Missile Defense:

Knowledge-Based Decision Making Needed to Reduce Risks in Developing Airborne Laser

GAO-02-631: Published: Jul 12, 2002. Publicly Released: Jul 16, 2002.

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Robert E. Levin
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The Air Force launched an acquisition program to develop and produce a revolutionary laser weapon system, known as the Airborne Laser, in 1996. Being developed for installation in a modified Boeing 747 aircraft, it is intended to destroy enemy ballistic missiles almost immediately after their launch. The Air Force originally estimated development costs at $2.5 billion and projected fielding of the system in 2006. However, by August 2001, the Air Force determined that the development cost estimate rose 50 percent to $3.7 billion, and the fielding date slipped to 2010. The Department of Defense transferred responsibility for the Airborne Laser in October 2001 to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. Subsequently, the Defense Secretary designated the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization as the Missile Defense Agency and granted the agency expanded responsibility and authority. The Air Force was unable to meet the Airborne Laser's original cost and schedule goals because it did not fully understand the level of effort that would be required to develop the critical system technology needed to meet the user's requirements. The Missile Defense Agency's new strategy for developing the Airborne Laser incorporates some knowledge-based practices that characterize successful programs. However, the agency has not established knowledge-based decision points and associated criteria for moving forward from technology development to product development and on to production. Without decision points and criteria, the agency risks beginning new and more costly activities before it has the knowledge to determine the money and time required to complete them and whether additional investment in those activities is warranted.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Missile Defense Agency has adopted an acquisition process for the Airborne Laser system that includes decision points with knowledge-based criteria. Specifically, in September 2002, the Missile Defense Agency approved an Integrated Master Plan that defines a knowledge-based evolutionary framework for developing an integrated ballistic missile defense system, including the Airborne Laser. The Integrated Master Plan provides a template for completing the activities essential for developing the desired system. These activities are segregated into eight phases, each of which culminates with a programmatic decision point or "event". The events must be completed in order and each contains knowledge-based criteria for judging success.

    Recommendation: To make its acquisition process more disciplined and provide better information for decision makers as additional investments in the Airborne Laser are considered, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Director of the Missile Defense Agency to establish decision points separating technology development from system integration, system integration from system demonstration, and system demonstration from production. For each decision point, the Secretary should instruct the Director to establish knowledge-based criteria and use those criteria to determine where additional investments should be made in the program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense


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