On Heels of Failed Intercept Test, Missile Defense Leader Excoriates Contractors

WASHINGTON (GSN)– Just one day after the Missile Defense Agency failed to achieve an intercept in a major flight test of its Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, its executive director took broad aim at defense contractors for chronic quality-control lapses (see GSN, Feb. 1).

“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 subs — very, very disappointed,” David Altwegg, the MDA executive director, told reporters at a budget briefing yesterday.

He stopped short of blaming quality control for the problems during Sunday’s flight test, which began at about 3:40 p.m. local time when a dummy target missile was launched from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Roughly six minutes later, a silo-based interceptor was fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, but it failed to hit the target.

The agency said both the interceptor and target missile “performed nominally after launch” and instead identified a radar system as having malfunctioned.

A Missile Defense Agency spokesman said this week the target missile was intended to mimic the kind of technology that a nation like North Korea or Iran could develop that might someday threaten the United States.

In six of 16 GMD intercept flight tests since 1999, the missile has failed to hit its target. There have been eight such tests that ended with a successful intercept. In another two, target or missile-decoy failures made it impossible for the main test objectives to be met.

Prior to this weekend, the most recent intercept attempt occurred in December 2008. An intercept was achieved but decoys failed to deploy, according to officials.

Altwegg said he had “no clue” yet whether poor quality was a factor in this weekend’s test failure, but his indictment of contractor performance was so sweeping that such a conclusion down the road might come as little surprise. Quality in manufacturing is widely regarded as important for ensuring that weapons and support systems function as designed.

The MDA executive was specifically asked about his agency’s past complaints about quality problems affecting defense contracting giant Raytheon in its Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle — a device designed to smash into incoming ballistic missiles as part of the GMD system.

In response, Altwegg took to task virtually every agency contractor “across the enterprise” for “quality design issues, but more in quality of products delivered.”

Faulty missile defense components have led to an enormous amount of “rework” that costs taxpayer money — “the unfortunate aspect,” said Altwegg, the agency’s No. 3 official. The GMD program carries an estimated $35.5 billion price tag, according to the Government Accountability Office.

“I am excusing no one from this conversation,” he said, speaking at the Pentagon. “We have problems with all of our [contracting] primes.”

A common reason for quality failures across dozens of missile defense efforts has been a “lack of attention to detail,” said the official, as he took questions about President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget request for missile defense. “Missilery is all about detail.”

One recent example of a quality-control lapse was an early-December test of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system, in which an intercept did not occur because of a target failure, Altwegg said. A Pentagon failure-review board “disclosed a big-time quality problem” as the root cause, he said.

Quality control has been an issue for military procurement for decades and is not unique to the missile defense organization, according to the retired rear admiral.

Asked whether MDA officials bear responsibility for the persistent setbacks, Altwegg said the agency has improved its focus on quality during the nearly eight years he has served there. “We are working this problem assiduously” through MDA personnel monitoring production on-site at contractor plants, but the issue persists, he said.

The Government Accountability Office will meet with MDA leaders about the quality control problems this Thursday, according to Altwegg.

[ad#Google Adsense Horizonal Banner]

Another Test

Altwegg said it is too early to know what caused Sunday’s flight test failure. An MDA news release said the Sea-Based X-band radar — built by Raytheon for Boeing, the agency’s prime contractor — “did not perform as expected,” but the MDA leader declined to elaborate.

A significant amount of data was gathered from the test and it is expected to take months before officials are certain what went wrong, he said.

The agency will conduct an “extensive investigation,” according to the MDA statement. A second, independent team will also review the test failure data, which should offer agency officials high confidence in their conclusions, Altwegg told reporters.

Once the organization has determined the cause of the failure and how to rectify it, MDA officials will probably seek to repeat the flight test, he said.

“Our intent, I believe, would be to do it over again when we are ready,” he said, noting this would be as “soon” as possible during the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. To pay for a retest, the agency would likely request congressional consent for reallocating an as-yet unspecified amount of 2010 funds from elsewhere in the GMD program, Altwegg said.

In general, though, Missile Defense Agency leaders do not appear to be reconsidering their plan for conducting just one GMD flight test per year through at least 2010, despite repeated calls both in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill for more frequent trials of the system under more realistic and challenging conditions (see GSN, March 24, 2009).

“We find [that] with the pre-mission analysis that goes on and the post-flight analysis — to have that done thoroughly and prepare the round and correct things that we discovered on the previous flight test, one year is about the limit and it certainly is a challenge financially,” Altwegg said.

A major congressionally mandated review of missile defense — released yesterday along with the new budget figures — suggests that increasingly realistic test scenarios are in the offing.

“Before new capabilities are deployed, they must undergo testing that enables assessment under realistic operational conditions,” according to the Ballistic Missile Defense Review report.

Missile Defense Budget

The Pentagon is requesting $8.4 billion for MDA programs for fiscal 2011, a $525 million increase over 2010 appropriations. The funds include spending upticks for a wide variety of missile defense efforts, according to detail provided in an MDA budget request overview.

The fiscal 2011 missile defense budget is part of an overall Defense Department request totaling $708 billion, a 1.8 percent hike over the current year, after accounting for inflation.

For the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense effort, the Missile Defense Agency is requesting $1.3 billion in the coming fiscal year.

Once complete, the GMD system would encompass 26 interceptors fielded at Fort Greely in Alaska and four missiles at Vandenberg. The agency is also expanding its missile fields in Alaska so that it could deploy up to eight additional interceptors there, if necessary, over the next decade, according to budget documents.

Lawmakers continue to watch the interceptor program closely and requested a report on the effort, due Feb. 18, in their fiscal 2010 appropriations law.

Under the provision, the MDA director, Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, is to detail for Congress how funds are being used to manufacture Orbital Sciences’ Ground-based Interceptors in 2010 and what plans are for production into the future.

Congress also tasked the MDA leader with submitting a second report — this one due 120 days after the funding bill’s Dec. 19 enactment — on the overall GMD acquisition strategy from fiscal 2011 through 2016.

That report is to include a description of the agency’s plans:

— “to maintain the capability for production of Ground-based Interceptor missiles;

— “to address modernization and obsolescence of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system; [and]

— “to conduct a robust test program for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system.”

The Pentagon’s 48-page Ballistic Missile Defense Review released yesterday contained few surprises, since the Obama administration announced last year its revisions to missile defense deployment plans for Europe (see GSN, Sept. 17, 2009). Those changes include a first-phase deployment by next year of some existing technologies, including the Aegis system and the Standard Missile 3, aimed at countering ballistic missile threats against U.S. personnel in Europe and allied nations (see GSN, Sept. 18, 2009).

In the new report, the Defense Department says it will:

— “Maintain readiness and continue to develop existing operational capabilities at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.;

— “Complete the second field of 14 silos at Fort Greely to hedge against the possibility that additional deployments become necessary,” with six of these containing missiles moved from the first field;

— “Deploy new sensors in Europe to improve cueing for missiles launched at the United States by Iran or other potential adversaries in the Middle East;

— “Invest in further development of the Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) for future land-based deployment as the ICBM threat matures;

— “Increase investments in sensors and early intercept kill systems to help defeat missile defense countermeasures; [and]

— “Pursue a number of new GMD system enhancements, develop next generation missile defense capabilities, and advance other hedging strategies including continued development and assessment of a two-stage ground-based interceptor.”

[ad#Google Adsense Horizonal Banner]