War of Words

By John Liang / May 15, 2009 at 5:00 AM

Just because missile defense programs like the Multiple Kill Vehicle, Kinetic Energy Interceptor and Airborne Laser have experienced billions of dollars' worth of cost overruns and technical problems doesn't mean they should be canceled or cut back, according to the co-chair of the Congressional Missile Defense Caucus.

"The reality is that any time you're on the cutting edge of innovation and doing things that are extremely technologically challenging, there are going to be a lot of failures," Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) said today at a National Defense University Foundation breakfast. "Failure nearly always is the best teacher, and it takes you in a more productive direction at some point," he added.

In its fiscal year 2010 budget request, the Pentagon is recommending the cancellation of the KEI and MKV programs as well as not building a second prototype ABL aircraft. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at a Senate hearing yesterday that "the policy of the Bush administration and the policy of this administration has been to develop a missile defense against rogue nations, not against China and Russia. And the Multiple Kill Vehicle, in addition to schedule and cost and technology issues, was designed against a far more capable enemy than either North Korea or Iran are going to be in the next 10 to 15 years."

But for Franks:

The reason I feel it's so vital that we at least make the effort to defend ((those programs)) is because first of all, MKV, that's what . . . the opposition is saying, that 'You can't do anything with decoys or multiple targets.' Well, that's why we wanted a Multiple Kill Vehicle! My God! I don't want to sound too dramatic here but it's just astonishing to me that they say, 'Well, this is a problem, and we're going to cut the very thing that possibly could address it. And we're not only just cut it, we're going to wipe it out.'

KEI "had been restructured in 2007 to emphasize development of a high-acceleration booster," the Missile Defense Agency's FY-10 budget justification documents state, adding:

However, we have encountered considerable technical issues and delays during development, such as repeated first and second booster case failures, thrust nozzle concerns, overheating of avionics, thermal battery canister failure and C-Band transponder failure during shock testing.

Even if such technical problems could be solved without excessive cost and schedule implications, we have become concerned about the cost-effectiveness of the KEI interceptor, which is currently estimated at $75 million per unit.

During May 13 testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Gates said programs such as KEI are “essentially sinkholes for taxpayer dollars.”

On ABL, Gates told the Senate committee yesterday that he has a "problem" with the program's operational concept, in that:

It would have required buying a fleet of about 20 747s. And the other difficulty is that they have to orbit close enough to the launch site so that, if it were Iran, the orbit would be almost entirely within the borders of Iran, and if it were against North Korea it would be inside the borders of North Korea and China. And I just think operationally that's not going to happen. So we'll keep the research going.

For his part, Franks said this morning:

I don't think anybody will argue with the fact that no matter where we go with missile defense, I cannot perceive a time when the most effective time to defend yourself is ((not)) in boost phase. . . . Where do we have to go to where that paradigm would no longer be in place? And yet, those are the very systems that we're cutting.