Watchdog Agency: Missile Interceptor Production Should Await Proven Redesign

A U.S. Standard Missile 3 Block 1B interceptor is launched from the USS Lake Erie during a September 2013 trial in which one salvo failed. A new audit report recommends the Pentagon delay full production of the weapon until the reason for the failure has been diagnosed, fixed and proven through testing.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
April 4, 2014, 6:03 a.m.

Con­gres­sion­al aud­it­ors are ad­vising the Pentagon to re­design and suc­cess­fully test a ver­sion of the Stand­ard Mis­sile 3 be­fore al­low­ing the in­ter­cept­or to be pro­duced.

The re­com­mend­a­tion could prove con­tro­ver­sial at the De­fense De­part­ment, es­pe­cially be­cause European de­ploy­ment of the an­ti­mis­sile tech­no­logy in ques­tion is planned for next year.

The Tues­day re­port by the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice raised con­cerns that the Pentagon’s Mis­sile De­fense Agency is poised to ap­prove pro­duc­tion of the Stand­ard Mis­sile 3 Block 1B in­ter­cept­or, des­pite not know­ing what caused one of the mis­siles to fail dur­ing a Septem­ber 2013 in­ter­cept test.

The con­gres­sion­al watch­dog ad­vised the agency to await full-pro­duc­tion ap­prov­al for the in­ter­cept­or un­til both a de­term­in­a­tion is made on wheth­er changes to the sys­tem’s hard­ware or soft­ware are ne­ces­sary, and any such modi­fic­a­tions have been proven through test­ing that “demon­strates that the re­designed mis­sile is ef­fect­ive and suit­able.”

The SM-3 Block 1B is de­signed to des­troy short- and me­di­um-range bal­list­ic mis­siles. The in­ter­cept­or is planned for field­ing be­gin­ning in 2015 on U.S. war­ships home-por­ted in Spain and at a site in Ro­mania, as part of Wash­ing­ton’s con­tri­bu­tion to NATO mis­sile de­fense.

A timely de­ploy­ment of the weapon has taken on great­er ur­gency for some con­gres­sion­al law­makers, in light of re­cent mil­it­ary ac­tions by Rus­sia in Ukraine.

Three suc­cess­ful in­ter­cept tri­als of the weapon were car­ried out in 2013. It was dur­ing a salvo test in Septem­ber that the fail­ure of a launched Block 1B in­ter­cept­or oc­curred.

“A fail­ure re­view is on­go­ing to de­term­ine the root cause of the fail­ure and may res­ult in design changes to a com­pon­ent com­mon to the [earli­er-gen­er­a­tion] SM-3 Block 1A,” the 49-page re­port reads. “Ef­fects on pro­duc­tion re­main un­clear.”

Christina Chap­lain, the GAO head of ac­quis­i­tion and sourcing man­age­ment, in a Wed­nes­day ap­pear­ance be­fore the Sen­ate, ob­served that “MDA con­tin­ues to pro­cure new 1B in­ter­cept­ors while it in­vest­ig­ates the cause of the fail­ure.”

The Pentagon’s prac­tice of buy­ing an­ti­mis­sile sys­tems be­fore test­ing on them is com­plete is put­ting sub­stan­tial tax­pay­er dol­lars at risk, she said in her in writ­ten testi­mony sub­mit­ted to the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Sub­com­mit­tee on Stra­tegic Forces.

The Mis­sile De­fense Agency has re­peatedly em­ployed a “high-risk” strategy of “com­mit­ting to product de­vel­op­ment be­fore [pro­gram] re­quire­ments are un­der­stood and tech­no­lo­gies are ma­ture,” Chap­lain said.

The agency’s sched­ule for ac­quir­ing new an­ti­mis­sile sys­tems fre­quently over­laps pro­duc­tion with tech­no­logy de­vel­op­ment, ac­cord­ing to the re­port pro­duced by Chap­lain’s of­fice. Such a strategy “of­ten res­ults in per­form­ance short­falls, un­ex­pec­ted cost in­creases, sched­ule delays, and test prob­lems,” the doc­u­ment states.

At the same time, the Pentagon con­tin­ues to ex­per­i­ence per­form­ance chal­lenges with its Ground Based In­ter­cept­or, which is meant to de­fend the United States against a pos­sible in­ter­con­tin­ent­al bal­list­ic mis­sile at­tack. The GBI mis­sile is already de­ployed at sites in Cali­for­nia and Alaska, and there are plans to aug­ment the lat­ter site with 14 ad­di­tion­al in­ter­cept­ors in 2017.

Those new in­ter­cept­or ac­quis­i­tion plans have been called in­to ques­tion by the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice and oth­ers, who point out that the mis­sile has not had a suc­cess­ful test in­ter­cept since 2008, with three more re­cent at­tempts hav­ing failed.

Es­tim­ated costs for fixes to the in­ter­cept­or and for re­cov­er­ing lost ground from the mul­tiple test fail­ures total ap­prox­im­ately $1.3 bil­lion, Chap­lain said on Wed­nes­day.

“We do be­lieve those costs could have been avoided,” had the Pentagon ob­served a so-called “fly be­fore you buy” ap­proach, she said.

The De­fense De­part­ment has long in­sisted that its policy is to pur­chase only those weapons that have been ap­pro­pri­ately vet­ted through test­ing.

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