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Missile defenses hobbled by uncertainties

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After the successful U.S. interception of a simulated North Korean warhead in a 2007 test, Lt. Gen. Henry Obering III expressed great confidence in the capabilities of the U.S. missile defense program. "Does the system work? The answer to that is yes," Obering, then the program's director, told reporters at a briefing.

Last Friday, after a year-long study, the General Accountability Office expressed far less confidence and issued a clarification of sorts: The Pentagon, it said, really has no idea if its missile defense systems will do their job, because over the past several decades it hasn't  concocted validated targets to test them, fielded proven interceptors, or even collected all the data needed to assess their early performance.

Deployment of the interceptors Obering praised, the GAO warned, had been rushed to meet a 2004 deadline set by President George W. Bush. The design was not fully tested before production got under way -- a frequent occurrence at the Pentagon -- and the results were "unexpected cost increases, schedule delays, test problems, and performance shortfalls," according to its report.

This troublesome pattern of concurrently testing and manufacturing interceptors and related equipment is now being repeated by the Obama administration, the independent audit agency said in its 100-page report.

Due to President Obama's decision in 2010 to deploy missile defenses in Europe by 2015 and improved interceptors by 2020, the program "continues to undertake highly concurrent acquisitions," it said. While a spate of recent test failures has slowed or halted production of three of the program's four types of interceptors, the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency plans to buy 29 more of another type that failed in testing last year. The cost will be $389 million.

Figuring out whether any of these missiles will be up to its assigned task is not going to be easy, if the GAO account is correct. Key flight tests conducted so far were not "accredited," as required, by the Pentagon's Operational Test Agency. In 2009, that agency specifically identified 39 shortcomings in the testing plans, and of these, technical solutions have since been found for only 22. No deadline has been set for solving the rest, but the GAO predicted it would take "many years to accomplish."

The GAO report "shows that the European missile defense program is now following the same 'buy long before you fly' approach that has resulted in our national missile defense system deploying interceptors that don't work," said George Lewis, a missile defense specialist and senior research associate at Cornell University's Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies.

One problem is the sheer difficulty of accumulating useful data during the high-velocity interceptor flights, when closing speeds can approach 22,000 miles an hour and the attacking warheads must strike targets precisely or explode nearby with split-second timing. So far, according to the GAO, the program's managers have figured out a way to collect only 15 percent of the more than 2000 data points needed to create accurate models, and they don't anticipate collecting the remainder for another five to ten years.

Specific troubles are also laying in wait for the European defense effort, which is supposed to become fully operational in 2018 and is aimed primarily at shooting down any threatening rockets launched by Iran.

A key component is an immense radar slated for installation in Romania by 2015, before it has been fully tested. The radar, erected inside what looks like a giant golf ball sitting atop a tee (called a deckhouse in missile defense vernacular), will use a portion of the radiofrequency spectrum that the Romanian government may want for some of its wireless broadband communications, the GAO notes. As a result, either the radio or the broadband devices will need modification.

It's not hard to imagine that, given a choice between giving their citizens wide access to the internet and helping to field an American missile defense system, Romania might easily become a less compliant ally. A solution is not in sight, prompting the GAO to warn that the frequency interference issue may be "a long-term challenge" not only in Romania but also later in Poland, where another golf ball-like radar dome is slated to be installed. Urban structures and wind farms in both countries are further obstructions, according to Pentagon documents cited by the GAO.

The dominant theme of the GAO report is that the Missile Defense Agency program managers, financially supported by top Pentagon officials and key lawmakers, have basically been engaged in understandable, but wishful thinking. The unavoidable conclusion is that they're so keen to have a defensive solution to the missile threat that they want to field one immediately, on the chance that it might wind up accomplishing the mission.

So far, the government has spent more than $30 billion on just a portion of the effort, involving the deployment of around 30 interceptor missiles in Alaska and California. According to the GAO, these missiles -- the ones that Obering endorsed -- are still being tested, refurbished, and retrofit.

The Missile Defense Agency is meanwhile trying to create an improved version of those missiles, but its effort has been set back by two test failures in 2010 that its officials are still struggling to understand. The cost of the upgrade has ballooned to around a billion dollars, a four-fold increase from initial estimates.

Officials told the GAO that another $180 million will eventually be needed to cover the cost of retrofitting ten of these newer interceptors that were manufactured before the test failures. The newer missiles cost $421 million apiece, its report said. According to the GAO's calculation, the Pentagon's tests will not be able to confirm that the new interceptor works until 9 years after its production was approved.

A related interceptor program, known as THAAD and meant to defend U.S. military bases and foreign cities from short-to-medium range missiles, has also seen costs rise by $40 million, and experienced delays and test problems.  One reason is that two initial operational systems were built before the design was stable and testing was complete. Even now, with testing still under way, the agency has ordered two more.

Another reason for THAAD's troubles is what Cristina Chaplain, GAO's director of acquisition and sourcing management, called a "quality issue" at a hearing April 25 before the Senate armed services subcommittee on strategic forces. She said that during a flight test in 2010, a target meant to be shot down by the system in a test was improperly connected to the airplane carrying it aloft for release. It "fell into the ocean," she said, causing a delay of that test and others and the expenditure of "hundreds of millions of dollars" on additional targets.

Chaplain also complained that on too many occasions, the Missile Defense Agency committed to long-term production before the formal approval of a system's design, producing a circumstance in which "you've already made a commitment to something and you don't have the knowledge you need to make that commitment."

At the hearing, J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon's top testing official, separately called the THAAD system "operationally suitable" but said that reliability problems, test results, and "soldier feedback" indicate it has problems that need to be investigated or corrected. He also complained that the agency's budget and schedule for all its missile defense components lack any plan for backup or repeat tests that may be needed if parts fail or the results are otherwise unsatisfactory.

In the past decade alone, the Pentagon has spent $80 billion on all its missile defense efforts, and it forecasts spending another $44 billion over the next four years as the new interceptors are deployed.  The GAO's conclusion is not that this is a far-fetched or impossible task (as a recent Defense Science Board report hinted last September), but simply that the Missile Defense Agency is not going about its work in a wise manner.

As if scolding an errant child, the auditors complained repeatedly that the agency has not heeded a simple fact: "To date, all ... flight tests [of the interceptors used in this program] have revealed issues that led to either a hardware or software change." While the agency has recently "begun emphasizing" a better approach to production -- namely, waiting until some tests are finished and some designs are proven -- its plans to proceed with the purchase of dozens of unproven interceptors are "premature," the GAO said.

In response, David G. Ahern, the Pentagon's deputy assistant secretary for strategic and tactical systems, said he agreed with many of the GAO's complaints but that other considerations had come into play, such as the need to keep paying key contractors.

"MDA is balancing," he said, "the need to demonstrate technical achievement and ensuring the system is thoroughly tested before fielding with the need to keep the industrial base and supply chain healthy to ensure transition as quickly as possible" to better systems. He called its current risk management practices "prudent" but agreed -- as the GAO urged -- to prepare a report examining whether President Obama's deadline for deploying the European system "may be contributing to concurrency."

That report will go to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Ahern said. He did not mention any plan to send it to Congress or release it to the public.

Continue this story and read more investigations at iWatch News