MDA Kill Vehicle Redesign, Target Radar Gain Traction on Hill

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The Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IIll., above), a missile defense skeptic, noted that the new kill vehicle and the long-range target-discrimination radar are likely to cost more than $1 billion each to develop. Credit: DoD/Glenn Fawcett
The Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IIll., above), a missile defense skeptic, noted that the new kill vehicle and the long-range target-discrimination radar are likely to cost more than $1 billion each to develop. Credit: DoD/Glenn Fawcett

WASHINGTON — Two U.S. Missile Defense Agency initiatives designed to bolster the reliability and thus credibility of the primary U.S. territorial shield have won support from congressional appropriators, but lawmakers in both the House and Senate have made clear their intent to closely scrutinize the billion-dollar efforts.

The efforts in question are a redesigned kill vehicle for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system interceptors, variants of which are currently deployed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and Fort Greely, Alaska, and a long-range target-discrimination radar.

The redesign initiative is being hatched in the wake of a recent string of intercept test failures involving the GMD system, two of which were attributed, in whole or in part, to problems with the current kill vehicle hardware, built by Raytheon Missile Systems of Tucson, Arizona.

The new kill vehicle would also, along with the new radar, address a longstanding criticism of GMD and other U.S. missile defense systems: that they are unable to discriminate between incoming warheads and relatively unsophisticated decoys.

The MDA requested $99.5 million for the kill vehicle redesign and $50.5 million for the target discrimination radar in its budget request for 2015. The MDA’s director, Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, said the initiatives would “dramatically improve” the overall GMD system.

In its version of the 2015 defense spending bill, the House Appropriations Committee fully funded both efforts, calling them “paramount to improving the threat assessment and reliability of the ballistic missile defense system.” But the report accompanying the bill, which has been approved by the full House, said the MDA’s budget request lacked sufficient detail on both activities to enable proper oversight.

Accordingly, the report directs the MDA to submit, within 90 days of the bill’s enactment, detailed information on its acquisition strategy for the radar, including goals, procurement schedule and cost estimates on a year-by-year basis. The lawmakers requested similar data on the redesigned kill vehicle and also asked the MDA to cite legislative provisions that might be necessary to implement the strategy.

The Senate version of the defense spending bill, which is still awaiting a vote in that chamber, also funded both programs at the requested level. But in drafting the legislation, the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee also directed the MDA to include the activities as separate line items in future budget requests to facilitate closer oversight.

The subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), a missile defense skeptic, noted that both the new kill vehicle and discrimination radar are likely to cost more than $1 billion each to develop. Accordingly, the report accompanying its version of the bill says the MDA should follow “robust acquisition practices” for both programs, to include analyses of alternatives, approval of program requirements by a senior Pentagon review board, independent cost estimates and measures to maximize competition.

Syring has said all options are open for the kill vehicle redesign effort, including an open competition, a limited competition, a redesign of the Raytheon-built kill vehicle or something else entirely.

The requests for additional information are consistent with a recent conclusion by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that the MDA is not providing lawmakers with sufficient data about proposed changes to the GMD program. “Congress may not have the information it needs when making difficult choices on where to spend limited funds,” the report, released in July, said.

Meanwhile, both the House and Senate bills recommend spending less than the MDA’s requested level of $872 million for tests and targets. The House appropriators recommended $797 million for 2015; their Senate counterparts recommended $832 million.

“The Committee notes significant volatility in MDA’s targets program, to include the adjustment of more than a dozen targets or target modules among multiple target classes between fiscal years,” the report accompanying the Senate bill said. “The Committee understands that MDA is working to address these issues, and expects to see improved acquisition performance for all target classes.”

The Senate bill also proposes trimming $51 million from the MDA’s request for the Standard Missile (SM)-3 Block 2A interceptor being jointly developed with Japan under an agreement signed in 2006. The MDA requested $264 million for the SM-3 Block 2A, a larger and more capable variant of the existing SM-3 interceptor, for next year.

Officials with SM-3 prime contractor Raytheon Missile Systems have said the Block 2A variant passed its critical design review in October 2013 and that the first production model — this would be an inert munition — is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

The committee described the MDA’s SM-3 Block 2A spending plan as “in excess of test requirements even though the design has not yet proven mature and appears to be cost-prohibitive at this point.”