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Analysis: Missile Defense Semantics

"We'll be using the test bed while it's operational, instead of using it as a test bed and then deciding to make it operational," Kadish (pictured) said in 2002. "Instead of waiting to decide ... to turn it on to make it operational, we will attempt to make it operational from the beginning."
by Pamela Hess
UPI Pentagon correspondent
Washington DC (UPI) Jan 17, 2005
With the failure of the latest test of the U.S. national missile defense system in December, the Pentagon seems to now be engaged in semantic gymnastics, declining to say whether the system is operational or not, and suggesting it never promised it would be.

President George W. Bush kicked off a serious - and expensive - efforts to deploy the national missile defense system in December 2002, shortly after he withdrew the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that had been arranged with the Soviet Union.

Bush heralded the system, but downplayed it at the same time, setting expectations low. It would be a "modest" system that would "serve as a starting point for improved and expanded capabilities later."

He also said: "We plan to begin operating these initial capabilities in 2004 and 2005."

Lt. Gen. Ron Kadish, then-director of the Missile Defense Agency, said it would be operational from the start.

"We'll be using the test bed while it's operational, instead of using it as a test bed and then deciding to make it operational," Kadish said in 2002. "Instead of waiting to decide ... to turn it on to make it operational, we will attempt to make it operational from the beginning."

Fast forward two years. Ground-based missiles, designed to race off their platform and into outer space at the first sign of an enemy attack, have been deployed in small numbers on the test bed at a U.S. military base in Alaska.

Up to 20 ground-based interceptors are to be deployed at Ft. Greely and Vandenberg by the end of 2005. Between 2005 and 2009, the Pentagon expects to have spent in excess of $50 billion on missile defense.

In December, the first test of the system in almost two years was a failure. Although a target missile was launched, the interceptor missile failed to lift off the pad and was immediately shut down. If the attack had been real, according to Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita, the warning would have immediately rolled over to another missile, which would have launched against the incoming target.

Did the failure mean the system was not ready to be declared operational?

"I don't think that the goal was ever that we would declare it was operational. I think the goal was that there would be an operational capability by the end of 2004," Di Rita said on Thursday at a Pentagon press conference.

"There has been some expectation that there will be some point at which it is operational and not something else, and I just don't think people should expect that for the near term."

DiRita said the system might never actually be declared operational.

"We haven't made a declaration that we are now hereby operational. I don't know that such a declaration will ever be made. But we have a nascent operational capability," he said.

"Some capability exists, it will continue to improve as we continue to test it, and the testing is, at the moment, a higher priority," DiRita said.

"Operational" has a very specific meaning when it comes to Defense Department acquisition programs, and Pentagon officials are conscientiously avoiding invoking it.

Asked if the missile defense system has an operational capability that could intercept a North Korean missile launched tomorrow, DiRita responded, "I think I just don't need to expand on what I've said."

Traditionally weapons programs proceed along a linear path, from the identification of a requirement - for instance, a fighter jet that can defeat the latest Chinese version - through concept development, research and development, initial production and deployment and then full-rate production.

Each of those stages, at least notionally, offers the Pentagon an exit ramp in the form of a Defense Acquisition Board review.

If the system is proving too expensive or is not meeting requirements, the Pentagon can end the contract in the middle, pay some termination fees, and move on to something new.

The final stage of full-rate production is normally presaged by a series of operational tests, reviewed by the Pentagon's independent but small testing agency created in the 1980s by Congress to make sure the Pentagon bought only systems that worked as advertised.

If the system performs well in operational testing, the Operational Testing and Evaluation office issues a report declaring it to be both operationally effective and suitable - that is, it does what it is advertised to do and that function is relevant to the problem it is trying to address.

But the ground-based interceptor piece of the national missile defense system is being built under another model called "spiral development."

Spiral development is a concept that gained favor with the explosion of information technologies in the 1990s. The commercial information technology sector was developing products so quickly that by the time the Pentagon had even agreed to requirements on a system, the state of the art had long since eclipsed them

In May 2003, the Pentagon made it official: spiral development was the desired method for all acquisition projects. In this construct, the system's desired capability is identified, but the end-state requirements are not known when the program starts.

Those are developed in negotiation during the development as the contractor and government program office sees what capabilities are possible on what schedule and at what cost.

"I can't imagine anyone who's dumb enough to set a firm date (for the system to be declared operational), because you can't do that," Rumsfeld said in August. "You get on the path and test things and see how things are going."

Spiral development presents a unique conundrum for a system as ambitious and expensive as national missile defense. With no specific end state defined, how can the nation ever know if it actually works? How does the Pentagon know if and when it should abandon the project all together?

That question worries the chief of the testing agency, Thomas Christie.

Christie told an audience of testers in Reno, Nevada in 2004, that realistic weapons testing is increasingly being pushed aside by the Pentagon.

"We must change our way of doing business, adapt to the new acquisition paradigms and the realities of the 'war on terrorism,' or we will find ourselves becoming irrelevant, with dire consequences to the operational forces," said Christie, according to news reports. Program managers "appear to be learning faster how to avoid testing than we are learning to do it better."

Congress attempted to rein in the possible excesses of spiral development, that is, weapons programs that could be cash cows without ever actually having to produce anything that could be evaluated.

In 2002, Congress inserted language into the defense authorization bill that requires the Pentagon to produce a development strategy, test plans, performance parameters, exit criteria and operational assessment for any program designated for spiral development.

No such parameters have been developed for the system, according to the Center for Defense Information, a think tank that is consistently critical of the ballistic missile defense system.

It is unclear why the Pentagon won't pin the system down to specific requirements and performance parameters. The cynical answers are many: because the Bush administration wants to keep the money flowing to major defense companies who contribute handsomely to Republicans or directing resources into missile defense puts the crunch on domestic programs the Republican Party would like to see reduced.

Michigan Democrat Carl Levin said the decision to push forward with missile defenses "violates common sense by determining to deploy systems before they have been tested and shown to work."

The Pentagon and White House insist they are acting prudently in the face of a missile threat from North Korea and eventually from the Middle East, and that doing nothing would be the height of irresponsibility.

In the meantime, it is unclear whether the system sitting on the pad at Fort Greeley, Alaska, could be used in the event of an attack. That ambiguity may be calculated to put a potential enemy off balance in the wake of a failed test that suggests it would not work.

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US Missile Test Failure Caused By 'Minor' Glitch: General
Washington DC (AFP) Jan 12, 2005
The first flight test of the US ground-based missile defense system in more than two years failed last month because of a "very minor software glitch," the head of the US Missile Defense Agency said Wednesday.

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