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Missile Defense: Further Collaboration with the Intelligence Community Would Help MDA Keep Pace with Emerging Threats

GAO-20-177 Published: Dec 11, 2019. Publicly Released: Dec 11, 2019.
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Fast Facts

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) uses information from the intelligence community to determine how to design and test its weapon systems.

We found that MDA has recently increased its interaction with the intelligence community, but further collaboration could help MDA keep pace with evolving threats. For example, MDA has previously relied on some outdated threat information, risking its weapon systems' performance. MDA can improve how it prioritizes requests for threat information to ensure it gets the needed information on time.

We made recommendations to improve how MDA interacts with and leverages information from the intelligence community.

MDA Flight Test Against a Long-Range Threat (March 25, 2019)

Photo showing a flight test of a U.S. missile defense weapon system against a long-range threat at night

Photo showing a flight test of a U.S. missile defense weapon system against a long-range threat at night

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is experiencing delays getting the threat assessments needed to inform its acquisition decisions. Officials from the defense intelligence community—intelligence organizations within the Department of Defense (DOD)—told GAO this is because they are currently overextended due to an increased demand for threat assessments from a recent upsurge in threat missile activity, as well as uncertainties related to their transition to new threat processes and products. The delays are exacerbated because MDA does not collectively prioritize the various types of threat assessment requests submitted to the defense intelligence community or provide resources for unique requests, as other major defense acquisition programs are generally required to do. Without timely threat assessments, MDA risks making acquisition decisions for weapon systems using irrelevant or outdated threat information, which could result in performance shortfalls.

MDA has increased its outreach to the defense intelligence community over the past few years, but opportunities remain for further engagement on key threat­related processes and decisions. Specifically, MDA provides the defense intelligence community with limited insight into how the agency uses threat assessments to inform its acquisition decisions. MDA is not required to obtain the defense intelligence community's input, and instead has discretion on the extent to which it engages the defense intelligence community. However, the defense intelligence community is uniquely positioned to assist MDA and its involvement is crucial for helping MDA keep pace with rapidly emerging threats. Moreover, this limited insight has, in part, prevented the defense intelligence community from validating the threat models MDA builds to test the performance of its weapon systems. Without validation, any flaws or bias in the threat models may go undetected, which can have significant implications on the performance of MDA's weapon systems. MDA and the defense intelligence community recently began discussing a more suitable level of involvement in the agency's acquisition processes and decisions.

Actions Needed for MDA to Improve Collaboration with the Intelligence Community and Keep Pace with Emerging Threats

Actions Needed for MDA to Improve Collaboration with the Intelligence Community and Keep Pace with Emerging Threats

Note: the threat missile coverage depicted is notional and not representative of MDA's actual threat coverage.

Why GAO Did This Study

MDA is developing missile defense capabilities to defend the United States, deployed forces, and regional allies from missile attacks. However, missile threats continue to emerge, as adversaries continue to improve and expand their missile capabilities.

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 included a provision that GAO annually assess and report on the extent to which MDA has achieved its acquisition goals and objectives, and include any other findings and recommendations. This report is a public version of a classified report GAO issued in May 2019, which addresses (1) the challenges MDA and the defense intelligence community face in meeting the agency's threat assessment needs and (2) the extent to which MDA engages the defense intelligence community on missile defense acquisitions. GAO reviewed MDA's threat-related acquisition processes and interviewed relevant officials from the defense intelligence community, MDA, test community, and warfighters. Information deemed classified by DOD has been omitted.

Recommendations

GAO is making three recommendations to improve how MDA: prioritizes and resources its threat assessment needs; obtains input from the defense intelligence community on key threat-related processes and decisions for missile defense acquisitions; and validates its threat models. DOD concurred with all three recommendations, citing actions it is already taking. While DOD has taken some positive steps, GAO believes more action is warranted.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Missile Defense Agency The Director, MDA should coordinate with the defense intelligence community on the agency's collective priorities for threat assessments and work with the defense intelligence community to determine if additional resources are needed to support the agency's threat assessment needs. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
DOD concurred with our recommendation. According to a response we received from MDA in October 2021, the agency and the intelligence community established quarterly meetings for MDA to present its prioritized threat needs and the intelligence community to present its prioritized production plans. In addition, MDA stated that the agency and the Intelligence Production Centers meet regularly for direct coordination on high priority acquisition efforts. MDA and the intelligence community formalized these processes in a May 2022 memorandum, adopting joint concept of operations that also included processes for collective threat prioritization and resource planning discussions. In June 2023, intelligence community officials told us they continue to hold quarterly meetings with MDA and believe the meetings have significantly improved communication and coordination on prioritizing threat assessment needs. We believe the new processes MDA established with the intelligence community address the intent of our recommendation.
Missile Defense Agency The Director, MDA should fully engage the defense intelligence community on key threat-related missile defense acquisition processes and decisions, including providing insight into and obtaining input from the defense intelligence community on the threat space MDA establishes for the BMDS and the threat parameters and threat models MDA assigns to BMDS elements as design requirements and test cases. (Recommendation 2)
Open – Partially Addressed
DOD concurred with our recommendation, stating that MDA will continue to fully engage the intelligence community on key threat-related Missile Defense System (MDS) acquisition processes and decisions. In November 2021, we reported that DOD has taken significant steps to implement our recommendation. Specifically, MDA coordinated with the intelligence community on developing and establishing the threat space and threat-related requirements for the Next Generation Interceptor (NGI). According to MDA, the agency also collaborated with the intelligence community to define the threat space for the Glide Phase Interceptor and Defense of Guam programs. Moreover, in direct response to our recommendation, MDA and the intelligence community established a working group and signed a memorandum of agreement in May 2022 for jointly developing threat models. These efforts address much of our recommendation; however, it is critical that MDA coordinate closely and continuously with the intelligence community on all of its major new efforts going forward. DOD is currently in the process of updating a directive that establishes the roles and responsibilities for missile defense acquisition. As part of this effort, DOD has an opportunity to codify the collaborative practices and processes MDA and the intelligence community have recently demonstrated and developed. An official from the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment told us in April 2023 that efforts within DOD to update the directive are expected to be completed in 2024. We will continue to monitor the status of DOD's efforts to update the directive and whether the update includes provisions that would meet the full intent of our recommendation.
Office of the Secretary of Defense The Secretary of Defense should require the Director, MDA and the Director, DIA to coordinate on establishing a process for MDA to obtain validation of its threat models. (Recommendation 3)
Closed – Implemented
DOD concurred with our recommendation. In 2019, DOD formed a working group to focus on developing solutions to specifically address our recommendation. The working group explored several lines of effort and identified processes that would enable concurrent model development between MDA and the intelligence community. In May 2022, MDA and the intelligence community signed a memorandum of understanding to formalize the joint modeling operating principles and practices developed by the working group. The memorandum also converted the working group into a permanent Joint Threat Modeling Program (JTMP) with the goal of continuing to define, develop, and test the processes and activities required to implement our recommendation and to ensure credible analysis of MDA capabilities against threat characterizations developed by the intelligence community. The JTMP also finalized a joint concept of operations that will support intelligence community verification and validation requirements, which will result in models that are threat representative for MDA development and testing.

Full Report

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Ballistic missilesIntelligence communityBallistic missile defenseWeapon systemsMilitary intelligenceDefense acquisition programsMissilesMilitary manpowerAcquisition programsBest practices