash.