- - Tuesday, November 12, 2019

It seems like the kind of swamp-draining good-government measure for which the Trump administration can rightly take pride. But a move to kill a Pentagon program related to missile defense seems to have come just as the program was beginning to show promise and actually could leave America more vulnerable to nuclear attack for a decade.

At issue are the kill vehicles attached to missiles stored in the ground in Alaska and California that are designed to intercept an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile in mid-flight. The kill vehicle then detaches from the rocket and destroys the incoming missile over the ocean.

There are 44 ground-based interceptors now — divided between Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The Pentagon had plans to add 22 silos at Fort Greely for a total of 64.

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But in May, the Department of Defense announced it was taking a “strategic pause” on a program to develop a new kill vehicle for the ground-based interceptors. Then in August, it decided to end the program outright and begin a new bid process.

It wasn’t that the current kill vehicle — known as the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle or EKV — was not working; it had ironed out engineering problems and passed all recent tests. It was that the kill vehicle that was to take its place — the Redesigned Kill Vehicle or RKV — could not measure up. 

According to Defense News, the Department of Defense determined the technical design issues that had caused postponement of a design review last December, the strategic pause in May and the program’s ultimate demise in August “were so significant as to be either insurmountable or cost-prohibitive to correct.”

So, rather than continue to address those problems, the Pentagon plans not only to go in another direction on kill vehicles, it plans to build no more ground-based interceptors and to redesign kill vehicles to accommodate the New Generation Interceptor, which not only will replace the ground-based interceptors but address other threats as well.  

The problem is the current system — although aging and facing continued engineering and supply line challenges — is our only defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the Next Generation Interceptor won’t be ready for at least 10 years, during which time North Korea, Iran or even Russia or China could pose a nuclear threat. 

Moreover, missile defense commands only 1 percent of the U.S. military budget now, and only a fraction of that goes to defend the homeland. If a president less committed to defense spending than Donald Trump were to be elected, funding for the new program could be threatened. 

Regardless of the politics, for the next 10 years, our only working system will be aging itself into obsolescence and the system to replace it will not be ready. That means more risk at a time when America can least afford it.

“What’s happening at the Pentagon today is typical of past periods in which the military was flush with funding,” wrote Loren Thompson, an aerospace and defense expert, in Forbes. “New ideas and initiatives get started, aimed at leaping ahead with more advanced capabilities, without much regard as to whether the funding will continue flowing. Meanwhile the existing solution to a challenge is neglected, because a better answer supposedly is coming. When that better answer flames out for lack of funding or technical feasibility, the nation ends up worse off than where it started because the legacy system has not been maintained.”

The Pentagon said it terminated the contract with Boeing — Raytheon, a sub-contractor, was developing the new kill vehicle — in the name of efficiency. 

“Ending the program was the responsible thing to do,” Mike Griffin, undersecretary of State for research and engineering, said in a statement. “Development programs sometimes encounter problems. After exercising due diligence, we decided the path we’re going down wouldn’t be fruitful, so we’re not going down that path anymore. This decision supports our efforts to gain full value from every future taxpayer dollar spent on defense.”

But is this the way to achieve full value for every taxpayer dollar spent on defense? President Trump’s summits with the leader of North Korea have brought a pause to Pyongyang testing intercontinental weapons, but the North Koreans have been clear they don’t plan to abandon their program. 

Raytheon officials have said they believe they can overcome the difficulties with their Redesigned Kill Vehicle system in time for tests in 2023 and deployment by 2025. Isn’t that more efficient and probably effective than starting for scratch and enduring 10 years of heightened danger?

• Brian McNicoll, a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., is a former senior writer for The Heritage Foundation and former director of communications for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

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