DoD missile intercept program ignoring recommendations • The Register


Engineers at the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) continue to ignore concerns about their next-generation missile interceptors, leaving serious technical shortcomings on the table and threatening the program’s 2028 deadline.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) made the conclusion following an eighten month audit of the MDA’s Next Generation Interceptor (NGI) program, as outlined in a report released yesterday.

Among the most glaring issues the GAO identified were a pair of unresolved recommendations from 2022 that asked the MDA to improve its coordination with intelligence services to account for the latest enemy missile technology and concerns that simulation software isn’t fully representing field use of NGI.

“MDA disagreed with key aspects of the risk assessment [published in 2022] and, to date, has taken limited steps to mitigate these risks,” the GAO report says. “By not addressing these risks in a timely manner, MDA is increasing the potential for later discovering performance shortfalls that could delay the program.”

As NGI lacks the capabilities to respond to the latest missile technologies, and because it’s not being accurately simulated to provide the MDA with good data, the GAO is worried that the program, like so many other government initiatives, will end up over deadline and costing far more than initially anticipated.

The NGI program is the Department of Defense’s plan to replace its fleet of aging ground-based missile defense systems that are unable to defend US territory from the more advanced missiles of the modern era, like hypersonic weapons.

Per the report, the MDA claims that it’ll be ready to deliver the first NGIs by the fourth quarter of FY 2027, but the GAO reckons historical precedent set by prior DoD missile development programs suggests the opposite.

“MDA’s current NGI schedule includes flight testing starting within approximately 6 years after MDA awarded the current development contracts,” the report says. “However, a 2019 study conducted by a Federally Funded Research and Development Center found that … weapon systems similar to NGI take approximately 7 years from contract award to reach first flight test.”

The GAO is also concerned that, while the multibillion-dollar program has remained within budget up to and including awarding Lockheed Martin $17 billion to build the first NGI missiles, it’s unlikely for things to stay that way.

“Our prior work assessing DoD’s portfolio of major weapon programs has shown that the overwhelming majority of cost growth occurs later in the development and production phases,” the report adds.

Regardless of whether early program milestones have been met, “MDA has yet to demonstrate that it can conduct flight testing … at the pace needed to support NGI’s 2028 fielding deadline,” the GAO concludes.

And the missileers still disagree

The GAO made five recommendations to the MDA and the Department of Defense, including restating their desire for better coordination with the intelligence community to account for the latest missile threats and a need to improve its simulation software.

In addition, the GAO wants the MDA to regularly report changes in threats that could have implications for the NGI program, develop a better budgeting plan, and conduct period organizational assessments for improving its digital engineering environment as it pertains to ground missile defense technology like NGI. 

The DoD says it doesn’t concur with any of the recommendations, save the one to assess the MDA’s digital engineering environment. We asked the MDA additional questions, but it only referred us to the DoD responses included in the report.

Jon Ludwigson, the GAO’s director of contract and national security acquisitions, told The Register that, continued opposition to its recommendations aside, the Accountability Office isn’t out of options yet.

“We are awaiting the results of a key DOD milestone review of the NGI program scheduled for 2024,” Ludwigson told us. That review will determine whether NGI is ready to enter the product development stage, and it’s here that the GAO sees one more chance to get its point across.

“We believe this review provides DOD an opportunity to implement recommendations from our report and the 2022 risk assessment recommendations,” Ludwigson added – but he’s not getting too optimistic yet.

“It is unclear at this stage whether DOD will take any steps to address these recommendations,” Ludwigson said. ®

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