When is “Fly Before You Buy,” Actually “Buy Before You Fly”? When it’s the MDA’s Acquisition Process for New Ground Based Interceptors (GBIs). (May 10, 2015)

Everyone seems to agree that “fly before you buy,” is a good idea, particularly for complex military systems.  The failure to follow such an approach by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is now widely acknowledged as a primary cause of the many problems that have befallen its Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) program.  Nevertheless, as a recent GAO Report shows, MDA appears determined to continue to with its “buy before you fly” approach for the GMD system.

Some claims on “fly before you buy.”

The current MDA Director, Vice Admiral J.D. Syring, told Congress in March 2015 that for the GMD system, “We will adhere to our “fly before you buy” approach…”[1]   Similarly, during the February 2, 2015 press conference on the release of the MDA FY 2016 budget, he stated that for the GMD system “So the way I have structured the test program is to fly before you buy…”[2] (I’ll give you the rest of these two sentences below.)

Such claims are not new for MDA. In April 2010, Syring’s predecessor as MDA Director, Lt. General Patrick O’Reilly, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “We have submitted a comprehensive integrated master test plan — signed by Dr. Gilmore, the services’ operational test agencies and the commander of U.S. Strategic Command — to ensure we fly our missiles before we buy them.”[3] (Somewhat amazingly, at the time O’Reilly made this statement, MDA was deploying GBIs equipped with the new CE-II kill vehicle, which had failed its only flight and intercept test.)

In 2008, Gen. O’Reilly’s predecessor at MDA, Lt. General Henry Obering III, told Congress that: “Our capability-based acquisition model actually follows a “fly-before-you-buy” construct.”[4]  However, he practically contradicted himself with his next sentence: “We have in place a disciplined process to deliver early, partial, and full capabilities, with significant developmental and operational testing events throughout.”

At least Gen. Obering’s predecessor at MDA, Lt. General Ronald Kadish, seemed to get a correct description of MDA’s GBI acquisition process when in March 2004 he told Congress that: “The idea of fly before you buy is very difficult for this system.” Instead, he described the GBI procurement process as: “Fly as we buy is basically the way we have done that.”

Fly Before You Buy and the CE-II Block I interceptor

There are two versions of the Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) currently deployed on GBIs, the CE-I and CE-II. (CE stands for “Capability Enhancement.”)  Both of these began deployment years before they were successfully intercept-tested.[5]  See my post of April 26, 2015 for a description of the various versions of the EKV.  The buy before you fly approach used for the CE-I and CE-II is widely acknowledged to be a major reason for the problems these weapons have caused the GMD system, in particular the more than six year delay and more than $1.7 billion cost overrun in demonstrating a successful CE-II intercept.[6]

The next version of the EKV is the CE-II Block 1.  The Block 1 is intended to be an improved version of the CE-II, with greater reliability.  It will include the fixes for the problems encountered in the failed FTG-06a and FTG-07 intercept tests, as well as the alternate divert thrusters to be tested in CTV-02+ in late 2015.  The CE-II Block 1 GBI will also include the new C2 upgraded booster, which has avionics upgrades and is also intended to increase reliability.

Currently the MDA plans to conduct intercept FTG-15 in fourth quarter of FY 2016.  This test will be the first flight test and intercept test for both the CE-II Block 1 EKV and the C2 booster. Following this test (assuming it is successful), MDA plans to deploy ten CE-II Block 1 GBIs by the end of calendar year 2017.  The rapid deployment of these CE-II Block 1 GBIs is necessary if MDA is to meet the politically-established deadline of deploying 44 operational GBIs by the end of 2017.

While the process of testing and deploying the CE-II Block I GBIs might appear to be a fly before you buy approach, since the intercept test precedes the first deployment, in fact this deployment plan requires buying the CE-II Block 1 GBIs long before they are tested.

A 2014 GAO Report states that GBI production “must begin at least 2 years before delivery” and a 2015 report by the same agency says that MDA “planned to start production of CE-II Block I interceptors for operational use almost two years before it conducts Flight Test GMD (FTG)-15.”[7]

In fact, production of these GBIs started much earlier.  MDA budget documents show that acquisition of the eleven Block 1 interceptors began in fiscal year 2012.[8]  Specifically, acquisition of GBIs 48-52 began in FY 2012 and acquisition of GBIs 53-58 began in FY 2013, with GBIs 48-57 designated for deployment as CE-II Block 1s and with GBI 58 specifically designated for the CE-II Block 1 intercept test.[9]  Some of the components for these GBIs were purchased even earlier.  The topline budget numbers for the midcourse defense segment of MDA’s RDT&E budget show a very similar picture, with five GBIs being bought in FY 2012, five in FY 2013, one in FY 2014, and none in the following years.  (MDA will start acquiring 2 GBIs per year in its procurement budget starting in FY 2018 and is separately developing the new Redesigned Kill Vehicle under the Improved Homeland Defense Interceptors budget item.)

Block 1 purchases

From the FY 2014 budget materials.

Moreover, MDA has stated that by the time the FTG-15 test takes place, production and assembly of two of the CE-II Block 1 GBIs intended for deployment will have been be completed.[10]  If the test is delayed, as often happens with GMD tests, than it is likely that even more of the Block 1 GBIs will be completed before the test occurs.  MDA argues that waiting until after FTG-15 to complete the manufacturing and assembling of these GBIs would “unacceptably increase the risk to reaching the Secretary of Defense Mandate to reach 44 emplaced interceptors by the end of CY 2017.”[11]  However, MDA argues that it can “ensure a sound acquisition approach” simply by not putting these interceptors into their silos until after a successful FTG-15 test.[12]

Fly Before You Deploy

Here are the full quotes from Admiral Syring that are given partially at the beginning of this post:

“We will adhere to our “fly before you buy” approach, testing elements of the system to demonstrate they work before we commit to their fielding in order to ensure the warfighter will have cost-effective and reliable weapon systems.”


“So the way I have structured the test program is to fly before you buy, and each test has a purpose, and there is development that needs to go on so you can’t just rush to it test to test; that in our constrained resources and everything else we’re constrained by, I think it’s important the structure of the program on this pace to inform fielding for a — with successful intercept test.”

Both of these quotes make it clear that the current MDA commitment is only not to deploy (“field’) new types of GBIs until after a successful intercept test.  But such a commitment has little meaning if it only limits the last step in deploying the interceptors – lowering them into their silos.  The discussion above shows CE-II Block 1 interceptors have already been bought and MDA will be deep into their production and assembly process by the currently planned time of the FTG-15 intercept test.  This is far from a knowledge-based process advocated by the GAO in which “testing is conducted before production.”[13]

When the GAO sent the draft of their May 2015 report to MDA for review in March 2015, it recommended that MDA “delay production of CE-II Block I interceptors intended for operational use until the program has successfully conducted an intercept flight test with the CE-II Block I interceptor.”[14] While the MDA labeled its response as “partially concur,” it said that it would continue to produce and assemble the CE-II Block 1 GBIs before conducting FTG-15 (MDA also argued that it had or would test some Block 1 components on earlier flights), leading the GAO to simply repeat its recommendation in its final report.[15]

However, it’s already too late. The CE-II Block 1 GBIs are already under production and MDA cannot stop this process without endangering its mandate to deploy 44 GBIs by the end of 2017.

[1] Prepared Statement of Vice Admiral J.D. Syring, Director, Missile Defense Agency, House Armed Service Committee, Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, March 19, 2015. http://www.mda.mil/global/documents/pdf/ps_syring_031915_hasc.pdf.

[2] “Department of Defense Briefing by Vice Adm. Syring on the Fiscal Year 2016 Missile Defense Agency Budget request in the Pentagon Briefing Room,” February 2, 2015. Available at: http://www.defense.gov/Transcripts/Transcript.aspx?TranscriptID=5584.

[3] Senate Armed Services Committee, April 10, 2010.  Available at: http://www.mda.mil/global/documents/pdf/ps_sasc042010trans.pdf.

[4] Lieutenant General Henry A. Obering III. Director, Missile Defense Agency, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee, April 30, 2008.­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

[5] The first CE-I equipped GBI was deployed in July 2004.  However, the first flight test for a CE-I was more than a year later, in December 2005 (FT-1) and the first intercept test was more than two years after deployment began.  (In the wacky world of missile defense test scoring, MDA claims this intercept test, FTG-02 in September 2006, as a successful intercept even though it says hitting the target was not an objective of the test and DOT&E says that while the kill vehicle may have hit the target, it did not “kill” it.  See my post of October 18, 2012.)  The first CE-I intercept test that actually scored a kill was FTG-03a in September. For CE-II, deployment see the next footnote.

[6] According to the GAO, the first intercept test of the CE-II, FTG-06, was originally scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2007.  This test was eventually conducted in January 2010 and the intercept attempt failed.  The GAO estimated that FTG-06 cost $0.236 billion.  A successful CE-II intercept was finally achieved in FTG-06b in June 2014.  The GAO estimated that the additional cost (beyond that of conducting the original FTG-06 test) of demonstrating a successful CE-II intercept was $1.745 billion, a figure it believes may continue to increase.  Government Accountability Office, “Missile Defense: Opportunities Exist to Reduce Acquisition Risk and Improve Reporting on System Capabilities,” GAO-15-345, May 2015, p. 63.

[7] GAO-15-345, p. 22; Government Accountability Office, “Missile Defense: MDA Report Provides Limited Insight on Improvements to Homeland Missile Defense and Acquisition Plans,” GAO-14-626R, July 17, 2014, p. 4.

[8] By budgetary materials, I mean the annual MDA RDT&E Budget Justification Books available on the Department of Defense’s Comptroller’s website.  For example, the FY 2016 materials are at: http://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2016/budget_justification/pdfs/03_RDT_and_E/MDA_RDTE_MasterJustificationBook_Missile_Defense_Agency_PB_2016_1.pdf.

[9] The FY 2014 budget materials list under FY 2012 accomplishments: “Initiated acquisition of 5 Interceptors (GBIs 48-52) that are supported by the completion of the booster and EKV component purchases.” It also states that acquisition of GBIs 53-57 is to be initiated in FY 2013 and the “Addition of 1 GBI (58) for testing of Capability Enhancement-II (CE-II) Block I GBI per Integrated Master Test Plan (IMTP).”  The FY 2015 budget materials confirm that acquisition of GBIs 53-58 began in FY 2013.  The FY 2016 budget materials confirm that these GBIs are the CE-II Block 1 interceptors, listing as an FY 2014 accomplishment: “Continued acquisition of CE-II Configuration 2 (C2) integrated boost vehicle with Consolidated Booster Avionics Upgrade (CBAU) and CE-II Block I Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicles (EKV)) GBIs 48-58 to support both operations and testing, including a flight test to demonstrate the capability of the CE-II Block 1 EKV with C2 CBAU booster GBIs.”

[10] GAO-15-345, p.35.

[11] GAO-15-345, p.35.

[12] GAO-15-345, p.35.

[13] GAO-15-345, Highlight Page.

[14] GAO-15-345, p. 29.

[15] GAO-15-345, pp. 30, 35.

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