Opinion

Protect America by preserving competent management of missile defense

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

As the year 2020 winds down, there’s no doubt Americans are closely divided. In the new year, a new Democratic president will be working with a closely divided Senate and a House that has more Republican members than it did before the election.

Our leaders need to find projects that can unite them for the good of the country, rather than divide them into political opponents. Ground-based Midcourse Missile Defense (GMD) gives them the perfect opportunity. Although some on the far left initially opposed missile defense as “Star Wars” because they feared it would accelerate an arms race. Now, most Americans recognize that missile defense protects citizens from traditional enemies, Russia and China, while also protecting from rogue nations intent on proving themselves on the world stage.

In a recent memo explaining the program, the federal Government Accountability Office reported that “the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is developing the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system to defend the United States against a limited intermediate and intercontinental ballistic missile attack from rogue states such as North Korea and Iran.” Since it started during the 1990s, the project has been a true public-private partnership, with federal employees working alongside private contractors.

The problem today, and in fact the reason the GAO was looking into the program, is that some bureaucrats are considering taking full charge of the program and squeezing out the contractors. Under this scheme, MDA would name itself as the “lead system integrator,” which the GAO writes: “generally refers to a contractor that has been designated with the responsibility for developing and integrating a large, complex defense-related acquisition program within a given budget and schedule.” In effect this would be unelected bureaucrats taking over the program.

However, the federal employees lack the knowledge to run such a program without expert help; that’s why contractors were brought in. “The program may encounter challenges obtaining the technical data and staffing levels necessary to manage the technical baseline and integrating the multiple prime contractors, which could ultimately affect GMD’s availability or readiness,” GAO warned. Challenges equals problems and problems will decrease the effectiveness of our defense capabilities.

This bureaucrat takeover would put a crucial program at risk. GMD “provides the capability to engage and destroy limited intermediate- and long-range ballistic missile threats in space to protect the United States homeland.” It is a heavily tested program, and it is working. If an enemy, such as Iran or North Korea, decided to launch a nuclear missile at the U.S., the GMD program would be a final line of defense and could prevent hundreds of thousands of American civilian deaths.

The program isn’t perfect, but it has passed tests and is improving every year under its current management style. It simply wouldn’t make sense to allow the government bureaucrats to change it right now. And they know that.

“MDA officials told us in March 2020 that there is no weapon system comparable to GMD. MDA officials also told us that there is no model to follow on how best to structure the GMD program or transition away from a prime contractor that has led system integration for over two decades,” the GAO report noted. So even the MDA officials who are now triggering a power grab realize they’re not capable of handling this program without private help. So why on Earth would they want to?

It’s not because they think they can run the program more efficiently. “GMD is not expensive. Its entire planned budget for the period 2021-2025 amounts to $10 billion—less than a single day’s worth of federal spending at current rates,” notes military analyst Loren Thompson. “Devoting 1-2% of the defense budget to protection of our homeland against the most unpredictable nuclear actor on the world stage is easy to justify.”

Instead of being federalized, GMD needs to be improved. The team has been working on a better kill vehicle to sit at the top of the attack missile, and a new contractor may be able to do a better job of designing and deploying that kill vehicle. But there’s no reason to toss all contractors off this successful program when they are delivering results.

It’s up to our new leadership in Washington to keep investing in GMD, and keep the team together for years to come.

Bill Martinez

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