A recent study undertaken by the National Research Council (NRC) highlights some of the issues with the way the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has pursued its mission.  The spiral development model instituted by the George W. Bush administration was based on the idea of fielding current capabilities immediately and then improving those capabilities in successive blocks.

Although this makes sense conceptually, in practice it has led to a lack of clarity.  The NRC pointed to the almost “hobby shop” approach of missile defense programs, with many false starts on poorly analyzed concepts.  Further, the NRC found little evidence of serious cost-benefit or engineering analysis before embarking on new initiatives, which has led in some cases to cost overruns of 50 percent.  

The SM-3 Block IIB interceptor is illustrative.  Initially intended for the fourth stage of the Obama Administration’s “phased-adaptive approach,” the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IIB was to be land-based in Poland and Romania.

When Secretary Hagel announced the cancellation of the fourth phase in March, much of the follow-on discussion focused on whether the president had exercised his post-election “flexibility” to bow to Russian demands that the U.S. not place interceptors in East Europe.  Proponents of a robust BMD system saw an opportunity to go after President Obama for being soft on national security.

This criticism distracted from the bigger picture, which was that the SM-3 IIB was an unproven and untested paper concept with costly and time-consuming development issues.  The Government Accountability Office concluded that the MDA did not conduct a proper analysis of alternatives before initiating development, a practice which has repeatedly led to increased costs and schedule delays.  Sure enough, after-the-fact analyses showed that a larger missile than originally planned would be required to achieve the necessary burnout velocity to be useful, and a larger missile design would have required additional development time and resources.  Even assuming the program was fully funded for the next 10 years, the U.S. would not have been able to field a single one of these interceptors until 2022 at the earliest.

On its own then, the decision not to go forward with SM-3 Block IIB interceptors in Poland and Romania made sense.  However, it should have been made alongside a renewed commitment to fully fund BMD programs that have been demonstrated to work.  For example, according to the GAO, the MDA now believes that an Aegis destroyer with earlier versions of SM-3s stationed in the North Sea would be a better location than East Europe.  Similarly, former MDA director Hank Cooper has concluded that SM-3 capable destroyers along the East coast of the U.S. would be an effective, viable alternative for protecting the U.S. homeland from a missile or EMP attack launched from just off our shores. These earlier interceptor models are performing in the field and have exceeded design requirements, come in on time and on cost, and are already in production.

Coupled with ground-based interceptors (GBIs) in Alaska and California (and eventually on the East Coast), a robust system of sea- and land-based SM-3s would provide a strong layered defense that affords an effective “look-shoot-look” capability.  In times of tightening defense budgets, it makes sense to improve current missile technology, rather than repeatedly start over from scratch.

To meet the threats we are likely to face within a five year window, we should focus on increasing the number of GBIs that are fielded and not slash funding for the other SM-3 variants.  This will not be an easy debate; this month, the Senate Armed Services Committee set up a major conference issue for the National Defense Authorization Act by failing to include money for an East Coast missile shield which was included in the House-passed bill.  Effective, affordable BMD requires a realistic and straightforward strategy with known objectives. The president and Congress should commit to the concept of BMD and properly fund the mission.  

Jonathan Bergner is an independent expert on national security policy issues. He has written extensively about nuclear proliferation, deterrence, and ballistic missile defense.