Missile Defense:

Knowledge-Based Practices Are Being Adopted, but Risks Remain

GAO-03-441: Published: Apr 30, 2003. Publicly Released: Jun 4, 2003.

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Robert E. Levin
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The Department of Defense (DOD) would like to build a capable missile defense system that paces an ever-evolving threat. This is an expensive and risky endeavor because it requires a diverse set of technologies to be quickly developed, integrated, and deployed across an array of platforms. DOD estimates that it will need $50 billion for missile defense research and development over the next 6 years and likely additional funds in subsequent years. GAO was asked to review the Missile Defense Agency's (MDA) strategy for this investment and determine what knowledge-based practices characteristic of successful programs are being adopted by MDA; what significant practices are not being adopted; and whether MDA is following the practices that it has adopted.

Our work has shown that programs are most successful when they evolve products over time rather than try to make big leaps in capability and when the programs adopt knowledge-based acquisition processes. Similarly, MDA is taking an evolutionary approach to developing the missile defense system by developing capabilities in spirals or "blocks" rather than attempting to deliver all desired capabilities at one time. The agency intends to facilitate this approach by keeping requirements flexible before beginning activities to integrate technologies into a planned block, following a knowledge-based development plan, and demonstrating that technologies work as intended before beginning system integration of a block. In addition, the agency is seeking to involve stakeholders--such as the military services and operational testers--early in the development effort. However, MDA has not adopted some knowledge-based practices regarding long-term investment decision-making and, as a result, the missile defense program's success could be hampered. First, MDA is not making an early determination of the full cost of a capability. Such an estimate would help decision makers more effectively evaluate which technologies to include because they offer the best capability for the funds invested. Second, DOD is not allocating a "wedge" of funds in its Future Years Defense Plan for system production and operations. Without this wedge, DOD may not have the funds needed to procure and maintain the missile defense system. In addition, the President's directive to begin fielding a missile defense capability by 2004 places MDA in danger of getting off track early and impairing the effort over the long term. This danger is highlighted by MDA's decision to not follow some of its knowledge-based practices as it develops the first block of the system. For example, MDA is beginning system integration of its first block with immature technology and limited testing. While doing so may help MDA meet the President's deadline, it also increases the potential that some elements may not work as intended.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Missile Defense Agency's recently revised Integrated Master Plan requires that an affordability analysis be completed. This requires that the funding investment for the design, development, and fielding of a Block capability and integration into the Ballistic Missile Defense System be established. Also required is that prior to beginning integration, a match must be made between available resources and desired capabilities. According to Agency officials with whom GAO met on June 26, 2003, the affordability analysis is a life cycle cost estimate for the block configuration.

    Recommendation: To assist MDA and DOD decision makers in determining which elements or components should be included in each new block of the Ballistic Missile Defense System, the Missile Defense Agency, before beginning integration activities, should prepare a life cycle cost estimate for configuring the element or component that the agency is considering including in the block.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Office of the Secretary of Defense: Missile Defense Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Missile Defense Agency had previously advised GAO that it was considering adding a wedge of funds that would be available should the agency decide to transfer an element, or elements, to a military service for production and operation. However, as of May 31, 2005, the agency had not added a wedge of funding to field the missile defense system.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that funds are available to produce and operate the elements of the missile defense system when a decision is made to transfer elements to the military services, the Secretary of Defense should explore the option of requiring the services to set aside funds for this purpose in the Future Years Defense Plan.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense


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