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New Pentagon Report Slams Missile Defense Agency

11/20/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This article was co-authored by Joe Cirincione and Victoria Samson, senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information.

A new Pentagon study says we need to take the current missile defense program back to the garage for some serious repairs. The report should help the next president redirect funds from this $13 billion a year boondoggle to weapons we need, and get the program back on track.

The study, done for the Pentagon by the Institute of Defense Analyses and headed by the respected retired General Larry Welch, says that the Missile Defense Agency (MDA)'s rush to deploy something, anything, has come at the expense of research and careful development of weapons that work. It questioned the MDA's ability to maintain and operate the weapons coming out of its shop and recommended that most of the programs be handed over to the military as quickly as possible, demoting MDA back to the research and coordinating body it was before President Bush.

The study authors carefully crafted the wording of their technical assessment to soften the devastating impact of the recommendations. Below, we provide the key findings, with a translation for the rest of us.

Fly Before We Buy

"While the independent study group agrees that there is a need to move toward more normal acquisition processes, the need for continuous evolution of the BMDS [ballistic missile defense system] will require that the approach to setting requirements for increments of capability and developing and fielding those increments remain as special authorities with oversight of the MDEB [Missile Defense Executive Board]."

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld exempted missile defense from the normal Pentagon procurement rules. He argued that a bizarre process dubbed "spiral development" would allow us to deploy anti-missile weapons before they were thoroughly tested. They could build a little, test a little, and improve the weapons down the line. No, says the board, this is a bad idea. Without clear benchmarks for the weapon and testing before deployment, how can we ever know if the program has met its goals? So with this report, IDA indicates that spiral development is on the way out. While it's still here, the authors say that someone must establish milestones for the systems' development.

Whoa, Cowboy

"For mid-course intercept systems, the balance between qualitative improvements and deploying more of existing capabilities should be strongly in favor of qualitative improvements."

Specifically, there is no need to build new bases in Poland and the Czech Republic until we know if the anti-missile systems work. "Mid-course intercept systems" includes the controversial Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, which already has interceptors deployed in Alaska and California, and a variant of which the United States wants to put in Europe. Wait, says the board.

Rush to Failure

"The pressures for continued deployments of current capabilities can have an adverse impact on investments in RDT&E [research, development, test, and evaluation] needed to increase capability to deal with a wide range of possible threats. Such a trend toward more deployments of current capabilities would seriously degrade the ability to increase the future capability of BMDS."

We must make sure the weapons work before we ramp up production and give them to the troops. Also known as a rush to failure. 10 years after another report headed by Gen. Welch warned against doing exactly this, the United States is still doggedly focused on schedules over capabilities.

Restore Oversight

"Before the system enters low-rate production, DOT&E [Director of Operational Test and Evaluation - the head weapons tester for the Pentagon] should provide an early operational assessment to USSTRATCOM for use in the Commander's military utility assessment."

This is probably why MDA has been reluctant to state that its programs have moved beyond their research and development stages: they would have to stand up to an outside assessment. Currently, they are in the eternal haze of spiral development, where they are never really done being developed and thus can never be held accountable.

The report could have gone deeper into the lack of oversight. The New York Times recently reported how the lack of oversight allowed lobbyists and contractors to rip off the government. Two men, cited by the Times, collected over $1.6 million in kickbacks last year alone.

Take the Kids Out of the Candy Store

Finally, the report says we should transfer the weapons programs that are already fielded from MDA to the military services. This means that the services would be responsible for funding and fielding the systems, allowing them to decide the real-world trade-offs. Which weapons do the military think they really need, versus the ones bureaucrats have been pushing?

The weapons include: the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system, Sea-based X-band Radar, the upgraded early warning radar, the Cobra Dane radar, the ground-based interceptors for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, and the AN/TPY-2 forward-based X-band radar. The report's authors believe that this should take no longer than a fiscal year.

Overall, the IDA report is a golden opportunity for the next president to restore some sanity and fiscal responsibility to a program plagued by mismanagement and corruption that has deployed weapons that don't work against threats that don't yet exist.