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GAO sees snags in work on new missile interceptors

Updated: Jul 10



 By Jayvee Vallejera

 

The Government Accountability Office is not that optimistic about the progress the U.S. Department of Defense is making in developing a new type of interceptor program to meet the increasingly sophisticated missile threats posed by forces hostile to the United States.


GAO's missile defense report released in June recommends that the Missile Defense Agency, which is developing the Next Generation Interceptor for DOD, take steps “to reduce risks and improve efficiency.” DOD has instructed MDA to speed up the development of the system and start fielding the new interceptors by 2028.


GAO, however, is concerned, saying this schedule is already optimistic compared to the development of similar weapon systems. That’s on top of MDA’s history of failing to meet testing goals, which GAO cited in a May 2023 report.


The U.S. Congress' investigative arm noted that the NGI program is on track to start product development in 2024, but it is uneasy about MDA’s plan to accelerate flight testing by overlapping both design and production activities, saying any major design issues could disrupt this strategy.


“MDA is making progress developing NGI and the program is currently estimating initial interceptor deliveries will occur by the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2027, [one] year ahead of schedule," GAO said. "However, we found that NGI’s schedule is optimistic when compared to DOD’s historical performance developing and testing systems similar to NGI."


Another GAO concern is MDA’s ability to develop the models and simulations necessary to fully evaluate NGI performance and technology maturity. It said the main concern is that MDA might develop an interceptor system that will already be obsolete by the time it gets to the field, outpaced by the development of weapons systems of hostile countries.

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The agency also noted that NGI’s costs have increased by hundreds of millions of dollars, due mainly to MDA falling short on some of its digital engineering efforts, contributing to the additional costs and resulting in inefficient workarounds for both the government and NGI contractors.


Although the program is still within planned funding levels (specific details are sensitive), GAO said that MDA officials expect the project’s price tag to increase even more due to supply chain issues and the rising cost of materials.


The GAO report notes that DOD’s own independent review in 2022 identified several high-risk items and actions MDA could take to reduce what it calls “technical risk,” but MDA disagreed with key aspects of the risk assessment and has so far taken limited steps to address those risks.


“By not addressing these risks in a timely manner, MDA is increasing the potential for later discovering performance shortfalls that could delay the program,” GAO said.


Although MDA has made some initial progress in working with others virtually on NGI development, GAO said that MDA is not periodically assessing the project’s progress as planned, further complicating the task of identifying potential ways to help MDA to meet its deadline to field the NGI by 2028.

 

The GAO findings could further complicate the U.S. military’s plan to provide 360-degree protection for Guam, which is increasingly vulnerable to the more advanced missiles and drones that are being developed by adversaries like China, Russia and North Korea.

 

In his remarks at the 16th Ronald Reagan Missile Defense Conference on April 16, John Plumb, who is the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, merely said that DOD is in the process of “actively strengthening” Guam's defenses. He said this will include a variety of capabilities, including the fielding of a “persistent and layered” Integrated Air and Missile Defense architecture.


He did not elaborate on what that means, but DOD’s own Proposed Final Environmental Assessment/Overseas Environmental Assessment in May outlines a plan to put in place both land- and sea-based interceptor missile defense system in Guam.


The EA/OEA, a requirement of the National Environmental Act, paves the way for a planned series of tests that is intended to customize the missile defense system suited to Guam’s requirements.


Plumb said offensive missile threats in the Indo-Pacific region have forced DOD to turn its attention to the Pacific, especially the defense of Guam, and he assures that the territory is not just an unequivocal part of the United States, but is also a key operational hub in the Pacific.


“Any attack on Guam would be considered a sovereign attack against the United States and met with an appropriate response,” he added.


There’s just a slight hitch, though.


GAO said in its report that the need to develop the next-generation interceptors capable of shooting down an incoming missile is now urgent since the interceptors the U.S. currently has on hand are now nearing the end of their shelf life.


“According to DOD, potential adversaries are expanding and enhancing their missile capabilities to attack the U.S., while current U.S. interceptors approach the end of their planned service life. To address this challenge, DOD has stated that it needs to begin fielding the NGI by 2028,” GAO said.




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