WASHINGTON – The U.S. network of ground-based interceptors intended to defend against an intercontinental ballistic missile fired from North Korea “achieved a number of major accomplishments” in 2017, according to the General Accountability Office.
The system managed by Boeing Co. conducted its first successful flight test of an improved interceptor last year “when it successfully intercepted a target representative of an intercontinental ballistic missile,” according to the annual report published Wednesday. It also met a Pentagon goal set by the Obama administration of increasing the number of interceptors, which are based in California and Alaska, to 44 from 30.
The GAO, which has repeatedly criticized the interceptor system, said “the program also fielded a software upgrade to the fire control segment” that included some improvements for battle management and discrimination and completed a preliminary design review for a new hit-to-kill warhead.
“The program was able to execute all of these activities while also maintaining 24/7 availability of the system to the warfighter during a heightened period of North Korean missile testing,” according to the GAO report.
The interceptor program, with all its planned improvements, is now estimated to cost $67 billion, up from the agency’s most recent estimate of $41 billion. That makes it the Defense Department’s “fourth most expensive” weapons system, behind Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 jet and two Navy programs.
“That total is likely to continue to increase as MDA defines future capability increments,” the report said, referring to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.
The spending demonstrates the Pentagon’s “level of resources committed to defending the U.S. homeland against a long-range ballistic missile attack,” said the GAO, which labeled 2017 as a “seminal year” for the ground-based system that has been one of the military’s most frequently criticized programs. It’s intended to defend against adversaries, like Kim Jong Un’s North Korea or Iran, that are seeking to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Chicago-based Boeing oversees development and support of the network of interceptors, sensors and communications links, sharing funding with subcontractors: Orbital ATK Inc. builds the rocket booster, Raytheon Co. makes the hit-to-kill warhead, Northrop Grumman Corp. provides the battle management system and Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc. makes the warhead’s in-flight guidance system.
The GAO outlined a number of caveats and cautions concerning the U.S.’s missile defense arsenal, which also includes the Navy’s at-sea and onshore Aegis system with Standard Missiles, command-and-control networks and the Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad:
The Missile Defense Agency continues a “troubling pattern” of awarding large development contracts for which the final costs or quantities aren’t firmly established at contract signing, which “exposes the government to increasing amounts of risk.”
While it “met several significant milestones in fiscal year 2017” the agency “failed to deliver either of its two most recent packages of integrated capabilities on time.”
“Deficiencies and limitations” in the computer models used to support operational testing of systems, including a lack of accreditation, “provides decision makers with some flawed information” about ballistic missile defense system performance, although the agency didn’t provide examples.
Missile defense elements continue “to have cyber vulnerabilities that place” operations in “certain geographic areas at risk.”
The Aegis Ashore missile defense sites in Poland and Romania intended to intercept Iranian missiles “have faced continuing challenges in several areas” that have delayed deployment.