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
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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