Mark Thompson / Washington
The Pentagon's missile-defense program has already cost $100 billion and strained relations with the Russians, and it has yet to prove its real-world value. Hitting a bullet with a bullet — the heart of the system — is a difficult enough task. But a new report reveals that the Pentagon is even having problems launching the practice targets needed to test the system.
Until now, the military has relied on relics, some of them 40-year-old rockets, to launch its test targets. And that has led to a growing number of failed tests. The Government Accountability Office, in a study released last Friday, reports that the rate of target failure rose from 7% between 2002 and '05 (3 out of 42), to 16% between 2006 and '07 (6 of 38). After all, the Pentagon can't shoot a fake warhead out of the sky if the rocket designed to put it there fails to do its job. Even more distressing, the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency appears to be bungling a $1 billion program to develop a new generation of test targets. In 2003 the Pentagon hired Lockheed Martin Corp. to build several kinds of new test-target missiles to help perfect the system. The GAO says that while the test which incoming missiles used between 2002 to '06 cost an average of $6.5 million each, those slated for use over the next two years carry an average price tag of $48.5 million apiece.
Some of the cost increase results from the Pentagon's need to make sure that its tests "better reflect an evolving threat" — particularly the use of balloons and other decoys that would be used by a real incoming missile to evade interception. But the GAO says that much of the cost growth is due to unstable designs and the decision to build the new missiles without a formal cost analysis. The Pentagon, for example, paid hourly labor rates that were 32% higher once Lockheed took control of the program. "The magnitude of the increase," the GAO notes, "exceeded expectations."
The GAO finds that the Pentagon's "difficulty in supplying targets is driven by diminishing sources for components, unanticipated costs, problems incorporating requirements into contracts and establishing program baselines, and the lack of a sound business case for its current approach to supplying targets." Many of the rocket builders who had been selling their wares directly to the Pentagon "are leaving the market due to a lack of business," the GAO says. Two recent tests have gone astray due to what the GAO calls "target anomalies," including a September shot that failed "because the target missile malfunctioned and did not have enough momentum to reach the intercept area."
Yet the new test-missile program designed to eliminate such snafus has its own woes. "Developmental problems have risen in the new family of targets," the congressional audit agency reports, "leading to cost growth, delayed flight tests and deferral of several key capabilities." The first launch of one of the new "enemy" test missiles slipped from July 2008 to April 2009. "Rush to meet urgent need caused more delays," the GAO says in a wry aside.
Bottom line: the test targets' spotty performance has led to reduced testing, which weakens the Pentagon's claim that despite the massive financial and geopolitical costs of the program, it has given the U.S. a functioning missile shield. It also raises a more fundamental question: If the world's lone superpower can't reliably launch faux warheads aloft, how much sense does it make to keep pumping $10 billion a year into efforts to thwart the far more rudimentary efforts of nations like Iran and North Korea to launch real ones?
6 months ago