“What failed . . . was the culmination of a five-year process failure—a huge process failure between the Defense Department and the Hill—that has led to a suspension of the normal redesign and reengineering activities on GMD,” the official says. In 2004, President George W. Bush announced limited defensive operations with GMD despite its embryonic status; only years later officials abandoned what would traditionally be an ongoing plan to repeatedly test and redesign the system until it was reliable and producible. The blame for this shift rests on the Bush and President Barack Obama administrations, this official says. Program overseers were forced to simply monitor the interceptors and kill vehicles already built and fix issues that cropped up in inspections.
“We never got to the 'redesign point' there. This idea that you can inspect in quality and mission assurance over the long term . . . is crazy, but that is the path we are on now,” the official says.
This conundrum is unique to GMD among the MDA's major programs. In the case of the Aegis, sea-based regional missile defense system, which employs the Raytheon SM-3IA and now IB, the Navy and MDA took a methodical approach to incrementally testing and designing fixes. Today, Aegis has become the system of choice for combatant commanders in Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific regions.
Likewise, the Army went so far as to stand down testing and production of the Lockheed Martin Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system, an improved, land-based successor to PAC-3, owing to repeated failures. After a decade of lackluster testing and a substantial redesign, however, the system reemerged and accomplished a starkly improved intercept record. Thaad has garnered enough confidence already to be sought by allies in the Middle East.
Part of the difference in philosophies behind these programs could be attributed to the political nature of GMD. As the only system protecting U.S. territory, a stand-down to allow for redesign is not and was never an option since Bush announced defensive operations in 2004. The very presence of a GMD is required for the U.S. to continue a dialogue and policy of deterrence against such adversaries as Pyongyang and Tehran.
The flight failure comes not only at a sensitive time relative to North Korea's bellicose behavior. It is the first major flight trial under the leadership of MDA's Director, Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, who took over in November. Under his predecessor, Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, who had a stern leadership style and a notorious bent for risk aversion, the agency's technical ranks and morale eroded along with its testing tempo.
Senior Pentagon leaders hoped to improve the latter with three GMD tests slated for this year alone. During the first, the GBI conducted a controlled test flight using a retrofitted EKV Capability Enhancement-2 (CE-2) system designed for improved warhead discrimination over the CE-1 that flew in December 2008 and this month. The CE-2 had failed in two attempts in 2010, and the January flight built confidence that a vibration problem was solved. An intercept trial for CE-2, previously set to take place by year-end, would pit it against an LV-2. It is uncertain, however, when it will take place as program officials are now focused on the failure review for the July test.
The July trial was also the first for Boeing under its new GMD oversight contract, a $3.5 billion deal won in 2011 over a Lockheed Martin team. Boeing's win was attributed to technical merit and aggressive pricing; compared to its legacy GMD contract, Boeing's price plummeted about 35%. But, industry officials say Boeing had to reduce its core of engineering experts in order to reach that price. The result is a “less deep bench” of manpower to put on the problem, one official says.
One solution, according to multiple industry sources, is to “stick to the knitting” and reinstate a costly but effective program to hone the GMD design, allowing for retrofits to existing missiles and improved reliability for yet-to-be-purchased interceptors. This will not come cheaply, however. Such an effort is estimated to be $1 billion annually, a figure likely to raise eyebrows at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. “The cost of not improving it versus fixing it is actually trivial,” one official says, noting the lost effort and time spent on failure after failure.