Crash Program for Missile Defense May Be Just That

John M. Donnelly is editor of Defense Week, an independent newsletter that covers the business and politics of national security

At a capital cocktail party in March filled with Pentagon officials and defense contractors, one conversation turned to scuttlebutt that the Bush administration might try to deploy a missile defense system by 2004. That would be at least two years faster than the already-rushed Bill Clinton plan, which the brass and military testers agreed was "high risk."

At the party, an officer who had held a top position in the Defense Department's missile defense agency said of the rumored hurry-up defense: "Talk about a rush to failure." That phrase--rush to failure--had first been used by a 1998 Pentagon panel charged with figuring out why U.S. antimissile programs were having such trouble hitting targets--be they test missiles, costs or schedules.

The answer, the panel said, was that the programs' managers had been more concerned with doing things fast than with doing things right. The military got neither in most cases.

The Pentagon has corrected some of those mistakes. Now there's talk of making them again.

The officer's skeptical comment comes to mind as President Bush prepares to submit his overdue 2002 defense budget to Congress, probably this week. Press reports have indicated that the Pentagon is indeed seriously weighing a plan to deploy a national missile defense system by 2004. Boeing, the program's lead contractor, says that the tight 2004 schedule can be met by roughly quadrupling the rate of testing the military has been able to accomplish so far, the news reports said.

However, it appears unlikely that an effective system, even one able to knock down a single North Korean warhead, could be fielded by 2004. The Pentagon's top tester advised in an internal report last fall that it might not be possible to complete by 2011 the ground-based system under development, let alone sea-based, spaced-based or laser alternatives favored by some in the Bush administration.

So trying to deploy a system as early as 2004 could beget the opposite of what's intended: a behind-schedule system that won't intercept even test missiles, let alone real ones. And a crash program could cause missiles to crash; it could lead to costly repeats of tests that failed because generals and defense executives cut corners to meet calendar goals rather than realistic milestones.

Boeing reportedly argues that the Bush administration can get the job done faster than Clinton did by building a five-interceptor system instead of starting with 20 interceptors, as Clinton had planned. But even if one interceptor is the goal, the same testing must be successfully done, and that's the rub. The Pentagon's ground-based interceptors have missed test targets in two out of three tries. The tests themselves used "rudimentary" technology, said the Pentagon's top testing official at the time.

Also, don't believe that Clinton's land-based system was troubled because he didn't fund it adequately. The Pentagon boosted the program's budget by several billion dollars in the Clinton years. Then, each year, Congress added more. What Clinton's effort needed, and Bush's will too, is time to do things right even if there's an urgent threat, because going too fast will only slow things down, leaving any threat unmet.

The risk is that the president will end up with what may be a political shield to defend his right flank but not much of a shield against missiles. And the military will be tens of billions of dollars poorer.

In other words, the president may end up with another V-22 Osprey on his hands. That's the military's helicopter-airplane hybrid. Last year, the V-22 contractors, Boeing and Bell Helicopter Textron, were on a fast track to sign a $26-billion production paycheck. Then two crashes killed 23 Marines, and a squadron leader was caught on tape saying his Marines had "to lie" about the V-22's mechanical problems while the production decision was pending.

People started to take a harder look at the V-22. Lo and behold, they found out that the aircraft really wasn't ready for production after all and needed some redesigning; that it hadn't even proved it could do things that it was being built to do, like rescue downed pilots; and that, had testing not been cut back in the rush to production, these problems might have been discovered in time.

The officer at the cocktail party knew of what he spoke. Sometimes, if you want something real bad, that's how you may get it: real bad.

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