Real Clear Defense

In Defense of Missile Defense

Rebeccah Heinrichs on taking the GAO report on missile defense with a grain of salt

Senior Fellow and Director, Keystone Defense Initiative
The first successfully conducted intercept flight test of a land-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) weapon system and Standard Missile (SM)-3 Block IB Threat Upgrade guided missile, Kauai, Hawaii. (MDA)
The first successfully conducted intercept flight test of a land-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) weapon system and Standard Missile (SM)-3 Block IB Threat Upgrade guided missile, Kauai, Hawaii. (MDA)

Skeptics of homeland ballistic missile defense will hold up the latest Government Accountability Office (GAO) report as proof positive that funding for the defensive program should be starved... again. This is especially troubling considering the latest developments in North Korea.

This month North Korea proved it has advanced its long-range missile capability by once again successfully launching, for the second consecutive time, a three-stage ballistic missile, putting a satellite into orbit- a satellite with reportedly twice the weight as the last one.

The most recent Pentagon report on North Korea's military capabilities warns, "North Korea is committed to developing a long-range, nuclear-armed missile that is capable of posing a direct threat to the United States." It also affirms previous assessments that the North Korean regime is setting out to improve the range of its missiles. It states "If successfully designed and developed, the KN08 likely would be capable of reaching much of the continental United States, assuming the missiles displayed are generally representative of missiles that will be fielded." We have not actually seen the North Koreans successfully test an actual nuclear long-range missile due to significant challenges. Still, numerous U.S. military leaders warn North Korea is far enough along that the United States must prepare to defend against this pending capability.

It makes sense then, that the country might actually ensure its missile defense system is as good as it can possibly be, especially considering the erratic nature of the rogue regime. Instead, the Obama budget request to Congress for homeland missile defense is, curiously, $800 million less than last year's enacted amount. This makes the timing for the most recent GAO report especially dire.

Some perspective on these GAO reports is in order. GAO is supposed to be a kind of "watchdog" over the Executive Branch on behalf of the Congress. It tracks how the various Executive Branch agencies are spending tax dollars and purports to measure competency or waste in an objective way, according to fair and balanced metrics. Unlike Congressmen, who have the sometimes fair, and I would suggest, often unfair reputation of being purely partisan, the GAO prides itself as existing outside the political realm.

It should go without saying, but, alas, it does need to be said: GAO report authors are not void of opinions about policy, politics, and programs. And unlike the Congress, they are not accountable to an electorate. In the GAO's defense, some of the matters Congress mandates the GAO examine are nearly impossible to assess mathematically anyway, and so by requiring GAO analysts to report back on a complex, often inherently political subject, it is setting them up for failure.

To take one especially egregious example of a GAO report gone awry, in 2007, the Congress asked the GAO to take a look at the war in Iraq and assess the current state of success or failure of the Iraqi government in meeting 18 "benchmarks," 14 of which were sanctioned by Congress less than a year before the publication of the report. The most obvious problem with this is the task itself. Depending on one's overall opinion of the entire war effort, one might find it worth emphasizing the positive direction, progress, and cooperative efforts of the nascent Iraqi government. After all, the Iraqis were under enormous pressure to quickly form and operate a brand new government that only a few short years ago was run by a dictator. But that was not the tenor of the report. Instead, the title "Iraqi Government Has Not Met Most Legislative, Security, and Economic Benchmarks" splashed across the cover of the "objective and non-partisan" report for opponents of the war to denounce the Bush administration. Never mind senior military officers' testimony, and never mind the large body of research analyses from a variety of other sources that provide other pieces of the story with varying degrees of positivity.

Reporting back on the status of a Pentagon program that has a complex past and represents a controversial strategic decision presents similar challenges. The Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system is currently the only missile defense system in place that is designed to intercept incoming long-range ballistic missiles headed toward the U.S. homeland. It was first deployed in 2004 after President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with the Russian Federation. It consists of large defensive missile interceptors with kill vehicles that detach from the interceptor in the exo-atmosphere and collide with an incoming missile's warhead. This technology is called "hit-to-kill."

When the system was first deployed, the intention of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) was to continually update the system and ensure it was able to "stay ahead of the threat." In other words, as rogue countries like Iran and North Korea improved their missiles both in number and in sophistication, the GMD system would continue to improve in discrimination and at reliably hitting incoming warheads with fewer attempts.

But some on the ideological Left have opposed the program, for fear that it might encourage adversaries to ramp up their offensive forces in an effort to defeat the system, (as if staying totally vulnerable to the missiles they already have is a more desirable status). Others opposed the program due to skepticism that the technology would ever mature to the point that the effort was worth the cost.

Regardless of the reasons for opposition, the need for the capability and the promise of GMD's technology garnered enough support from Members of Congress and military strategists and operators to begin improving and expanding the program. In 2006, 2007, and 2008 the GMD system repeatedly proved-- and improved-- its capability by successfully intercepting test targets.

But when President Obama entered the White House, despite continued affirmation in the system's necessity and mission from the most senior military officers, including every Northern Command Commander, he cut the approximately $2 billion (annually) GMD program in half.

Due to these cuts, the program had a spotty testing schedule and inevitably missed hitting a test warhead in three consecutive interceptor tests (although, notably, it did successfully intercept it in July 2014, bringing the record to a total of 9 of 17 successful intercepts). Implicitly admitting the cuts were a mistake, the administration agreed to a one-year plus up in funding for FY16 by adding about $700 million back to the program. The added boost enabled Vice Admiral James Syring, director of the MDA, to double the agency's focus on GMD, address the challenges that caused previous problems, and improve its testing program. But then, the FY17 President's budget submission shows the funding returns to levels similar to earlier Obama years. Put in context, it is hardly fair to hammer MDA for GMD's remaining shortcomings.

But this was not the message the GAO authors intended to convey. Indeed, it seemed as though the authors wrote the report intending to scold the MDA before it had drafted a single letter. It included quotable lines like this: "MDA has demonstrated some of this capability but several other key aspects necessary to prove it can defend the U.S. homeland against the current ballistic missile threat have not been demonstrated."

It left out the part about the Obama administration decimating the program and about how, in spite of the decimation, it has performed remarkably well, and continues to earn the confidence of the most senior military officers.

The GAO report concluded that "MDA concurred with many of our recommendations and has taken some actions to address them but several of our recommendations have not been implemented. We continue to believe these recommendations are valid and should be fully implemented."

Well, here's a recommendation that I hereby declare "valid:" take GAO's report with a big grain of salt. At best it presents a tiny part of the story, at worst, it represents the opinions of analysts who are unsupportive of GMD's mission.

GAO reports can present helpful information, but remember, real government accountability does not come from unelected "immune from opinion" individuals in a bureaucratic agency. It comes from the Constitution's entire system of checks and balances between co-equal branches of government, and Congress has the power of the purse. And if Congress really wants to ensure the U.S. homeland defense system stays ahead of the North Korean threat, it better override the President's indefensible spending cuts to GMD.