Members of Congress and conservative lobbyists have been celebrating a very special birthday: President George W. Bush's official activation of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system. But the sad truth is that they're celebrating 10 years of self-delusion. The project is broken, despite the $40 billion spent on it.
Missile defense advocates chose to swallow the blue pill and wash it down with Kool-Aid. In fact, the "10-year birthday" itself is a dubious exaggeration. As Laura Grego, a physicist and expert on missile defense recently observed:
Despite declaring [in 2004] the mission was accomplished, much work remained to be done. For example, only five [anti-missile] 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.
And that successful test was a rarity. During the last 10 years, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has staged just nine tests and interceptors destroyed an incoming warhead in only three of them. "Batting .333 may be great in baseball, but against nuclear-tipped missiles it is simply inadequate," writes Tom Collina of the Arms Control Association.
A Rush To Failure
We shouldn't be surprised by these failures. The U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system that was chosen for national defense against ballistic missiles has been plagued by mismanagement and design flaws since the Bush administration decided to rush it into development. The National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council published a 260-page study, saying that the U.S. Missile Defense Agency's efforts "have spawned an almost 'hobby shop' approach, with many false starts on poorly analyzed concepts."
At the heart of these problems is a culture at MDA and its contractors with roots that go back to January 2, 2002, when the Secretary of Defense exempted MDA from following the Pentagon's normal rules for acquiring a weapons system: In the service of meeting the Bush administration's tight deadline, many of the standard Defense Department's regulations on developing, testing and acquisition of military systems were relaxed or completely discarded. The Pentagon mantra of "fly before you buy" was replaced with "buy and try to make it fly."
Indeed, Frank Kendall, the U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, told Aviation Week magazine earlier this year:
"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."
Throwing Good Money After Bad
Yet, despite numerous failed tests, the U.S. has deployed 30 interceptor missiles at Fort Greeley, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. An additional 14 interceptors are scheduled to be deployed in Alaska by 2017.
To date, one of the most problematic elements of the GMD system has been the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV), which is mounted on the interceptors. The EKV is supposed to detach, detect and destroy the incoming threat by flying into space and striking the target missile at velocities approaching 22,000 mph.
Again, problems with the EKV shouldn't come as a surprise. As Philip Coyle, the former Director of Operational Test and Evaluation at the Department of Defense recently wrote:
The September 8, 2014, report of the Department of Defense Inspector General, "Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle [EKV] Quality Assurance and Reliability Assessment, Part A," criticizes the sloppy work finding 48 "nonconformances" with good practice. Twenty-two of those are "major," meaning "nonfulfillment of a requirement that is likely to result in the failure of the quality management system or reduce its ability to ensure controlled processes or compliant products/services."
For those of you who don't speak wonk, this means the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system deployed in Alaska and California and designed to protect the U.S. homeland against a potential North Korean or Iranian missile attack isn't dependable.
Part B of the report analyzes the reliability of the EKVs now deployed in the field in Alaska and California, but that report will be classified so taxpayers won't see the bottom line.
A few days later, the Inspector General released yet another report, saying that the Missile Defense Agency could've saved millions of dollars on a $1 billion contract, if it hadn't ignored recommendations made by the Defense Contract Audit Agency.
Yet, despite repeated instances of mismanagement and waste, missile defense advocates are commemorating the 10th birthday of the program by complaining that not enough money is being spent. Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) bemoaned the fact that funding will average a mere $1 billion per year over the next five years. He wants to push that number back up to $2 billion.
But, fear not, taxpayers. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the Chairman of the House Science Committee on Science, Space and Technology, has begun a time-consuming audit of the National Science Foundation's peer-reviewed grants, to make sure taxpayer money is not being squandered on frivolous research. He expects to save thousands of dollars.
And, to think, people complain that there's insufficient oversight of government spending in Congress. So, Happy Birthday, national missile defense! It's safe to say you'll be celebrating many more.