Agency skimping on missile defense tests in Poland, GAO says
June 7, 2019
The Missile Defense Agency has reduced needed testing of the Navy’s land-based missile defense system in Poland even though an 18-month construction delay has provided more time to run them, a government watchdog said.
The agency reduced by 80% tests that would more accurately gauge the Aegis Ashore system’s ability to intercept intermediate range ballistic missiles, increasing the chances that the system will be delivered with less defensive capability than planned, the Government Accountability Office said in its findings released Thursday.
Flight tests are the most important to prove the system’s effectiveness, GAO said.
“The warfighter relies on testing to understand the system’s capabilities and limitations and therefore how to fight with what MDA has built,” GAO said.
In a written response, the Defense Department said it will conduct more ground tests, which it said would be sufficient combined with simulations.
An Aegis system on Kauai successfully intercepted an intermediate-range missile in December, showing there’s no need for further flight tests on the Poland-based system, which uses a similar technology, DOD said.
The test program leaves no room, either in time or costs, to add more flight tests to an already full schedule, DOD wrote, “especially when that testing is not required to support delivery decisions.”
The Aegis system in Romania and the one being built in Poland are part of a larger missile defense system that NATO is developing.
Other components include four Navy destroyers based in Rota, Spain; an early warning radar system in Turkey; and a command center at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
U.S. and NATO leaders see missile defense in Europe as increasingly important, as adversaries such as Russia and Iran improve their missile-striking capabilities.
President Donald Trump announced earlier this year that the U.S. would withdraw from the nuclear treaty that banned ground-launched intermediate range missiles, after accusing Russia of violating the Cold War pact. Soon after, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that Moscow would follow suit.
A key goal for Europe’s Aegis Ashore is to defend against intermediate range missiles — which can travel up to 3,400 miles — when the system’s third phase is finished in 2020, the GAO said.
MDA has reduced missile testing despite Congress increasing the agency’s funding by $3.6 billion — a 46% jump — in 2017.
After the Kauai flight test, the agency had planned to conduct three more tests, including one to assess how well the systems could intercept multiple missiles simultaneously — a likely tactic in a real attack — but decided to forgo them, GAO said in the report.
The agency said further tests could impede the completion of the site in Poland, which at the time was slated for early 2019, the report said. But now there is plenty of time to do the tests due to the construction delays, GAO added.
Skimping on tests could run up costs as crews would have to fix problems after the systems are operating, the GAO said.
“Our prior work has shown that proceeding with limited test data can result in late, and costly, discovery of performance problems,” it said. “More thorough assessment ... could mitigate that risk by building a more solid base of knowledge.”