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The bold new direction for missile defense is worthy of support

It is a relative rarity in these times for public discourse to center on how and when our government has accomplished something really worthwhile and substantial. But Congress, the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) recently collaborated to do just that. Together, they achieved a real success story with the decision to fund two defense industry teams to compete for MDA’s sole remaining missile defense upgrade program, the Next Generation Interceptor (NGI).

The decision to fund the two competitors through the Technical Maturation and Risk Reduction Phase of the acquisition process is a positive step for the nation’s missile defense and promises to finally deliver a real capability to defeat the threat posed by North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). However, the challenge that Washington faces in the relative short term is to actually see the plan through to fruition.

The threat that North Korean nuclear ICBMs pose to the homeland is well documented and understood within DOD. Approximately 30 to 40 nuclear warheads, and the ICBMs capable of ranging most if not all of the United States to carry them, in the hands of a despotic and often erratic leadership represents a threat to the American people that no administration can ignore. 

Additionally, recent open source reports from allied and friendly nations’ intelligence services describe an active and ongoing effort by Iran to reinvigorate their nuclear weapons program through either stolen or legitimately procured Western technology.

Our current Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system was simply not designed or built to counter this emerging threat, and after multiple attempts to improve upon the existing system, MDA finally decided to commit to a clean sheet design, one capable of “leaping ahead” of the threat instead of always playing catch-up. MDA has required that the NGI be imbued with certain specific attributes that will allow the winning design to do just that. 

Requirements such as ample design margin for extra space, weight, power and cooling to support additional hardware and pre-planned product improvement upgrades, an open mission systems architecture to ensure those upgrades seamlessly operate within the original design, and an advanced multiple kill vehicle capability to counter decoys and multiple threat warheads promise to enable the NGI to make that leap.

However, despite the significant increase in defensive capability that the NGI represents, there are still risks to the success of the program. Since the decision was made to fund NGI’s two-team competition, there has been a change in administrations and new DOD political appointees may be suspicious and unsupportive of decisions made under a previous administration.  

There remains a danger that funding envisioned to support the NGI could be siphoned off for interim Band-Aid solutions based on the legacy GMD system, incremental advances that ultimately are not effective against the threat and essentially would be obsolete the moment they are fielded.

And then there is cost. DOD’s cost assessment and program evaluation organization estimated the NGI’s costs to be substantial: $498 million if you include research and development (R&D) costs and the 10 “developmental” interceptors that MDA recently announced it would buy in addition to 21 operational missiles. If you do not include the sunk R&D dollars, then the 21 operational missiles are estimated to cost a more modest $111 million each. 

These estimates are based on the current acquisition plan that carries the competition only through the current phase. Given that the MDA intends to buy 10 developmental missiles, these costs might be reduced by continuing to incentivize competition between the two industry teams through the next phase of the acquisition process, Engineering and Manufacturing Development. 

This would allow the MDA to take advantage of the teams’ ingenuity and any further technical breakthroughs either or both teams achieve. The agency could split the developmental missiles between the two teams and have them compete all the way through developmental test and evaluation, allowing the MDA to essentially “wring out” the two competing designs and thereby make a much more informed decision.

The advantages of a stable, long-term investment strategy within any DOD acquisition program are many, but perhaps one of the most important is that it creates committed industry partners.  Industry can smell governmental equivocation with respect to a program a mile away, and if it does, companies hedge their bets — with internal research and development dollars, their most talented people, and most importantly, schedule. 

Commitment to the NGI program may, in fact, facilitate a shift of the delivery time line to the left, providing this much-needed capability to the field even sooner. Competition within the program, as far into the process as a developmental test, substantially reduces technical and budgetary risks. However, most importantly for now, the bottom line remains: stay the course.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Howard “Dallas” Thompson is a former chief of staff at NORAD and USNORTHCOM and a former Air Force fighter pilot.

Tags Ground-Based Midcourse Defense Missile defense Missile Defense Agency next generation interceptor

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