10 years, $10 billion, and nothing to show for it. That’s what David Willman of the Los Angeles Times found in a detailed investigation of four systems that protect the U.S. from a nuclear missile strike. Since September 11, these technologies have been a high priority, garnering top level resources and exemptions from laws that normally regulate weapons acquisition. The result exemplifies Pentagon waste: weak analytical support for programs, officers publicly misleading Congress about capabilities, and Members of Congress defending programs already found unworkable. As Congress begins its debate over what will be $600-plus billion in defense spending, Members should keep Willman’s investigation in mind, and give extra scrutiny to missile defense capabilities and risks.
Missile defense is the purview of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), an 8,800 person agency with an annual budget of around $8 billion per year. Due to concerns over an ICBM attack on the United States, it is exempt from many of the acquisition rules governing other Pentagon projects. The Agency focuses on three areas, each with distinct technological and strategic challenges. There’s Aegis for naval missile defense (although recently it has also been deployed on land), Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) for defending troops in the field, and Ground-based Mid-course Defense (GMD), for defending against Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) of the sort that might be used by North Korea or Iran. The programs investigated by the Los Angeles Times are all GMD, meant to track and destroy incoming missiles midflight.
Actually intercepting a missile is an enormous challenge of physics and technology. It requires radar that can track incoming missiles, and that are powerful enough to discriminate between decoys and real threats. However, as the Los Angeles Times explains, the only radars with that kind of power have a very short field of view, so covering possible flight paths requires multiple installations. The problem is compounded by the curvature of the Earth, which prevents a single radar from “seeing” more than 930 miles. It’s easy to see how missile defense might be a $10-billion problem. What is hard to fathom is how something so important could go 10 years, and $10 billion, and not produce any meaningful results.
A big part of the problem has been accountability at MDA. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, when then-MDA director Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering III went to Congress in 2006 to defend the $2.2 billion Sea-Based X-band radar, he claimed “it is the most powerful radar of its kind in the world and will provide the [GMD] system a highly advanced detection and discrimination capability.” What Obering didn’t tell Congress is that the SBX lacked the range or field of view to be of practical use for missile defense. Today, the radar spends most of the year in mothballs at Pearl Harbor. He described another program, the Multiple Kill Vehicle, as “a transformational program adding volume kill capability to the ballistic missile defense system as early as 2013.” That particular venture cost $700 million before it was cancelled without managing a single flight test.
Obering retired in 2008, but MDA continued to be marked by questionable leadership and poor oversight. Obering’s replacement, Lt. Gen. O’Reilly is the main source for a companion piece by the Los Angeles Times on how Congress protects programs that should be cancelled.
O’Reilly describes how he was stonewalled in private meetings with Members who were more concerned with saving military stimulus dollars than ending failed programs. O’Reilly names Senators Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), and Richard Shelby (R-AL) as key missile defense advocates, along with then-House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon. In one encounter between O’Reilly and McKeon, the general said of an airborne laser, “On the technical merits, it doesn’t make sense.’” According to O’Reilly, McKeon “Ripped me apart,” saying “How much money are you putting towards the problem? How much money do you need?”
However, O’Reilly did not express these kinds of concerns when he had the opportunity to testify about these programs in public. In May 2009, he told the House Subcommittee on Strategic Forces that the same laser technology was “truly revolutionary,” and shown “great indications” it could be deployable. Inconsistencies like this one mark O’Reilly’s accounts of other programs as well, including a weapon called the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI). In the same May 2009 hearing, Representative Doug Lamborn (R-CO) asked why MDA had stopped work on the KEI. O’Reilly told the Los Angeles Times the program had “revolutionary” technical issues, but he told Congress “the motivation for the stop-work was…a legal liability.” It’s impossible to know exactly what happened between O’Reilly and missile defense advocates behind closed doors, but in a public setting where the public and other Members might have been engaged, O’Reilly failed to give an honest accounting of faltering programs.
MDA spent $10 billion on the SBX, the multiple kill vehicle, the airborne laser, and the KEI, with almost nothing to show for it; their “working” ICBM killer has been another $40 billion boondoggle. That system, a missile called the Ground Based Interceptor (GBI), has been operational for 10 years, and has failed half of its tests. Even though the tests are rigged in the military’s favor (defenders know speed, direction, and trajectory of incoming missiles), MDA has only managed one successful intercept in the last 7 years. This kind of futility can’t be explained by technical challenges, significant though they may be. Like the Multiple Kill Vehicle, the airborne laser, and the SBX, the interceptor was rushed into development with incomplete analysis and planning. As a former missile defense official told the Los Angeles Times in 2014, “We took a system that was still in development—it was a prototype—and it was declared to be ‘operational’ for political reasons.”
The technical challenges of GMD are unique, but political pressure to hurry weapons acquisition is anything but. Rushing sensitive military equipment into production makes no sense, least of all for something as technically challenging as destroying a missile in space. As the National Defense Authorization Act makes its way through Congress, MDA should be a reminder that good congressional oversight means insisting on accurate Pentagon evaluation of capabilities. Weapons need to be independently evaluated, tested, and overseen to prevent further waste of billions of taxpayer dollars.