- - Wednesday, October 25, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

After eight years of half-hearted commitment to ballistic missile defense (BMD) under the Obama administration, President Trump and the Republican-led Congress appear poised to reinvigorate our nation’s BMD programs. This is all to the good. However, in order to develop and maintain a robust and reliable missile defense capability over the long term, a structural change to the procurement process is needed. Instead of the disruptions inherent in the annual budget process, the Department of Defense should be authorized to engage in multiyear procurement for missile defense systems.

Given the serious North Korean — and potentially Iranian — threats facing the United States, our deployed forces and our allies, substantial new investment in missile defense is prudent and welcome. Despite an initial budget request that was $300 million below current funding levels — a transition-era request on autopilot from the previous administration — Mr. Trump has reversed course. Over the summer, he declared his intention to increase the missile defense budget “by many billions of dollars.”

Congress looks ready to get him part of the way there this year. The House version of the National Defense Authorization Act increases missile defense funding by almost $2.5 billion, while the Senate version increases it by $630 million. Wherever the funding levels end up, a large increase is likely coming. Additionally, on Oct. 4, Congress approved a Defense Department request to shift existing funds into the missile defense budget. A total of $440 million was reprogrammed for various BMD programs, such as increasing the number of Ground-Based Midcourse Defense interceptors from 44 to 64.

Increases in funding and interceptors have come in direct response to the rising tensions with North Korea. This is a proper short-term response to events. But given rising worldwide threats, the U.S. needs a long-term investment in proven, versatile defensive systems in quantities that will meet future needs. If Congress and the administration want to develop a truly credible missile defense shield, they should begin utilizing multiyear procurement contracts for ballistic missile defense systems.

Multiyear procurement is a special contracting mechanism that allows the Defense Department to use a single contract for two to five years for the procurement of specific items without having to exercise an option in every annual budget. According to the department’s Office of Defense Procurement and Acquisition Policy website, this mechanism results in lower costs by stabilizing contractor plans and work forces, allowing continuity of production. This avoids annual start-up and phase-out costs; provides incentives for contractors to improve productivity; reduces the overall administrative burden; and broadens the competitive environment. According to the Congressional Research Service, estimated savings for programs utilizing multiyear procurement have been as much as 15 percent — and in this difficult budgetary environment, these savings are absolutely critical.

All U.S. BMD systems are in high demand, but the Standard Missile interceptors associated with the Aegis missile defense system would be an especially attractive candidate for multiyear procurement. On Oct. 15, the Missile Defense Agency successfully tested both the SM-3 and SM-6 interceptors and, according to former agency director Vice Adm. James Syring, the Aegis defense system “continues to be the backbone of the nation’s regional defense for our deployed forces, allies, partners and friends.”

With ballistic missile threats widespread and growing, uncertainty in the annual budget process represents a real problem. Budget cuts, sequestration and continuing resolutions make long-term interceptor procurement more expensive and unstable. As evidence of this, for the second year in a row the MDA is purchasing SM-3 interceptors at a rate below what they consider full production. This leaves U.S. and its allies underprepared and vulnerable in an area of importance second to none.

The Pentagon is currently midstream in its latest Ballistic Missile Defense Review, which is expected to be completed by year end. This report can provide Mr. Trump the opportunity to highlight some of the challenges of the procurement process for BMD systems and to call for the use of multiyear contracts. Given the need to purchase these interceptors for the foreseeable future, Mr. Trump and Congress should ensure we are getting the best deal for our tax dollars through an updated procurement process. If he accomplishes this reform while also increasing funding for missile defense programs, he will have set the stage for a robust, reliable and long-term U.S. missile defense capability, not just for his own administration, but for administrations to come.

• Jonathan Bergner is an independent national security policy analyst.

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