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Missile Defense: Some Progress Delivering Capabilities, but Challenges with Testing Transparency and Requirements Development Need to Be Addressed

GAO-17-381 Published: May 30, 2017. Publicly Released: May 30, 2017.
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Fast Facts

The Missile Defense Agency has spent $123 billion on a system to track and destroy enemy missiles—and plans to spend another $37 billion through 2021.

While we found that MDA has made progress developing some parts of this system, the agency has also faced challenges completing its testing goals, maintaining its test schedule, and integrating its various components. Moreover, the agency is developing new programs with limited input from DOD and the military services responsible for operating and maintaining them.

We recommended that MDA increase transparency into testing and costs, and improve its knowledge before funding future efforts.

Components of the Ballistic Missile Defense System

Photo collage showing a ship, command control, communications tower, and a ground-based missile.

Photo collage showing a ship, command control, communications tower, and a ground-based missile.

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What GAO Found

In fiscal year 2016, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) made some progress in achieving its testing and delivery goals for individual elements of the Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) and for capabilities that can be derived when individual elements are combined (known as BMDS level capabilities), but it was not able to complete its planned fiscal year goals. Specifically, MDA conducted 10 flight tests, including a major operational test, but it had to delay others, limiting the knowledge gained in fiscal year 2016. In addition, MDA delivered new interceptors, upgraded fielded interceptors and delivered five BMDS level capabilities. However, testing revealed that the BMDS level capabilities delivered will not likely provide robust defense as planned. The figure below highlights key progress MDA made for fiscal year 2016 against its planned goals.

Figure: Missile Defense Agency's Progress for Fiscal Year 2016 Against Planned Goals

Figure: Missile Defense Agency's Progress for Fiscal Year 2016 Against Planned Goals

MDA's integrated test schedule continues to be aggressive, resulting in frequent changes to planned testing from year to year. These changes are not clearly tracked which reduces the traceability of planned test objectives—what requirements have been met and when. Furthermore, MDA requests more than $1 billion in funding each fiscal year for tests, but the cost estimates to support the request are inconsistent and lack transparency. Until MDA addresses the limited traceability in its test schedule and transparency of the associated costs, the ability to track test progress costs will remain difficult.

MDA's efforts for exploring, developing, producing, and delivering its next generation of capabilities, such as new ground-, air-, and space-based sensors and interceptors, include several best practices of a sound business case. For example, MDA plans to incorporate mature technologies and realistic cost estimates in its efforts. However, the process lacks warfighter-approved requirements and sufficient input from Department of Defense (DOD) components. For example, design approaches for several efforts include trade-offs that favor acquiring capabilities sooner and at a lower cost but are at risk of lacking the performance necessary to defeat future threats. By allowing MDA to define requirements but not address concerns with system designs and acquisition strategies, there is an undue level of emphasis being placed on the judgment, needs, and preferences of MDA ahead of the warfighter, decreasing DOD-wide support for some future efforts.

Why GAO Did This Study

Since 2002, MDA has been developing a Ballistic Missile Defense System comprised of a command and control system, radars that can identify incoming threats, and intercepting missiles. MDA has received approximately $123 billion and is planning to spend an additional $37 billion through fiscal year 2021 to continue its efforts.

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 included a provision that GAO assess the extent to which MDA has achieved its acquisition goals and objectives. This report addresses the progress and challenges in fiscal year 2016 associated with MDA: (1) achieving fiscal year 2016 testing, asset, and capability delivery goals, (2) ensuring transparency of test schedules and costs, and (3) establishing a sound business case for future efforts. GAO reviewed the planned fiscal year 2016 baselines as stated in the BMDS Accountability Report and other program documentation and assessed them against program and baseline reviews and GAO's acquisition best practices guides. In addition, GAO interviewed DOD and MDA officials.


GAO is making four recommendations to the Department of Defense to increase transparency into testing and cost estimates, and improve acquisition strategies for MDA's future efforts. DOD concurred with part of GAO's first recommendation, but it did not concur with the remaining parts or other three recommendations. GAO continues to believe the recommendations are valid as discussed in this report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense To strengthen MDA's acquisition efforts and strengthen oversight, and to increase traceability and insight into MDA's test program, the Secretary of Defense should require MDA to (a) include a detailed crosswalk of changes to each test, such as names, planned execution dates, test types, targets, and other modifications, in each iteration of its Integrated Master Test Plan; (b) address deficiencies in its test scheduling policy by better aligning it with best practices for scheduling, including the use of a schedule work breakdown structure (WBS) that clearly traces each activity to the cost WBS, properly assigning resources to schedules, and clarifying guidance on when and how to conduct schedule risk analysis; (c) rectify deficiencies in its element and test level cost estimates by requiring the use of the common test WBS, documenting the traceability of source data, and codifying the processes and associated information for the software application Test Resource Mission Planning-Tool used to create the test level cost estimates in policy; and (d) break out funding requests by test in the BMDS Accountability Report and other budget documentation submitted during the annual budget submission.
Closed – Implemented
MDA has taken sufficient actions to close this recommendation as implemented. For instance, since 2018 MDA has included more detailed information on changes in each iteration of its Integrated Master Test Plan. In 2019, MDA revised its process for preparing flight test cost estimates and began providing Congress breakouts of annual funding requests for some tests. In 2020, MDA revised its test scheduling policies to incorporate aspects of GAO's scheduling best practices. In 2021, MDA issued guidance and codified its process for preparing flight test cost estimates in its Cost Estimating and Analysis Handbook. Each of the actions MDA has taken to date increases the traceability and insight into flight test plans and cost estimating needed by decision makers to understand progress and make informed funding and oversight determinations. Moreover, we completed an in-depth assessment of MDA's flight test cost estimates in 2022 and found a marked improvement in their accuracy.
Department of Defense To strengthen MDA's acquisition efforts and strengthen oversight, and to improve MDA's requirement-setting process and ensure it includes an appropriate balance between MDA and warfighter priorities, the Secretary of Defense should require MDA to develop a plan to transition operational requirements analysis currently performed within MDA's Achievable Capabilities List to the U.S. Combatant Commanders, with U.S. Strategic Command as the lead entity and, in the interim, require MDA to obtain their concurrence of the Achievable Capabilities List prior to its release.
Open – Partially Addressed
DOD did not concur with our recommendation to allow the warfighter to determine operational-level requirements for the Missile Defense System (MDS). Although the department disagreed with our recommendation, the Director, MDA informed us in March 2018 that he supported the warfighter providing MDA with operational-level MDS requirements. The January 2019 Missile Defense Review also affirmed the warfighter's responsibility for determining missile defense capability requirements. In November 2021, we reported that DOD issued new policies in 2020 that provided the warfighter with increased responsibility for determining operational-level requirements for missile defense capabilities (GAO-22-563). However, we also found that DOD continues to rely on MDA to discern operational-level requirements during early program development-similar to the condition we found in our May 2017 report. In our November 2021 report, we recommended that DOD establish processes and products to align missile defense programs in early development with operational-level warfighter requirements. Although DOD formally disagreed with our recommendations, we noted in our report that several DOD components agreed with our recommendations. DOD has since taken steps to implement one of the three recommendations in our November 2021 report. We believe that if DOD were to address our two remaining November 2021 recommendations, the department would also meet the intent of our May 2017 recommendation to transition full responsibility to the warfighter for determining operational-level requirements. We will continue to monitor DOD's progress in addressing our recommendation as it plans to issue updates to missile defense acquisition policies in 2024.
Department of Defense To strengthen MDA's acquisition efforts and strengthen oversight, and to ensure that the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV) acquisition strategy continues to remain viable, promotes effective competition, and addresses concerns raised by DOD components, the Secretary of Defense should require the Director, DOD's Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) to perform a comprehensive review of the RKV acquisition strategy and provide any recommendations to the Secretary of Defense that the Director deems necessary and appropriate to obtain CAPE's concurrence for the RKV program's acquisition strategy. Any decision to award a full-rate production contract should be delayed until after MDA has received approval from the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (USD(AT&L) to proceed to full-rate production.
Closed – Implemented
DOD did not concur with our recommendation, stating that CAPE reviewed the RKV acquisition strategy before it was approved by the USD(AT&L) in 2015. However, since we made this recommendation in 2017, MDA has twice made significant changes to the RKV acquisition plan--once in 2017 to accelerate RKV production and again in 2019 to delay RKV development and production due to technical challenges. The USD for Research and Engineering (R&E) subsequently terminated RKV in August 2019. Prior to RKV's termination, the USD(R&E) directed an Independent Technical Advisory Panel on Kinetic Kill Vehicles to review the RKV program. The panel conducted its review and provided its recommendations to OUSD(R&E), which the USD(R&E) acted upon, in consultation with the Deputy Secretary of Defense and the USD for Acquisition and Sustainment. Moreover, according to an official from the Office of the USD (Comptroller), the panel's review was prompted, in part, by this specific recommendation. As such, we believe this review satisfied the intent of our recommendation and that the recommendation was implemented.
Department of Defense To strengthen MDA's acquisition efforts and strengthen oversight, and to ensure that future acquisition strategies MDA develops for its new efforts reflect an appropriate balance between timeliness, affordability, reliability, and effectiveness and achieve department-wide buy-in, the Secretary of Defense should require MDA to produce acquisition strategies for all its major new efforts that are subject to review by the Director, CAPE and review and approval by the USD(AT&L).
Closed – Implemented
DOD did not concur with our recommendation, stating that under current DOD policy, the Director, MDA is responsible for BMDS development and acquisition strategies and must only obtain USD(AT&L) approval for production-related decisions. However, since we made this recommendation in 2017, the Office of USD (AT&L) was dissolved and replaced by the Offices of the USD for Research and Engineering (R&E) and USD for Acquisition and Sustainment (A&S). The USD (R&E) has since demonstrated a willingness to closely monitor MDA programs and intervene, if necessary, as demonstrated by the USD (R&E)'s May 2019 directive to MDA to stop all work on the RKV and subsequent decision to terminate the program in August 2019. Section 1687 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 (Pub. L. 116-333) states, "It is the sense of Congress that [...] to ensure that the future next-generation improved homeland defense interceptor program will deliver the required capability, have rigorous technical and acquisition oversight, and maintain schedule milestones, thereby mitigating the risk of similar issues as experienced with the redesigned kill vehicle, the acquisition strategy for such program should be reviewed and jointly approved by both the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering and the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, with input by stakeholders across the Department of Defense prior to proceeding with development efforts and awarding a contract [...]." MDA subsequently approved an NGI acquisition strategy that was approved by both the USD (R&E) and USD (A&S) in April 2020. In July 2020, we found that the offices of the USD (R&E) and USD (A&S) worked closely with MDA on the NGI acquisition approach and that it included contractual, programmatic, and technical provisions that indicate MDA is attempting to prevent issues on NGI that proved problematic for RKV.

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