February 4, 2004 | WebMemo on National Security and Defense

Use New Acquisition Procedures for Missile Defense

Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), citing the annual report of the Director of the Defense Department's Office of Operational Test and Evaluation (OTE), is now recommending that Congress put off the Bush Administration's plan for providing a limited defense against missile attack. Reed's colleagues in Congress should not follow his recommendation in favor of delay for two reasons:

  1. He has misinterpreted the findings of Director Christie's report. The report is not a "scorching criticism." Rather, it represents a welcome departure from the Department of Defense's slow and cumbersome Cold War-era acquisition procedures.
  2. He has discounted the risks of delaying the missile defense program. In fact, these risks are intolerable because the U.S. currently has no defense against missile attack.

A New Approach

OTE Director Thomas P. Christie's job is to determine when weapons are ready for deployment and when they can be declared operational. According to his report, the current testing program for missile defense is too limited to allow Defense Department managers to judge the effectiveness of the defense capability they plan to declare operational later this year.

Senator Reed argues that such a judgment is necessary before the missile defense system obtains operational status. But in the introduction to his report, Christie notes that the Department of Defense has changed its approach to developing and ultimately fielding new weapons. Reed ignores this.

One element of this new approach is an "evolutionary acquisition" procedure. Another is "capabilities-based acquisition." These procedures call for fielding a weapon in an initial configuration and improving it with upgrades over time. This new approach applies to weapons generally, and not just to missile defense.

In that vein, Christie states, "Neither [the evolutionary acquisition procedure nor the capabilities-based acquisition] produces a fixed configuration with which to judge a system's operational effectiveness and suitability or survivability against criteria based on military mission requirements." This should come as no surprise; under the new standards, Christie's office will approve the fielding of new weapons when the testing shows that they will improve the ability of the military to perform the relevant missions in comparison to what is in the field now.

The Senator's misinterpretation of Christie's report is understandable. He reads it in the context of the traditional approach to weapons development and acquisition, and by that standard his recommendation for delay is justified. By the new standards, however, Reed's recommendation is not properly grounded.

The old approach to weapons acquisition codified an all-or-nothing choice for weapons program managers. As a first step, the military would establish requirements for new weapons they saw as optimal. Unfortunately, the requirement for optimal performance was easily used to undermine progress, not to achieve it.

If this sort of optimal performance requirement were the order of the day a hundred years ago, for example, the military could easily have stated that the optimal flying machine would have the characteristics of something like today's F-22. Needless to say, this is not a sensible approach in the face of unpredictable threats and developing technology, and Christie is right to argue for the new approach.

The Risk of Delay

Nowhere is the Department of Defense's new approach to weapons acquisition more appropriate than in the area of missile defense. In fact, missile defense essentially makes the argument in favor of this new approach.

Currently, U.S. territory is completely vulnerable to missile attack. Even the most modest defense capability, therefore, would be better than what is currently available. By relying on the old acquisition procedures, Senator Reed asks his colleagues in Congress to pretend there is no risk to delay and to focus only on the risk that the missile defense system will fail to meet an optimal standard of effectiveness.

During the Cold War, the U.S. could tolerate a slow and careful weapons acquisition process because the steps taken by the Soviet Union to modernize its forces were relatively predictable. In the new age of terrorism, however, threats are all but unpredictable. The best that can be expected is that the Department of Defense will be able to predict the kinds capabilities unknown enemies of the U.S. are likely to possess.

The Bush Administration, quite appropriately, has responded by establishing evolutionary acquisition and capabilities-based acquisition procedures. Congress should not make judgments on the value of the missile defense program based on an old approach to buying weapons that is no longer applicable.

Baker Spring is F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Baker Spring F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy