This past Sunday, David Willman of the Los Angeles Times published a lengthy article on problems with the Pentagon’s attempts to defend the continental United States from attack by intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Willman’s piece, which followed an excellent article from June of last year on the country’s ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) system, focuses on four proposed programs that have cost taxpayers $10 billion but have either been cancelled or are on the verge of cancellation.
Willman’s latest piece briefly discusses three cancelled missile defense programs. The first is the airborne laser, a modified Boeing 747 equipped with a chemical laser to shoot down ICBMs shortly after they are launched, but that would have to have been stationed inside an adversary’s territory due to its limited range. Next is the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, another “boost phase” interceptor that was too large for Navy ships and that lacked the range to be stationed on land. Lastly, is the multiple kill vehicle, which employed multiple miniature interceptors that could ameliorate the problem of discrimination between warheads and decoys, but succumbed to the technical challenges of fitting it to a rocket.
The bulk of Willman’s piece, however, is dedicated to the sea-based x-band radar (SBX). Defense officials constantly touted the range of the SBX, with a former Missile Defense Agency director telling a Senate subcommittee in 2007 that the radar could track an object the size of a baseball above San Francisco from Chesapeake Bay. The problem is though, because of the curvature of the earth, the baseball would have to be flying at a height higher than incoming ICBMs are likely to travel. Moreover, the SBX’s field of vision is so narrow one scientist Willman interviews likened it to viewing the baseball through a straw. While some suggested moving the radar closer to potentially hostile countries, another scientist interviewed in the piece said it would make no difference because the radar would lose track of the missile after a thousand miles and interception requires constant tracking “from cradle to grave.” Even when Missile Defense Agency conducted a rare, successful test of its GMD system, the SBX failed to report the successful interception immediately. In a real attack, such an occurrence would lead those operating the system to launch another expensive interceptor—of which there is only a limited supply.
The SBX was supposed to become operational in 2005, but as Willman reports, the radar remains idle after costing American taxpayers $2.2 billion. Plans for a follow up are in place with a $1 billion price tag.
In both articles Willman attributes the failure of America’s missile defense efforts to the rushed efforts of the Bush administration to deploy a system before working out its various technical kinks a decade ago. While that is surely a big part of the problem, problems such as discrimination and the pursuit of what Willman describes as “exotic” systems have plagued missile defense efforts for decades. Moreover, it is easy to bash failed defense programs—and often very necessary—but it ignores the fact that program failures actually serve a useful purpose.
Back in 2011, Benjamin Friedman of the Cato Institute pointed out that program cancellations across the Department of Defense were probably too low. He argued that the lack of competition among the military services meant program managers have few incentives to outdo those in other services on either cost or capability. Furthermore, he posits that service comity papers over disputes between the services that would provide information on failures in other programs—thus leading to more cancellations but also more information that could be useful in future programs.
Because missile defense is a defense-wide program, few opportunities exist to gain the type of feedback program failures in a competitive environment might provide. As Willman helpfully noted in his original missile defense piece from last June, there is little information to gain from the Missile Defense Agency’s testing program because the interceptors used for GMD are handmade—meaning no two are alike, and fixing one based on the failed test of another will solve few problems. More competition among the services for missile defense missions will provide better incentives to avoid “exotic” technologies and to find practical, cost-effective capabilities.
Unfortunately, the Pentagon is bound and determined to further centralize its missile defense programs. Most theater missile defense systems—meant to protect U.S. forces in the field—such as the Navy’s ship-based Aegis systems and the Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, have already been placed under Missile Defense Agency auspices after being developed independently. While not without critics, both systems have shown far greater success in testing than the GMD system.
If national missile defense is to be a priority defense mission, it should be opened to competition. Let the services put forth various options to fill the need. The Army, which has seen its budget share shrink the fastest during the drawdown from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, might find a niche for itself. If not, neither the Navy nor the Air Force has ever shied away from pursuing new technological solutions if it increases their budget shares.
As each side jockeys for funds within the Budget Control Act spending limits, there will be greater incentive to pursue cost-effective measures to meet the needs of the mission. And should one service begin pursuing exotic technologies that are likely infeasible, its brethren will have incentives to let those providing funding know the program is doomed to fail. That might mean more cancelled programs overall, but it might also mean they end before costs skyrocket or it is fielded and results in disaster.