Missile defense thwarted by government contractor failure

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Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

Government contractors play a very important role in the smooth functioning of government. In that role, if they fail to deliver, they can actually slow down an already slow government. When failure happens in the defense sphere of the federal government, it may hurt national security and it should not be rewarded with new contracts.

The Pentagon had a case where mistakes were made by a contractor hampered the effectiveness of our nation’s missile defense capabilities.

Missile defense is the last line of defense against a nuclear missile attack from a foreign nation.  America faces many threats from differing nations with divergent capabilities, yet the tools to protect against a nuclear attack against the U.S. makes missile defense the most important protection for American citizens from a foreign missile threat.  The tools making up missile defense need to work without fail and the program needs to be promoted by the U.S. government internationally to project strength which will provide a strong deterrent against foreign menaces.

With any last line of defense technology, the deterrent impact is very important, because nobody ever wants to see the U.S. having to use this technology, because if it is used, we are at war. Like a person who drives around with an NRA sticker on their car, if they ever have to use a gun to defend that car, the deterrent did not work. Deterrence is only as good as it is perceived to be effective.

The Ground-based Midcourse System (GMD) is the U.S. tool to defend against intermediate and long-range missiles and they intercept the missiles in space – far away from the people residing in the U.S. The way this works is that a Ground-based interceptor tracks and destroys the incoming threat. Something called a ‘Kill Vehicle’ hits the missile and destroys it after it is launched and set on course towards in the incoming missile. A redesign of the kill vehicle was conducted with the company Raytheon and they botched the project.

A recent Government Accounting Office report titled “Assessment of Testing Approach Needed as Delays and Changes Persist” explained the reasons for some recent failures in the redesign of the kill vehicles. Skyrocketing costs and problems with the technology used to intercept the incoming missiles have hampered the deployment of the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV) program. Defense News reported on July 24, 2020, “Raytheon was the developer of the RKV, serving as a subcontractor to Boeing. The RKV would have replaced the current Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, or EKV, on the Ground-Based Interceptor, which makes up the Ground-based Midcourse Defense, or GMD, system designed to counter ballistic missile threats. It would have also been fielded on all future ground-based interceptors — ultimately a total of 64.” The Pentagon ended up cancelling the program in August of last year.

With missile defense being so important, the Pentagon needs to find a way to manufacture the next generation of kill vehicles to destroy the incoming missiles at high speed and should learn from the mistakes of the past.  A contractor screw up should not completely freeze the program, but it should bar that contractor from getting a second bite at the apple.

There were early warnings.  Again, according to Defense News, the GAO reported that “despite multiple efforts made by MDA’s engineering directorate to enforce requirements that would have necessitated design changes to address the performance risks,” Raytheon worked on getting a waiver from the Obama Administration in 2015.  Those requirements on how to fix the program were ignored.

Because of that waiver, the program was scrapped in 2019 thanks to unresolved issues. One concern was, according to the report, “the worry was that the RKV used commercial off-the-shelf parts and reused Aegis SM-3 Block IIA components.” The GAO report indicated that “specific performance risks were identified at multiple junctures in the SM-3 Block IIA and RKV programs over the past ten years.” They all assumed that risks of using these parts was going to be fixed later. The problem is that they were never fixed later and the design flaws proved to be a deal breaker for the Pentagon.

Raytheon created many of the problems and I would be lunacy to put them in charge again. When a government contractor fails, they should be held accountable, yet there is a need to get the kill vehicles updated to face emerging and changing threats.


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