Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Will Third Time Be the Charm for Pentagon’s Star Wars Bullet?

Doomed second missile-defense effort followed a familiar path

The Pentagon conducts tests of its national missile defense system by firing fake enemy missiles from a Pacific island (left) and an interceptor from California (right), hoping for a collision far over the ocean that destroys both instantly. (Left photo: DoD / Lisa Simunaci; right photo: DoD)

Funny how a silver bullet, when designed and built by the U.S. military-industrial complex, costs its weight in gold. And when you’re trying to hit a silver bullet with another silver bullet—the goal of the Pentagon’s national missile shield since 1983—it turns out to be far more costly than that.

Meeting the challenges associated with shooting a bullet into a bullet—in space, no less—requires a methodical approach. It should be taken one step at a time. The first step should be completed before the second step is started. Yet the hype that has surrounded missile defense for more than a generation has telescoped those steps, resulting in a very costly, and very leaky, shield.

Funny how a silver bullet, when designed and built by the U.S. military-industrial complex, costs its weight in gold.

The good news is that the Pentagon finally scrapped its latest pie-in-the-sky effort on August 21 (after spending $1.2 billion on it since 2013). The bad news is that it was merely a replacement for the original Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle. The EKV (“exoatmospheric” means outside the Earth’s atmosphere, roughly 65 miles high), is a cobbled-together contraption, not unlike Rube Goldberg’s inane mid-20th century inventions that harnessed collections of pails, pulleys, and pendulums to try to accomplish simple tasks. It was rushed into operation in 2004 and hasn’t worked reliably since. The worse news is that killing the second effort is already leading to a third try. (And that’s not the worst news; more on that to come.)

All of this was so predictable. The Pentagon and politicians hyped the threat, so they had to accelerate development. That made even the slim chance of success impossible. Quality work takes a painstaking approach that builds upon previous successes, and should be immune to the political posturing that only increases chances for failure.

The Pentagon needed to replace the original EKV with the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV) because it cost too much, wasn’t reliable, and missed too many targets during tests. Such exercises have always been highly scripted, meaning its real-world performance would be even worse. Now the RKV has been canceled after a long series of problems. Boeing led the $5.8 billion project, although Raytheon was actually building the RKV itself.

President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative was intended to make the Soviet Union’s thousands of atomic warheads “impotent and obsolete.” But that proved impossible. With the end of the Cold War, the U.S. government has opted for a much smaller system designed to stop only a handful of missiles from a rogue state like North Korea or Iran. (The Pentagon’s rhetoric hasn’t adjusted to that more modest reality: “Missile defense. It’s not a game,” the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency says. “But you do get to save the world.”)

The original kill vehicle remains perched atop 40 missile interceptors based in Alaska and four in California as part of the Pentagon Missile Defense Agency’s (MDA) Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system. Their aim is to collide with any incoming enemy missile and turn it into space dust. Precise details on the highly classified kill vehicles are tough to verify. But each roughly 4-foot-long “bullet” reportedly weighs about 140 pounds.

Ever since the U.S. government embraced a national missile-defense system, there has been a rush to throw billions of dollars at a limited threat. Today’s missile-defense gap echoes the imaginary 1950s U.S. missile and bomber gaps (compared to the Soviet Union) used to justify sharp increases in U.S. defense spending. A theology now surrounds missile defense, its choir pounding a constant drumbeat that the threat is growing and requires even more resources, faster.

“This hit-to-kill technology has been proven in a number of successful flight tests, including three using Ground-Based Interceptors,” the Pentagon says on its official webpage about the program, without specifying “a number.” But elsewhere, the Defense Department concedes its first-gen kill vehicle has intercepted 11 of 19 fake enemy missiles—58%—in highly planned exercises that are a far cry from a real-world attack. Only three of the hits have begun by firing the EKVs into space aboard the Ground-Based Interceptor rockets they would actually use against an incoming enemy warhead.

Stopping a missile aimed at the United States is an admirable goal, assuming it can be achieved, and thwarting that threat is worth the cost. Americans have always embraced the notion that their know-how is preeminent, and that it can be harnessed to shield them from harm. It’s an attitude encouraged by both the Pentagon and Congress (and some White Houses) because it generates good jobs, both in and out of uniform. But that shield—as we learned, to our dismay, in Vietnam and on 9/11—is a mirage. The debate needs to be over what level of risk is acceptable.

There are two challenges associated with building a functioning national missile-defense system—political and technical. The political challenge has evolved as potential foes, led by North Korea, have developed ocean-spanning ballistic missiles. Any suggestion that a missile shield may not be the best approach to the problem is denounced by backers as surrendering to ballistic blackmail. Why North Korea would commit suicide by launching a missile toward the U.S., whose source the Pentagon would pinpoint within seconds, goes unasked and unanswered. The need also seems weakened given the warm relations between President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. The far more plausible threat—that someone could anonymously detonate a nuclear device hidden aboard a cargo ship in a U.S. harbor—tends to be brushed aside.

The $67 billion Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system represents roughly a third of the roughly $200 billion the U.S. has spent on missile defenses since fiscal year 1985. Its price soared by more than 60% over the past six years (from $41 billion in 2013) due to purported increasing threats. It is now the Pentagon’s fourth most costly program, eclipsed by only the $366 billion F-35 fighter, the $123 billion Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, and the $96 billion Virginia-class attack submarine.

And like all big programs, jobs play a major role in their continued existence.

With consolidation in the defense industry, all the big players were involved in the RKV program, including Boeing, Lockheed, and Raytheon. But all politics is local. Alaska has expressed concern that the RKV’s recent death might derail the Pentagon’s plan to build 20 new interceptor missile silos at the state’s Fort Greely. But that work will continue, a Missile Defense Agency official told Alaska Public Media a week after the RKV’s demise. Of course, building missile silos without their most important component is zany. So when will that third-generation kill vehicle be ready? “We’re at the outset of developing and procuring the Next-Generation Interceptor,” agency spokesman Mark Wright said, “so we don’t have a timeline yet.”

Think of it as a shield of dreams: Build the silos, and the actual working kill vehicles will come.

Turns out, putting a kill vehicle atop a rocket and getting it to work is rocket science. The technical challenges associated with blowing an enemy rocket out of the sky with a kill vehicle—at a combined closing speed of more than 25,000 miles an hour—is immense. An M-16 round, by comparison, is traveling about 2,200 miles an hour when it leaves the barrel.

The Pentagon details the 10 steps involved in shooting down an enemy missile bearing down on the United States.
(Chart: U.S. Missile Defense Agency FY 2019 Budget Estimates, page 2)

Congress urged the Pentagon to deal with the growing North Korean missile threat. So it sped up the RKV’s development by about a year, calling for it to be deployed in 2023. It decided to boost the interceptor fleet from the current 44 to 64; all were slated to get the improved RKVs.

There’s only one way to see how it all worked out: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a blistering series of reports on the top-secret program. The congressional watchdog offers taxpayers a rare, and depressing, peek into military malpractice.

There were missteps right from the start. The Missile Defense Agency “began the RKV program, complete with a five-year funding request and schedule goals, before the AOA [analysis of alternatives] for homeland missile defense was completed,” the GAO said in 2015, two years after the program’s launch. Analyses of alternatives are critical to smart investments, the GAO said, yet the Missile Defense Agency has routinely failed, or has not been required, to do such studies before launching new programs. The GAO found that instead of considering alternatives, the agency relied on “interim results” from a Pentagon assessment of how to build the second-generation kill vehicle, and an “interim analysis” it produced to justify its development based on “design parameters and assessed design concepts provided by industry.”

The red warning light flashed a little brighter the next year. Although the Missile Defense Agency “states that it does not plan to develop new technologies for the RKV, it intends to utilize some less mature technologies that have only been validated in a laboratory or simulated environment,” the GAO said in 2016. “MDA plans to use commercially-available components in the RKV that may not have been designed to operate in the harsh environment in which the kill vehicle may operate.”

In January 2016, Navy Vice Admiral James Syring, then the head of the Missile Defense Agency, sketched out his timetable: A flight test in 2018, an actual intercept test in 2019, with the RKVs fielded around 2020. It represented, he conceded, “a very quick schedule.” That haste echoed the original EKV, which “was deployed in 2004 as a prototype because of urgent national defense priorities,” unnamed Raytheon officials told Space News in 2016.

Today’s missile-defense gap echoes the imaginary 1950s U.S. missile and bomber gaps (compared to the Soviet Union) used to justify sharp increases in U.S. defense spending.

But the Pentagon had a better idea for the RKV (as it always does when the first try flops): Instead of letting a contractor design it, the Missile Defense Agency would lead the effort, “using a blueprint that cobbles together the best ideas from concepts submitted by Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon,” Space News reported.

Yet despite such hopes, troubles continued to mount in 2017. Ranking Pentagon officials “have raised concerns with the [RKV] seeker’s capability to detect and track threats in an ICBM-range environment, which, when combined with the seeker’s expected acquisition range, may impact its discrimination capability and warfighter decision timelines,” the GAO said in its report two years ago. “The RKV program lacks department-wide support because organizations within DOD did not fully agree with the program’s acquisition strategy and many of their concerns have gone unaddressed by MDA,” GAO noted. “MDA has previously pursued weapon systems without obtaining sufficient buy-in from within the department.” The fact that the Missile Defense Agency spends about $10 billion annually that the Air Force, Army, Marines, and Navy would rather spend on their own pet projects only adds to tensions inside the Defense Department.

The Ground-Based Midcourse Defense program is a perfect example of the Pentagon’s so-called self-licking ice cream cone, where programs take on a life of their own because they take on a life of their own. “According to MDA, it could not perform a full and open competition” among kill-vehicle contractors, the GAO said in its 2017 assessment. Why not? “Because it would take too much time and the agency would not be able to meet its requirement to begin fielding RKVs in 2020—a requirement MDA established for itself.”

Last year, things continued to deteriorate, according to the GAO’s 2018 accounting. The Missile Defense Agency “removed the previously-established alignment between flight tests and production decisions, which enables the program to begin production well before the system’s design is stabilized,” the GAO noted. “Starting production before stabilizing the design, and other risky practices greatly increase the likelihood a program will fail to deliver reliable, effective capabilities in an accelerated manner.” Once again, the Pentagon was rushing to produce something that wasn’t ready to be produced.

By the time the GAO issued its 2019 report in June, the writing was on the wall. The RKV program was “accumulating negative cost and schedule variances with no signs of arresting these trends,” the agency said. It had entered a typical Pentagon phase: Its delivery timetable was slowing down as its costs sped up.

The final chapter was inevitable. Two months later, on August 21, the Pentagon put the wounded RKV out of its misery. “Ending the program was the responsible thing to do,” Michael Griffin, the under secretary of defense for research and engineering, said in a statement. The Pentagon cited secret technical woes. “Development programs sometimes encounter problems,” Griffin added. “After exercising due diligence, we decided the path we’re going down wouldn’t be fruitful, so we’re not going down that path anymore.”

The outcome was predictable. The Pentagon had ordered RKV development and production to overlap, along with a reduction in test flights. “MDA’s contracting plans for the RKV have been closely aligned to the test schedule, to the point that MDA will have more than half of its planned RKV buy under contract before conducting a successful intercept test,” the GAO had noted in its June report.

Ever since the U.S. government embraced a national missile-defense system, there has been a rush to throw billions of dollars at a limited threat.

“We could do what some programs do and what the Missile Defense Agency did years ago, which was to go ahead and produce what we’ve got and then deal with reliability issues within the fleet and then erode the confidence of the war fighter,” Rear Admiral Jon Hill, the deputy director of the Missile Defense Agency, had told reporters back in March. “We know that is the wrong step.”

The GAO hinted that the military’s self-congratulations over its willingness to bite the silver bullet by killing the RKV was a tad disingenuous. “In multiple previous reports, we raised concerns regarding MDA’s use of these components as well as RKV’s aggressive development schedule. In our May 2017 report, we also recommended that [the Department of Defense] perform a comprehensive review of the RKV,” it said in its June report. “Although such a review could have potentially provided DOD with a better understanding of RKV’s technical and schedule risks, DOD indicated in its response that the comprehensive review we recommended was unnecessary and therefore did not perform the review.”

Boeing and Raytheon, the two companies most responsible for the second-gen snafu, won’t have to return any taxpayer money. “We terminated for convenience, not default,” Griffin said, meaning it was the government’s discretion to cancel the contract and not because Boeing and Raytheon couldn’t fulfill it. “We learned quite a lot that we’ll carry forward into the Next-Generation Interceptor.”

Indeed. Instead of pausing to catch its breath and figure out if silver bullets are the best way to go, the Pentagon is jumping right back into the effort to build a third-generation interceptor. It handed out the classified specifications it wants to see in the next-gen interceptor on August 29, just over a week after it announced it had killed the RKV. Not surprisingly, Pentagon officials have been vague on the third kill-vehicle effort, including its timeline and cost.

And they’re already planning to develop a fourth. The Multi-Object Kill Vehicle (MOKV) is designed to destroy multiple incoming warheads and decoys from a single Ground-Based Interceptor. That’s critical to defeating incoming enemy missiles, which might mix decoy warheads among the real thing. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates killed it a decade ago, but it rose from the dead in 2015.

“While the number of [ground-based interceptors] is limited,” the Pentagon says in this year’s report on missile defense, “MOKV could improve the performance of the GMD system by increasing the probability of successfully intercepting the warhead.”

But first it has to master shooting down a single one.