U.S. president Donald Trump in early 2017 promised to reinforce the country’s missile defenses. Trump pledged more money for more and better sensors and missile-interceptors.
Two years later, one of the main programs that Trump boosted as part of his “Missile Defeat and Defense Enhancements” push quietly has collapsed. The military has indefinitely deferred Boeing’s Redesigned Kill Vehicle, a super-accurate kinetic-energy warhead designed physically to strike incoming missiles rather than explode near them.
"We will … develop a state-of-the-art missile defense system to protect against missile-based attacks from states like Iran and North Korea," Trump’s White House stated just hours after the former reality-television host’s inauguration in January 2017.
The Missile Defense Agency in 2019 asked for $400 million to work on the RKV, a replacement for an earlier kinetic warhead. The goal at the time was to deploy the new warhead in 2023 as a replacement for older warheads on the U.S. Army’s Ground-Based Midcourse Defense rockets, which are designed to intercept incoming ICBMs.
But in May 2019 the MDA ordered Boeing to stop work on the RKV. The Government Accountability Office in a June 2019 report detailed the warhead’s woes.
Although MDA attempted to accelerate RKV development as part of the Missile Defeat and Defense Enhancements, the program accepted too much risk and has since experienced development challenges that set the program back likely by over two years and increased the program’s cost by nearly $600 million, according to the agency.
In response to advancements in the North Korean missile threat, MDA accelerated RKV development by concurrently performing development and production and reducing the number of necessary flight tests to produce and field new RKV-equipped interceptors. Moreover, the RKV had already experienced development delays prior to the acceleration and was operating with no schedule margin for any further delays as it approached a critical design review in October 2018.
The program subsequently encountered design, systems engineering, quality assurance and manufacturing issues, which resulted in the program postponing the critical design review. The most significant development issue that emerged in 2018 pertained to RKV’s performance and its planned use of commercial off-the-shelf hardware and re-use of Aegis SM-3 Block IIA components.
The GAO, which in the same June 2019 report blasted the Pentagon for failing to conduct realistic testing of its missile defenses, claimed it could see the RKV’s problems coming.
“In multiple previous reports, we raised concerns regarding MDA’s use of these components as well as RKV’s aggressive development schedule. In our May 2017 report, we also recommended that [the Department of Defense] perform a comprehensive review of the RKV. Although such a review could have potentially provided DOD with a better understanding of RKV’s technical and schedule risks, DOD indicated in its response that the comprehensive review we recommended was unnecessary and therefore did not perform the review.”
Lo and behold, in 2018 the MDA realized it had a problem. “We came through a preliminary design review as we approached the critical design review at the end of last year,” Rear Adm. Jon Hill, the MDA deputy director, said during a March 2019 Pentagon briefing.
“We did not believe as a government team that we were ready to take that step into that critical design review,” Hill added, “and so, through coordination in the department, all the way up to the undersecretary for research and engineering, we determined that the best thing to do was to go back and assess that design and take the time to do it right.”
The GOA criticized the MDA for trying to adhere to arbitrary deadlines, but praised the agency for ultimately accepting that technology maturity, not the calendar, should dictate how fast the military fields new missile defenses.
“Our prior work has shown that stabilizing system design before making major production commitments and relying on knowledge rather than deadlines to make acquisition decisions at key milestones are best practices of successful product developers.”