'15 MDA Request Ignites Old Debate On the Cost of Success

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It is that time of year again. The Pentagon is in its annual last-minute race to the finish line to deliver a budget request to Congress. This year's is slated for release March 4. Everywhere in Washington, reporters are leaving no stone unturned to get an early peek into what will come out. It's mostly luck when a reporter does. We are well aware we are the beneficiaries of folks floating that trial balloon to prep the fiscal battlefield -- that being Capitol Hill -- for what is to come.

We got just such a peek at what is to come for missile defense, one of the Pentagon's more complex and storied efforts. And, the forthcoming request from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is slated to add $4.5 billion to the Missile Defense Agency's spending plan, a significant boost for any year, let alone one coming in the shadow of an Afghanistan drawdown and sequestration. The agency's budget used to hover around $9 billion annually, but shrank closer to $7 billion in recent years owing to a demand from Congress to reduce defense spending.

Much of that boost will be requested to shore up what some say is an atrophied Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program, including $1.5 billion for a new Long-Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR) for the system to watch for ICBMs from North Korea.

But, with a five-year track record of flight testing failures – three in total, costing about $200 million a pop – doubling down on Boeing's GMD could prompt some old questions. The last successful GMD intercept took place December 2008 (the same month Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” took No. 1 on Billboard. Don’t act like you don’t know it … its burned into your brain).

The question ahead is … should the U.S. government put a ring on it? How serious is its commitment to GMD? Or, is it three strikes and the program is out?

A decade ago, the annual fight on the Hill was about WHETHER missile defense – especially a program as expansive as GMD – should be funded. That has largely subsided, with most lawmakers, even Democrats, supporting it in concept, largely a byproduct of an explosion in ballistic missile proliferation. But, will that faith in the technology persist amid such budget pressure and against the backdrop of such a tarnished track record? I suspect so … as long as GMD redeems itself in a forthcoming flight test.

Not that there is pressure …

That’s why MDA’s next move for the program is all the more critical. Any GMD test is a big deal. They cost about $200 million, including the interceptor, the target, the manpower and using all the “guts” – or C2 – of the system. While every test is a learning event – former MDA Director retired USAF Lt. Gen. Trey Obering often said failures taught more than successes – a failure just plain looks bad. It makes Congress concerned about throwing good money after bad. It makes the public – which largely believes falsely that we actually HAVE an impenetrable shield active already – feel vulnerable. And, it gives our adversaries cause to question whether the policy of deterrence is just a lot of bluster, not to mention conduct their own tests of burgeoning ballistic missile capabilities.

This last point is a major bone of contention with the most recent GMD failure last summer. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered up the test nearly a year ago as an attempted show of force in response to sabre rattling from Kim John-un, the newly ascended leader of a bellicose Pyongyang. The test should have been easy. It was a repeat of the December 2008 success. All the Pentagon had to do was take an interceptor “out of the hole” (meaning on alert) and redo what it had already done. And, yet, it did not.

Apparently, the first-generation Raytheon Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV), the Capability Enhancement I, failed to eject from the upper stage, leaving it powerless to chase down a dummy warhead. A failure investigation board is ongoing. Not only was this a national embarrassment at a critical time in the kabuki dance that is the Washington-Pyongyang relationship, it raised serious questions about the effectiveness of the other interceptors in the hole that are supposed to be protecting us on a daily basis.

The other two mishaps since 2008 involved the upgraded EKV CE-II, a kill vehicle shrouded in mystery but said to have improved capabilities against countermeasures designed to fool sensors into chasing false targets. One of the tests could be written off as a problem with the testing scenario, though there could have been a miss anyway. The second … not so much.

So, fast forward to today. MDA is planning the next test. I’m told there is talk of what the scenario should be. It was to be a repeat of the CE-II engagement – the most complex ever head-on attempt – that went wrong. But, it seems there are some in the Pentagon that want to aim low. “We just need a success,” said one official.

Perhaps, that will be good enough. But, we shall see. The test was slated for March, but is likely slipping.

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