Through the letters to The Washington Times, we have had an unusual and prolonged debate with Peter Huessy about the quality of the ballistic missile defense system provided by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).
This progressed to a discussion of the importance of testing the effectiveness of the system in Alaska and at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. To be honest, neither side seems to have been able to explain its position adequately to the other, and there is probably no value in continuing that discussion.
However, toward the end, the debate turned toward the effectiveness of a comparatively recent change of acquisition procedures within the Defense Department (DOD) called spiral development. This merits a public discussion.
For decades, military equipment has been acquired through a series of rather rigorous steps, starting with requirement documents and ending with a series of operational tests.
Proven methods of acquisition are time-consuming and expensive, but over time have been shown effective in developing equipment that may remain in service for two or three decades. Nonetheless, efforts have been made regularly to try to complete the task quicker and more inexpensively.
Spiral development is the most recent effort to speed acquisition. DOD describes it as a process to be used when a desired capability is identified but end-state requirements remain unknown at program initiation. Those requirements are refined through demonstration and risk management. There is continuous user feedback. Each increment provides the user the best possible capability. The requirements for future increments depend on feedback from users and technology maturation.
The concept of spiral development should not significantly differ from another used for many years: product improvement. This recognizes that the requirements specified for a product some years before it was fully developed might no longer be adequate after it has been in service for several years. Evolutionary improvements are made to the product to upgrade its performance for up-to date needs.
In times of crisis when the military need equipment urgently, these well-proven procedures may be circumvented. But that should always be done with the knowledge that neither the quality nor the performance may meet the expected standard. It would be considered exceptional for a strategic system, expected to remain in service for decades, such as missile defense, to be introduced by a short-cut procedure.
Spiral development has been introduced as a way to get equipment to the services more rapidly than the traditional means, but not as rushed as in a crisis. We have concerns that the eliminating of end-state requirements makes it far more difficult to assess the performance of a system expected to remain in service for decades. The role of an independent test and evaluation team, T&E, in the early stages of spiral development is unclear. In the more traditional form of development this T&E organization had an important role in establishing the quality of the product offered.
Thus there are two potential hazards associated with this modified approach. By dispensing with the original requirements, the development team’s task is made easier, possibly too much so, because it is no longer constrained to meet specific performance standards. Further the lack of these criteria make it harder to measure the success obtained.
Under traditional procedures for acquisition, the final testing of a product by the independent T&E organization provided solid evidence of the quality and performance that could be expected. These tests provided the military with confidence that it was receiving a product fit-for-service.
Under the spiral development banner the initially deployed strategic missile defense system has been given too little ongoing realistic testing, thus depriving the developers of the feedback on which to base modifications and enhancements to maintain and upgrade the system. The risk remains that an inadequately characterized product has been allowed to enter service with significant uncertainty as to its true capabilities.
Major General. U.S. Army (Retired), McLean Va.