Time to Change U.S. Missile Defense Culture

By Philip Coyle As a taxpayer, you might be disappointed to learn that the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and its contractors haven’t been following standard and essential quality control procedures when it comes to the design, development, and production of a key missile defense system. If not, you should be. The September 8, 2014, report of the Department of Defense (DoD) Inspector General (IG), “Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle [EKV] Quality Assurance and Reliability Assessment, Part A,” criticizes the sloppy work finding 48 “nonconformances” with good practice.  Twenty-two of those are “major,” meaning “nonfulfillment of a requirement that is likely to result in the failure of the quality management system or reduce its ability to ensure controlled processes or compliant products/services.” For those of you who don’t speak wonk, this means the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system deployed in Alaska and California and designed to protect the U.S. homeland against a potential North Korean or Iranian missile attack isn’t dependable. The EKV, which is intended to collide with and destroy an incoming missile high above the Earth’s atmosphere, is a small but very critical part of the GMD system. If the EKV doesn’t work, neither will the GMD system. To date, GMD has cost taxpayers roughly $40 billion. Part B of the DoD IG report analyzes the reliability of the EKVs now deployed in the field in Alaska and California, but that report will be classified so taxpayers won’t see the bottom line. Of course, we already know that the GMD system is defective from the poor record of performance of the EKV in past flight intercept tests.  The DoD IG reports that “Three of these intercept tests resulted in failures attributable to the EKV.”  A fourth failure in a test a year ago last July is still being studied by MDA.  But the IG truncated its analysis.  If it had included all of the failures attributable to the EKV going back to January 2000, it would have reported six failures attributable to the EKV, not three.  And once the analysis of last year’ test are in, the count likely will be seven failures attributable to the EKV, not three. What’s more, given MDA’s problems with quality control, even a successful test of the system, such as the one that occurred in June, doesn’t demonstrate system reliability. The complexity of the EKV effort is apparent from this summary in the DoD IG report: "With more than 1,800 unique parts, 10,000 pages of work instructions, and 130,000 process steps for the current configuration, EKV repairs and refurbishments are considered by the program to be costly and problematic and make the EKV susceptible to quality assurance failures." At the heart of these problems is a culture at MDA and its contractors with roots that go back to January 2, 2002, when the Secretary of Defense exempted MDA from following the Pentagon’s normal rules for acquiring a weapons system.  Little wonder, then, that the DoD IG found that MDA and its contractors didn’t follow the rules; they think they don’t have to! According to the DOD IG, “Therefore, the EKV did not go through the milestone decision review process and the product development phase (Engineering and Manufacturing Development).”  Why is this important? The DoD IG explains: “The purpose of the milestone decision review is to carefully assess a program’s readiness to proceed to the next acquisition phase and to make a sound investment decision committing the DoD’s financial resources. For the product development phase, the program is assessed to ensure that the product design is stable, manufacturing processes are controlled, and the product can perform in the intended operational environment.” As a result, The DoD IG concludes, “the EKV prototype was forced into operational capability” before it was ready.  "A combination of cost constraints and failure-driven program restructures has kept the program in a state of change. Schedule and cost priorities drove a culture of 'use-as-is' leaving the EKV as a manufacturing challenge," This history would be troubling enough if it were only history.  Unfortunately MDA and its contractors have never recovered from the culture that resulted when they first were exempted from the rules.  They see those rules as not applying to them.  They see themselves as not having to answer to those rules, and this drives program interactions at all levels where oversight is concerned in the Pentagon and the Congress. This has implications for future missile defense development efforts. For example, MDA is in the early stages of designing a new EKV to replace the current fleet. Without a change in the default culture, the nation is unlikely to have a more dependable product than the existing, flawed, kill vehicles. Ominously, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has already begun to raise concerns about the acquisition plan for the new EKV. Can the Director of the MDA, Admiral James D. Syring, put us on a more responsible path?  Indications are the Admiral Syring cares deeply about not repeating past mistakes. And he certainly knows the best culture of the U.S. Navy.  For example, the Navy’s offensive strategic missile systems have a long history of quality, distinction, and excellence.  The people who work in those programs maintain the highest standards and hold themselves accountable to them.  When it comes to defending the United States, our missile defense programs deserve no less. Philip Coyle is the Senior Science Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. In 2010 and 2011 Mr. Coyle served as the Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs (NSIA) in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).