Congress chides U.S. Missile Defense management

Lawmakers scolded the Missile Defense Agency for a number of management problems and trimmed its budget in a recently enacted fiscal 2009 appropriations bill.

The appropriations bill criticized several aspects of missile defense operations, including funding priorities in the MDA budget request, flight-test delays and cancellations, and the availability of target missiles for use in testing.

Overall, Congress gave $9.02 billion to the Defense Department's missile defense arm for the new fiscal year, a figure that largely satisfied agency advocates.

"The reduction was only $320.6 million out of a $9.3 billion request," MDA spokesman Rick Lehner told Global Security Newswire last week. While some missile defense projects saw their annual budgets decreased, "the programs all were funded [at some level] ... so we were pleased," he said.

However, others characterized the level of funding as excessive.

"It's too much money for missile defense," said John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World. He said that despite billions of dollars in annual funding, long-range defense systems that receive the bulk of MDA money have not yet proven technically feasible at intercepting a complex attack. Such attacks could include decoys or other countermeasures aimed at confusing missile defense sensors.

The Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., "strongly supports the development and deployment of theater and national missile defenses," according to his campaign Web site. His Democratic counterpart, Senator Barack Obama, D-Ill., has been more critical, charging last year that President George W. Bush's administration "has in the past exaggerated missile defense capabilities and rushed deployments for political purposes."

In an unusual move, congressional leaders in late September combined the new defense appropriations bill - which contains the missile defense provisions - with other 2009 funding legislation and attached them to a continuing resolution. The measure allows for government spending from Oct. 1 of this year through March 6, 2009.

Congress would have to act again to keep a host of defense, homeland security and other government programs running after that. Presumably the fiscal 2009 program budgets set by the existing appropriations bill would remain largely the same, but any new legislation could open the door to possible alterations.

In the bill passed in September, lawmakers said the agency had shifted money into its more exotic, long-term technology development efforts, partially at the expense of fully funding missile defense systems being deployed today.

"In order to execute a balanced program, the Missile Defense Agency must continue to field the near-term missile defense programs, primarily Ground-Based Missile Defense, Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense, and Theater High-Altitude Area Defense programs," the appropriations report states. "Funding for fielding these programs, however, is sacrificed each year to pay for the development of futuristic missile defense programs."

The bill sought to remedy the problem by shifting $120 million into the three near-term efforts, financed by reductions to the longer-term Multiple Kill Vehicle, Airborne Laser and Space Test Bed programs. It directed the agency to report to Congress by Dec. 1 on how it would specifically allocate the additional funds.

Lawmakers also called on the agency to set as its "highest priority" providing additional Standard Missile 3 and THAAD interceptors to combatant commanders and to "budget accordingly" in its fiscal 2010 funding request.

Lehner noted that one of the reductions in futuristic efforts that the appropriations bill made - a $70 million cut in the $354.5 million budget request for the Multiple Kill Vehicle - could slow progress that Congress in the past has emphasized as important. The Multiple Kill Vehicle is envisioned as a single-launch intercept system that could destroy incoming clusters of warheads and decoys, a potentially useful tool against adversaries that might seek to overwhelm the U.S. defense architecture.

Given that such a scenario has been "one of Congress' main concerns," Lehner said his agency would strive to offer "better arguments" for the Multiple Kill Vehicle in the fiscal 2010 request. That document is expected for delivery to Capitol Hill early next year.

The appropriations bill also rapped the Missile Defense Agency - one of the Pentagon's largest research and development accounts - for having "established a pattern of cost, schedule and performance problems."

With several tests having been delayed or canceled each year from 2006 to 2008, "it is not unreasonable to assume that some of the tests planned for fiscal year 2009 will likely slip into subsequent fiscal years," legislators complained in the report. "MDA's fiscal year 2009 test schedule reflects 13 flight tests with 77 percent of these tests scheduled for the third and fourth quarters."

The bill directs the agency to report to the congressional defense committees by Jan. 15, 2009, on its test schedule and whether any shortfalls exist that could contribute to further delays.

Postponed and canceled intercept flight tests of the currently fielded system, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense, have proved particularly worrisome on Capitol Hill. No such intercept tests were carried out in fiscal 2008, with one scheduled for July scrapped because of faulty test equipment.

"We'd like to get to two [GMD intercept tests] a year," said Lehner, noting that the objective has faced "extenuating circumstances," such as unexpected delays in developing technology or problems with test gear. "We conduct so few tests that we have to get the maximum amount of data … from each test that we do conduct."

When Bush withdrew from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty in December 2001, the Missile Defense Agency said a legal barrier had been removed that would allow more GMD flight tests, Isaacs noted. However, he said, MDA officials have not been able to achieve a more ambitious test schedule.

"They said we could test much more now," Isaacs said. "Well, now they've tested less."

In a related issue, lawmakers also cited problems in producing affordable and reliable mock warheads that the agency needs as targets for testing its defense systems.

"The Missile Defense Agency has renewed its focus and commitment to the target program and must continue this momentum in order to achieve optimal production and deliveries," according to the appropriations report.

To help facilitate that effort, the bill added $32 million for a "flexible family of targets to initiate an inventory buildup of critical, long-lead hardware items," and consolidated all target funding into a single program line.

Isaacs said he welcomed growing congressional interest in MDA oversight issues. Leading up to the final conference report, both House and Senate defense appropriators "raised serious questions about management of the Missile Defense Agency," he told GSN last week.

Lehner said his agency remained untroubled by the bill's provisions. "There was really nothing in there that we disliked," he said.

The Missile Defense Agency typically has "more oversight than any program in the Department of Defense," he said, calling the level of monitoring "proper." MDA leaders frequently brief Capitol Hill staffs, the Government Accountability Office and various review commissions, Lehner noted.

"We are striving to ensure we provide the information Congress needs to meet its oversight responsibility," Lehner subsequently added by e-mail. "And we want to do better."

The fiscal 2009 defense authorization conference bill, also concluded in late September, contained a number of missile defense reporting requirements. Among them was a provision that prohibits the expenditure of funds for the deployment of missile defense installations in Europe, until host-nation agreements are ratified.

The appropriations bill funded the overall European missile defense effort at $467.2 million for the fiscal year. A portion of that budget dedicated to long-lead procurement may go forward without limitation, according to the authorization bill.

An interceptor site is to be built in Poland and a midcourse radar element is to be established in the Czech Republic. U.S. officials have said the system would help protect the United States and Europe against a potential missile threat from Iran, though Russian leaders have argued that the proposed deployments threaten their nation.

The authorization bill also requires a report by the Pentagon's test director, certifying through flight demonstrations that the European system has "a high probability of working in an operationally effective manner and the ability to accomplish the mission," before deployment funds can be released.

Isaacs termed the legislative conditions on the European missile defense system "real progress," saying technology performance must be held to a high standard before being funded.

Lehner was unconcerned, though, that the MDA reporting requirement would pose a challenging hurdle for his agency to meet.

"It's not a matter of proving anything," he said. Lehner noted that the proposed long-range interceptors slated for Poland use the same design as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system deployed in California and Alaska, minus one stage of its three-stage rocket motor. "It's [just] a matter of demonstrating that two-stage rocket," he said.

Lehner said upcoming tests of the European-based system would include a booster demonstration next summer or fall, and a first intercept test in fiscal 2010 or 2011. The defense agency aims to deploy the system between 2011 and 2013, he said.

Both presidential candidates have offered measured support for the European missile deployment plan. Obama said the United States should "deploy missile defenses that would protect us and our allies … but only when the system works." For his part, McCain has said such missile defenses could safeguard "American forces and American allies" from "outlaw states like Iran."

The authorization bill also echoed the appropriators' concerns about lending greater priority to near-term missile defense programs, staying on schedule for flight tests and adequately funding missile-target programs.

Other missile defense-related reports required by the fiscal 2009 defense authorization bill include:

  • A review by the defense secretary of overall ballistic missile defense policy and strategy, due Jan. 31, 2010;
  • An independent study on boost-phase missile defense concepts and systems, to include the Airborne Laser and Kinetic Energy Interceptor, by the National Academy of Sciences, due 90 days after the bill's enactment;
  • A separate review by the Pentagon's test director of the Airborne Laser's performance in testing, due Jan. 15, 2010; and a related certification by the defense secretary that the system has proven through demonstrations to be "operationally effective, suitable, survivable and affordable" before funds can be expended for a second ABL aircraft that would carry the weapon; and
  • A defense secretary report to the House and Senate armed services committees on the deployment of an AN/TPY-2 X-band radar to a classified location - which outside experts speculate could be Israel - before $89 million could be spent on the project.
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