A surplus Army missile, Lance is used to test interceptors designed to shoot down short-range missiles.
The Hera theater defense missile is used to test THAAD and PAC-3 missile defenses.
Launch Vehicle-2 (LV-2)
The LV-2 ballistic target simulates long-range incoming enemy missiles.
Sources: Government Accountability Office, Defense Technical Information Center, Missile Defense Agency
The High Cost of Failure
The stakes are higher as more missile defense elements — sensors, interceptors and targets — are added to increase the complexity and realism of the tests. “These are exceptionally expensive tests,” Chaplain said in an interview, raising the possibility that well over $200 million will be wasted anytime one of them fails.
The GAO team has found that the missile defense programs most affected by target problems have been the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system and the mobile THAAD system. The first is the sole system tasked with protecting the United States against a North Korean missile attack, with 26 interceptors deployed to Alaska and four to California. The THAAD is a critical piece of land- and sea-based defenses scheduled to be deployed to Europe beginning in 2015.
The GMD system has not had a successful interceptor test since 2008, partly due to target issues, but some lawmakers are calling for its additional deployment in the eastern United States, anyway. And in March, amid North Korean saber rattling, the Obama administration announced a $1 billion plan to add 14 more of the GMD interceptors in Alaska by 2017.
A third system, the ship-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense, has fared better with targets and testing, although a key 2008 intercept test was postponed for three years due to problems with a Lockheed Martin LV-2 intermediate-range target missile and other issues, according to auditors. A March 2009 test had trouble with two refurbished Lance missile targets when both fell short of their expected trajectory, causing the Aegis BMD system not to fire one of its interceptors, GAO and MDA officials reported.
GAO also has documented major setbacks to missile defense programs due to other target issues, including inventory shortages and production delays of newly designed targets. The THAAD program was forced to postpone planned flight tests in fiscal year 2009 due to a lack of available targets, delays that GAO said cost about $201 million. A shortage of targets in 2007 prevented the ground-based system from achieving its primary test objectives that year and kept the Army from testing its radar systems.
Several analysts agreed that MDA’s efforts to save money have backfired when target-related troubles surfaced. Philip Coyle, a former director of operational test and evaluation at the Pentagon from 1994 to 2001, called it a management, not a contractor issue. “If MDA told the contractors to test their targets adequately, and paid them for it, the contractors would be happy to do that,” he said.
Missiles are sometimes thrown into a test against an interceptor without having been flown as targets beforehand to see how they will behave, mainly to save money, said George N. Lewis, a physicist and missile defense specialist at Cornell University’s Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies.
But if a test fails due to a poorly performing target, more money must be spent to buy another target missile and plan and execute another test. “My impression is that it’s one of those things where you try to do something cheaply that ends up costing you a lot of money,” Lewis said.
Consider what happened on Jan. 31, 2010 after a 45-foot Lockheed Martin missile target was launched from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands and soared toward the edge of the atmosphere. After its booster engine, an old solid-fuel motor from a Trident submarine missile, finished its burn, ground controllers rotated the missile slightly, said Lewis, who has written a detailed analysis of the test with Theodore A. Postol, professor of Science, Technology and International Security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
As the missile turned, the spent rocket stage began “chuffing,” Lewis said, spewing chunks of unburned fuel and insulator material, varying in size from less than an inch to 6-8 inches or larger, each creating unexpected radar signals that confused a sea-based radar defense system. The radar failed to identify the warhead, and so an interceptor fired from a silo at Vandenberg could not hit its target.
After that test, which the Pentagon said cost $150 million, missile defense officials took contractors to task for chronic lapses in quality control. “I’m not going to name names today, but I’m going to tell you we continue to be disappointed in the quality that we are receiving from our prime contractors and their [subcontractors] — very, very disappointed,” David Altwegg, then-MDA executive director, told reporters after the test.
But GAO’s Chaplain told Congress that MDA never subjected the target that had failed to a “risk reduction flight test.”
“While the target … was successfully flown in that flight test, aspects of its performance were not properly understood and lack of modeling data prior to that test contributed to significant delays in the test program,” she said in an April 2012 report.
Lewis said in an interview that debris fallout was not unusual for a Trident C4 motor that was 25-35 years old. Trident missiles had been launched many times over the years, “but had they flown it as a target, they probably would have found out about” the chuffing, he said.
This target-related test failure came less than two months after a target built by Coleman Aerospace, a unit of L-3 Communications, embarrassed missile defense officials when it had trouble during its release from a C-17 transport plane. The launch of a THAAD interceptor had to be aborted when the target’s motor failed to ignite once the missile cleared the plane’s cargo bay.
“We all sat there and watched the target fall into the water,” MDA’s Altwegg told reporters after the Dec. 11, 2009 test, which cost $41.2 million. He said the target was found to have a “big-time quality problem.”
Its failure led to a delay of the planned test, cancellation of five tests scheduled for fiscal year 2010, and “hundreds of millions of dollars” being spent to develop and acquire new medium-range air-launched targets, GAO said.
The failure also prompted the MDA to suspend Coleman Aerospace for a year due to quality-control issues.
A Decade of Management Problems
The GAO, which investigated the MDA’s target procurement program in detail in 2008, traced such performance problems and the rising costs of targets and testing to difficulties the agency had overseeing a long-term contract awarded to Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems in December 2003. The military had decided to abandon its piecemeal purchase of targets and have Lockheed Martin act as a so-called lead systems integrator, charged with developing and producing short, medium and intermediate-range ballistic target missiles for use against all of its missile defense systems.
The idea was to use common components for all the targets, reduce the time needed to produce them, and cut costs. Existing targets in the military’s inventory had little in common, varying in size, shape and the age of their components — including some rocket engines from submarine missiles over 40 years old, GAO said.
But GAO faulted missile defense officials for not doing a thorough cost analysis or evaluating all alternatives before embarking on their plan. By the time Paul Francis, then-GAO’s director of acquisition and sourcing management, wrote leaders of the House and Senate defense committees in September 2008 to report the findings of his investigation, the total cost of the target procurement program had ballooned to $1 billion or more, with $553 million already spent.
None of the new targets had been delivered, forcing the MDA to use older targets much longer than planned, emptying its inventory of certain kinds of targets and putting the increasingly complex tests at risk of failure.
“Early in the development of [the procurement program], MDA underestimated the technical and design challenges involved in the development of a new target family,” Francis told lawmakers. “By May of 2006, MDA recognized that the funding set aside for [target] development was no longer adequate,” he added.
The cost of each target jumped from the $4.5 million to $8.5 million the agency paid in 2002-2006 to an estimated $32 million to $65 million in 2008-2010, Francis said. As a result, the agency’s plan would yield fewer targets at higher costs, he said.
The strategy “has not gone as planned,” wrote Francis, who added that Lockheed Martin chose to reuse surplus missile components for some of its targets. “The availability of targets for flight tests continues to be problematic, and as a result the scope of the flight test program has been reduced to better match available targets,” he said.
Work on all but one of the new classes of target missiles was cancelled in June 2008, partly due to the unexpectedly high costs. The MDA responded by promising to make “threat-representative targets available on schedule and within the funding allotted.”
In early 2009, Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, then the MDA director, publicly acknowledged the gravity of the availability and reliability problems, as well as the rising costs and schedule delays. He promised a new strategy, and began awarding separate contracts for four classes of targets, GAO’s Chaplain said.
In fiscal year 2011, the MDA received 11 targets, all of which performed as expected, she said. In addition, the agency awarded a competitively bid contract to Orbital Sciences Corp. to produce eight targets by 2015.
But Chaplain noted that, even under the agency’s new approach, an early attempt to award a competitive contract was cancelled after the agency received bids that were more expensive than it anticipated. The agency also continues to rely heavily on Lockheed Martin to produce some of its targets, she said.
In an interview, Chaplain said that even though the number of companies able to build ballistic missiles is quite small, GAO “would still like to see more competition in the procurements to maximize the potential for savings.”
Coyle, the Pentagon’s former testing chief, sees target failures as part of a larger problem with the testing of the ground-based missile defense system, which he said has gotten worse over time. He pointed to MDA data showing a decline in the rate of testing and the rate of success over the years, with three successful intercept tests out of eight since December 2002, and only one out of three since the Dec. 5, 2008 test that failed to release decoys.
“The performance of systems undergoing engineering development is supposed to get better with time, not worse,” said Coyle, a Pentagon veteran who specialized in overseeing such efforts. “If you count [the 2008 countermeasures test] as a failure, then the record since Dec. 5, 2008 is zero out of three,” he added. “Zero in five years!”