Profile: Patrick M. Shanahan, VP and General Manager, Boeing Missile Defense systems

Pat Shanahan is new to missile defense, but he’s no stranger to controversy. Before taking his current job in December, he was vice president and general manager of Boeing’s Philadelphia-based Rotorcraft Systems division, where he was responsible for such programs as the Comanche reconnaissance helicopter and V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.

The furors over last year’s Comanche cancellation and the spotty safety record of the V-22 pale in comparison to the politically charged missile defense debate, Shanahan says.

But that doesn’t bother him, he says. What does get under his skin are technical failures, such as the attempted tests of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system in December and February in which the interceptor failed to launch. Boeing is the prime contractor on the GMD, the U.S. territorial missile shield now in deployment.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), has tried to put the best face on those tests, saying they yielded valuable data despite the fact that things didn’t go as planned. To Shanahan, a failure to launch the interceptor is a failure, period.

Shanahan also is responsible for the Airborne Laser, a Boeing 747 aircraft outfitted with a laser to shoot down missiles in their boost phase. It is a challenging program by any measure, and that’s what Shanahan, who holds a dual master’s degree in mechanical engineering and management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, likes about it.

“That program just makes me smile,” Shanahan said. “It’s what makes me get up in the morning without an alarm clock.”

Shanahan spoke recently with Space News staff writer Jeremy Singer.

What’s it like dealing with missile defense critics?

I don’t think the sniping is tough to take. What’s tough for me is not getting missiles out of the silo. I’m not a policymaker; I’m an engineer and a program manager. We’ll take the other heat. The heat I don’t want to take is failing to perform. And that we’ll fix.

What are you doing to address the quality issues that caused the recent test failures?

We need to identify the root cause of the last failure and correct it.

Another piece is to look at our processes. We’re evaluating the processes to make sure the checks in the test leading up to the ‘go fly’ approval have been properly conducted and whether they are thorough enough.

We’re not just asking the people who ran those tests to evaluate them. We’re bringing in people from Boeing who have run NASA programs and the effort to return the space shuttle to flight. We’ve brought in experts from our other partner companies like Northrop Grumman who have a heritage in ICBM procedures.

We’re also closely supporting the independent review team that Gen. Obering initiated to take a macro look at the process.

How confident are you that the problems that kept the interceptors from launching will not recur?

We’ll work through these problems. Can I predict what the next failure mode is going to be? I wish I could. But I’m confident we won’t have failures of this nature in the future.

Do you consider the last two GMD tests to be failures, or did you learn enough that they can be considered successful ?

When I called home on Valentine’s Day, my daughter, who was getting ready to go to school, asked me how it went.

I said ‘we failed.’ When the missiles don’t go out of the hole, that’s a failure. Does that mean that the program is a failure? No. I don’t think you can judge the program by how a flight test went.

A success would have been an intercept. Was there learning that came about? Obviously. But that’s not how we measure the flight test. It wasn’t a complete waste of time, but we don’t confuse effort with results, and results here would have been a successful intercept.

When do you envision conducting missile defense tests that are more complex and more representative of a real attack?

The more success we have, the more complexity we’ll introduce. The more success we have, the more elements we’ll introduce.

My bias is to be more aggressive and spiral in as much capability as quickly as possible. That’s how you work affordability as well. If you do your manufacturing really well, you’ll see more success, and that allows you to make more complex test regimes.

There is some concern that the operational GMD kill vehicle and booster have not been flight-tested together. Your response?

It’s a good question. I go back to the point that it’s frustrating not to fly. The sooner we fly, the more we’ll know about the capability.

The Airborne Laser passed some tests last year that were considered vital to its continuation as a program. How confident are you that the system will make it through development to deployment?

It’s a bit like the discussion on missiles coming out of the silo. It’s hard to judge a program based on a couple of tests. The question is: Do you have confidence in the technology and the people that are putting it together? If the foundation is sound, and you have the support we do from the MDA, there is nothing that tells me we can’t overcome any of the obstacles in front of us.

What I’ve found in my 20 years at Boeing is that these programs are so complex that it’s hard to articulate the risk. If you look at one piece of data through a particular lens, it can scare the heck out of you. It’s important to have a broad view of the risk and know how to manage it.

What are the future missile defense opportunities for Boeing?

Our biggest emphasis will be on refining the concept of operations so the utility that the military requires is clearly supported. We’d like to expand the number of elements, increase the number of fire-control loops and improve its integration into other mission areas like global strike and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

The GMD will grow with the spiral acquisition approach. Many of the enhancements are classified, but they could enhance the performance characteristics, the reliability and the affordability.

How about space-based missile defense — do you see opportunities for Boeing in this area?

Yes. The technology for those systems exists today. It’s just a matter of when the Pentagon decides that it wants to field them.

We ultimately want to build space-based missile defense systems. But right now our heads are focused on the GMD and Airborne Laser.