WASHINGTON — Despite numerous warnings of critical problems from experts within and outside the government over roughly 10 years, the cost to develop the now-canceled Redesigned Kill Vehicle program for homeland missile defense more than tripled, and the program’s schedule slipped by four years, a new U.S. government watchdog report reveals.
“At the time [the Defense Department] canceled the RKV program in August 2019, MDA [the Missile Defense Agency] had spent a total of $1.21 billion on RKV development — $340 million more than the agency’s original estimate for the entire RKV development effort, including eight initial production kill vehicles,” according to the Government Accountability Office report, released July 23.
The estimated cost increased by more than 230 percent from 2015 to 2019, the report said.
The Pentagon decided to take a “strategic pause” on the RKV in May 2019 before outright killing the program in August 2019. The department cited “technical design problems” as the reason for hitting the brakes and changing course.
Raytheon was the developer of the RKV, serving as a subcontractor to Boeing. The RKV would have replaced the current Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, or EKV, on the Ground-Based Interceptor, which makes up the Ground-based Midcourse Defense, or GMD, system designed to counter ballistic missile threats. It would have also been fielded on all future ground-based interceptors — ultimately a total of 64.
The EKV is designed to destroy targets in high-speed collisions after separating from the booster rocket. The EKV required technical changes due to issues in tests, and so the Missile Defense Agency decided to initiate the RKV program. In the meantime, the agency has had several successful tests of the GMD system with the EKV following engineering changes.
“Ending the program was the responsible thing to do,” Mike Griffin, then-undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said. He resigned from his post at the Pentagon earlier this month.
“Development programs sometimes encounter problems. After exercising due diligence, we decided the path we’re going down wouldn’t be fruitful, so we’re not going down that path anymore. This decision supports our efforts to gain full value from every future taxpayer dollar spent on defense,” he said at the time.
The RKV program was canceled just a few years ago, the GAO report noted, but before then, the MDA was warned consistently of major issues with the program that could lead to failure. That included concerns from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in May 2010, which came forward with specific performance risks regarding the SM-3 Block IIA missile, which has considerable commonality with the RKV design.
Then, “despite multiple efforts made by MDA’s engineering directorate to enforce requirements that would have necessitated design changes to address the performance risks,” the program steamed ahead, the report stated, receiving formal agency approval to move forward in June 2015, waiving those requirements.
The agency and contractors justified the waiver, according to the report, because it would have required a redesign following a critical design review that would have raised the cost significantly and resulted in schedule delays.
The worry was that the RKV used commercial off-the-shelf parts and reused Aegis SM-3 Block IIA components.
“MDA chose to use these parts in the RKV design because of their perceived maturity and cost savings as compared to those used in the EKV design,” the report stated. “However, specific performance risks were identified at multiple junctures in the SM-3 Block IIA and RKV programs over the past ten years.”
During a November 2015 RKV system requirements review, “the program identified and assessed performance risks as having a high likelihood of occurrence with major consequences,” the report noted. But it was determined that changes to the design could be made later.
Two years later, during the RKV preliminary design review in March 2017, the program claimed the hardware reuse in the program had been “vigorously vetted” and that performance risks would be “mitigated almost entirely,” the report added.
Yet, a red team panel involved in the review warned the agency that the program’s schedule was too ambitious to resolve any problems if mitigation efforts were insufficient, the report noted. Griffin was a member of this read team prior to taking his position as undersecretary of research and engineering in 2018.
And in an October 2018 briefing aimed at deciding whether the RKV was ready to go into a critical design review phase, the program showed the testing data of parts that “indicated significant performance risk,” according to the report.
As the MDA embarks on a new attempt to replace the current GBIs — with the Next-Generation Interceptor — the GAO said the agency is including lessons learned from the RKV program.
The hope is competition will drive out some risk instead of MDA’s best-of-breed approach to the RKV that fused multiple contractors’ concepts into one design.
The NGI program will also conduct early parts testing, the report noted; in the RKV program, critical parts were tested following the preliminary design review.
And two intercept flight tests are to be successfully conducted before NGI production begins. The MDA built GBIs for operational use prior to demonstrating success in an intercept flight test, and the agency planned to do the same thing with RKV, the report stated.
Prior to his departure from the Pentagon, Griffin said he did not envision an NGI being fielded in less than 10 years; agency officials have previously pointed to a fielding schedule goal of roughly 2028.
But Congress is pushing to see an earlier fielding timeline. The Senate Armed Services Committee, in its version the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, wants 20 interim interceptors fielded by 2026. The move could be seen, in part, as a way to motivate the MDA to push the NGI goal posts to the left in order to avoid taking on an interim interceptor program.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.