Shield of Dreams

The effort to create a national missile defense system hinges on a controversial acquisition approach.

In mid-December, the Missile Defense Agency failed a test it had spent nearly two years and millions of dollars preparing for. Twenty-three seconds before an interceptor missile was set to launch from the Central Pacific into the atmosphere and knock out a dummy warhead incoming from Alaska, a software glitch brought the countdown to a halt. The interceptor never left its silo, and the bogus weapon splashed harmlessly into the ocean. A few days later, the Pentagon announced it would not have a limited missile defense shield for the United States in place by the end of 2004, as previously planned. ¶ For many weapons program mana-gers, such a high-profile test failure-which was not the program's first-would be cause for despair. Contract awards might be delayed and more oversight likely would come from members of Congress and political appointees in the Pentagon. But missile defense managers have not faced those obstacles. They quickly identified the problem as easy to fix, scheduled another test and declared that if an enemy launched a limited missile attack, the interceptors could be pressed into emergency action.

"We're disappointed that we didn't get this off," Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency, told reporters in January. "But we are certainly not disheartened in any way, shape or form, because it shows us we are exactly working through what we consider to be the fine-tuning of this system as we proceed."

The agency's response reflects its confidence in the controversial "capabilities-based" acquisition strategy it is using to build the missile shield. With an annual budget of about $10 billion, few specific requirements spelled out in the contracts to construct the system and broad exemptions from traditional oversight, the agency believes it can quickly field a shield capable of offering limited defense. As technology improves and threats change, the system gradually will be upgraded to offer higher levels of protection.

Philip Coyle, the Pentagon's director of operational test and evaluation in the Clinton administration and a leading skeptic of missile defense efforts, is not impressed by this approach. He notes that it took nearly two years to prepare for the most recent test. "At the rate they are going, it could take 50 years to complete their flight test program," says Coyle, now a senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information.

Obering argues that MDA has "been successful in developing a capability where in some cases there was nothing even two, two-and-a-half years ago. And we've done it with a lot of speed and within the cost and schedule constraints that we have. We ought to be taking the authorities that MDA has and see how we can apply those in other areas across the department."

Indeed, the Pentagon believes the "capabilities-based" approach is the wave of the future that will allow the latest technologies to reach the field much more quickly. Already, the Army's $2.8 billion Future Combat System and Defense's agencywide multibillion-dollar Global Information Grid, which provides a single battlefield network for the military services and U.S. allies, are being developed with the goal of achieving broad capabilities rather than meeting highly specific requirements. "It's the effect we want, it's not the platform we're interested in," Ryan Henry, principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for policy, told an industry group in January.

Old Idea, New Approach

Since the earliest days of the Cold War, the Defense Department has been trying to figure out how to build a shield to protect the United States from foreign missile attacks. Proposals ranged from small systems, such as the Army's Safeguard missiles that briefly guarded nuclear missile silos in North Dakota in the 1970s, to President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, which envisioned space-based lasers protecting the country from a nuclear holocaust. But a variety of political, diplomatic, technological and financial issues have kept the United States or any other country from successfully deploying a missile shield. By the 1990s, large-scale missile defense systems seemed as dated as the Soviet Union.

In the late 1990s, though, the idea of a national missile shield began making a comeback as rogue nations, such as Iran and North Korea, developed more sophisticated ballistic missiles and fears grew that long-range missile technology could slip into the hands of terrorists. In 1998, a bipartisan commission headed by Donald Rumsfeld warned that the United States was underestimating the threat posed by ballistic missiles. A year later, Congress passed a law calling for the creation of a national missile defense system as quickly as possible.

During the Clinton administration, Defense officials conducted research and development on building such a system, but repeatedly put off making any decisions on when and how to deploy it. In December 2001, President Bush directed the Pentagon to pursue an "evolutionary approach" toward putting a missile shield in place by 2004. "The United States will not have a final fixed missile defense architecture," he stated in the directive. "Rather, we will deploy an initial set of capabilities that will evolve to meet the changing threat and take advantage of technological developments."

In early 2002, Rumsfeld, by then the Defense secretary, combined various missile defense programs being pursued by the military services into a single research and development effort managed by a single entity, the Missile Defense Agency. He gave the agency unprecedented authority to operate outside normal acquisition rules by eliminating traditional oversight, scrapping documents that set out specific requirements, allowing shifts in funding among missile programs, and enabling the MDA director to set deadlines and schedule reviews and tests.

Dean Gehr, business development director for Raytheon Missile Systems in Tucson, Ariz., which is among the key contractors working on missile defense, says creating a single agency avoids the turf battles that sometimes plagued past programs pursued by MDA's predecessor, the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. "We see it as a benefit, because you have more unity with one leader," Gehr says.

The new approach also saves time. Most major weapon systems are designed based on complex requirements set by Defense officials and spend years in development and testing before they are fielded. For example, contracts were first awarded to design the Air Force's F/A-22 fighter in the mid-1980s. Only now is the aircraft undergoing final flight testing.

Military leaders and the White House believed the ballistic missile threat was too great to spend years developing a defense system, so they bet on the idea that a limited defense would be better than none at all. Under that approach, the system initially would be able to handle a small missile attack from a nation such as North Korea aimed at one or two locations, but could not deal with a large attack simultaneously aimed at multiple cities, as envisioned during the Cold War.

As technology and threats change and military personnel offer feedback on the system, the Pentagon can incorporate new technologies to create a more robust shield. This approach, known as "spiral development," borrows on an idea pioneered by commercial software developers, who regularly issue new versions of basic operating systems.

The agency is funding and fielding pieces of the missile system in two-year blocks, not the traditional six-year weapons planning cycle. The 2004-2005 block focuses on using existing ground- and sea-based systems to provide limited defense against long-range threats. By the 2010 and 2012 blocks, the focus will expand to airborne lasers and fast-moving kinetic energy interceptors that can take out missiles shortly after they are launched.

Patricia Sanders, MDA's deputy director for integration, says missile defense is not like other weapons systems, which generally replace previous versions already in the field. "There's not a foundation to build on that you would have in replacing one aircraft with another, so we want to bring it on as rapidly as is feasible," she says.

Maj. Gen. John Holly, the agency's deputy director, says that in the past, a system would have to be nearly perfect before fielding, but now it can be deployed when it offers limited capability. For example, MDA has six ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, that could be used in emergency situations, despite the fact that nine live intercept attempts using the missiles have resulted in only five hits.

MDA also has five Standard Missile-3 interceptors on Navy Aegis cruisers that could be called on in an emergency. The agency touts the availability of both options as a sign that it has met the president's goal of having the beginnings of a missile shield in place by the end of 2004.

Growing Concern

Critics, however, contend that fielding a missile system outside traditional rules without extensive testing is the wrong approach. They question why MDA is being allowed to spend billions of dollars with little scrutiny and without having to pass regular tests. "A system is being deployed that doesn't have any credible capability. I cannot recall any system being deployed in such a manner," retired Gen. Eugene Habiger told The Washington Post last fall. In the 1990s, he headed the U.S. Strategic Command, where he oversaw all Air Force and Navy strategic nuclear forces.

Coyle, the former Pentagon weapons tester, says giving the MDA director responsibility for program reviews strips independent oversight responsibility from senior Pentagon officials on the Defense Acquisition Board. The board periodically reviews major weapons to ensure they are on track and approves changes in schedules and funding. Coyle says the reviews often include independent assessments on issues ranging from emerging threats to whether a program's cost projections are realistic.

Holly says missile defense has received as much Pentagon oversight as other large weapons programs, just not through traditional channels. He says agency officials meet weekly with the Pentagon's acting acquisition chief, Michael Wynne, and the department has set up a Missile Defense Study Support Group, including representatives of the Defense secretary, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the military services, to regularly review the program. Last fall, The Washington Post reported that the study group had met 47 times in two years, but quoted members as saying their role was advisory and they sometimes learned of program decisions after the fact.

"What we are doing is empowering senior leaders at the agency to make the program's judgment calls," says Holly. He says Defense Acquisition Board reviews focus "on trying to find problems as much as anything," and require "tons of documentation" and numerous meetings leading up to them.

Terry Little, a longtime Defense weapons program manager who now is MDA's executive director, says the missile defense program is subject to rigid internal annual reviews to determine whether it is meeting goals. This means, he says, that if airborne lasers show more promise than kinetic energy interceptors, money could be shifted from the former to the latter. "In most weapons programs, a commitment to develop is a commitment to the end," Little says. "But here, we're a lot more like private industry, with assessments that ask if we really need it."

Last April, the Government Accountability Office criticized how MDA tracked spending and questioned whether its testing efforts were realistic. The report (GAO-04-409) stated that program flexibilities should not "diminish the importance of ensuring accountability over the substantial investments in missile defense." GAO auditors noted that MDA projected that it would spend $53 billion between 2004 and 2009, but had not established baseline cost estimates, which are needed to determine overruns. The agency has since agreed to provide such estimates.

But auditors and the MDA could not settle their differences over independent testing of the missile shield. GAO called the agency's flights tests "repetitive and scripted," and urged MDA officials to submit to independent testing by the Pentagon's director of operational test and evaluation. MDA officials resisted, saying the program is a unique research and development effort, and they would gradually step up their own tests.

Members of Congress, however, have become concerned about putting pieces of the missile defense system in place without more realistic testing. Last fall, they ordered the agency to submit the missile defense system to the same rigorous testing that other weapons face. But questions linger over how those tests will be conducted. The Pentagon's operational tests are judged against system requirements, which do not exist for missile defense. Moreover, recently retired Pentagon weapons tester Thomas Christie is already at odds with the Missile Defense Agency. He has told members of Congress that if the missile shield were deployed today, it would be only 20 percent effective in taking out incoming missiles. Agency officials contend the system would be 80 percent effective.

MDA's Obering says the agency can learn a lot from ground-based simulations and experiments, and generally uses flight tests for the purpose of confirming those results. Obering, who worked in the control room during some of NASA's first space shuttle launches in the 1980s, says the space agency also relied extensively on simulations. "In fact," he says, "the first time we launched the space shuttle, it was inhabited."