The Missile Defense Agency has correctly concluded the need for a new approach to managing the nation’s only ground-based, anti-missile system to protect the U.S. homeland. It’s a bold but overdue move.

Vice Adm. Jon Hill’s call for increased competition — a source of innovation, motivation and new solutions — for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, or GMD, is spot on. The admiral’s plan to establish a weapon system integrator in lieu of the lead system integrator should be supported within the Pentagon and Congress.

A lead system integrator assumes responsibility for the system’s design, development, test, evaluation and system performance. The selling point of a lead integrator is that it normally performs those tasks within a set budget and timeline while reducing the government’s program management burden and optimizing industry’s technological innovation and management skills.

A lead system integrator for GMD may have been relevant in 2001, and at that time MDA might have required assistance in the technical details of system design, but that is no longer the case. MDA is capable of leading the design and implementation of solutions, but it will need assistance with the intricate integration of all the various GMD elements, a function MDA’s weapon system integrator concept should perform. Technical design authority and program decisions, though, should be retained by MDA and not delegated to a private contractor, as is the norm with a lead system integrator.

The Government Accountability Office’s October 2020 missile defense report reinforces MDA’s change, stating that the lead system integrator approach has “contributed to poor acquisition outcomes and diminished government oversight, transparency, and engineering acumen in the acquisition community.”

GAO also cites the findings of a Congressional Research Service report, which concluded that “the LSI [lead system integrator] approach can create transparency issues that could make it more difficult for the federal agency or Congress to adequately manage and conduct effective oversight and potentially increase the risk of cost overruns, schedule slippage, poor product quality, and inadequate system performance.”

The report also references the Army’s Future Combat Systems, which applied the lead system integrator construct. FCS was another large and complex program, which the Army canceled in 2009 “due to cost increases, schedule delays, and other issues.”

The nation has invested 20 years of effort and $53 billion in the GMD program, and the threat it counters continues to advance at a rapid rate. If MDA believes the lead system integrator approach isn’t keeping pace with the environment and meeting its needs, but the weapons system integrator will and the restructuring of the GMD will infuse competition, then let’s get on with that change.

As MDA formulates the weapon system integrator concept for GMD and competes that contract, the agency should consider a few items for inclusion, which define a left and right bound for the integrator’s purpose and authorities.

To ensure the decision to move away from the lead system integrator approach is more than a name change, the weapons system integrator should:

  • Enhance, not stymie communication between MDA and subcontractor subject matter experts or weapons system operators.
  • Ensure MDA is fully aware of, and is the decision authority on, all capability or technology trades.
  • Leverage subject matter experts to identify and ensure all second- and third-order effects of program changes are fully presented for MDA’s consideration and decision.
  • Foster a collaborative approach to management to ensure there is full transparency and communication between MDA and all of GMD’s supporting contractors.

Many of GAO’s points correlate with the GMD program, and most concerning is the loss of flexibility and ease of modifying the contract. This is particularly critical given how the threats to the U.S. homeland continue to evolve.

In this rapidly changing environment, MDA must have a system integrator who embodies a pioneering spirit that stimulates and enhances innovation, enables agility, is responsive to operational needs, and finds synergy from the entire ballistic missile defense system program, not merely GMD’s efforts.

MDA has been given a demanding mission that continues to become more challenging as time passes, so if Vice Adm. Hill believes an adjustment in strategy is necessary, then Congress and the new secretary of defense should encourage his efforts, and not hinder or impede them.

These decision-makers should heed the warning of a seasoned combat veteran and senior Army leader who said: “Complacency is the biggest killer on the battlefield. We cannot allow ourselves to be complacent.” History has shown that complacency is also the biggest killer of acquisition programs, and the reluctance to explore a change in strategy is complacency that could peril our war fighters and nation.

Change can be unsettling and risky, but competition improves innovation. Defining the weapon system integrator in a manner that improves transparency, agility and responsiveness — while providing better control of cost and schedule — is an acquisition strategy the new administration and Congress should embrace.

Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Francis G. Mahon is an independent aerospace defense contractor and an adviser for Stellar Solutions. He previously served as director for strategy, policy and plans at North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command; director for test at the Missile Defense Agency; and director for materiel on the Army Staff. Retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. John Shapland is the senior director for innovation, operations and exercises for Stellar Solutions, and an independent contractor conducting developmental flight test instruction at British and French test pilot schools. He previously served as director of air and space operations for Air Force Material Command.

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