WASHINGTON — Congress is establishing increased oversight of the Missile Defense Agency’s plans for its homeland missile defense system — designed to protect against possible intercontinental ballistic missile threats from North Korea and Iran — through provisions in the House and Senate passed versions of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.

Displeased with the abrupt cancellation of the agency’s major upgrade to interceptors in the ground at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, lawmakers are demanding the agency show its work on its plan to build an entirely new interceptor for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System (GMD). It also wants more details on the agency plan to develop an underlay of additional regional missile defense systems to bolster GMD.

MDA announced in May 2019 that it would pause its plans to develop and field a Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV) — essentially the warhead of the GMD system’s interceptors — due to technical issues. Then the Pentagon’s under-secretary of defense for research and engineering subsequently scrapped the program in August 2019 in favor of designing a brand new interceptor.

“Ending the program was the responsible thing to do,” Mike Griffin said at the time. He resigned from his post at the Pentagon earlier this month.

Griffin’s decision to abruptly cancel the RKV program without congressional notification ahead of time created a serious rift with lawmakers. And the House Armed Services Committee even recommended moving the MDA outside of Griffin’s control.

The agency also unveiled plans in its FY21 budget request in February to create a more layered homeland defense system that would include regional missile defense capability already resident with the Navy and Army to bolster homeland defense against ICBMs.

The plan would include establishing layers of defensive capability relying on the Aegis Weapon System, particularly the SM-3 Block IIA missiles used in the system, and a possible Aegis Ashore system in Hawaii. The underlay also would include the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. The Army is already operating a THAAD battery in South Korea and Guam.

Future interceptors

Lawmakers were less than thrilled with the sudden cancellation of the RKV program and were dissatisfied with Griffin’s projections that a new interceptor wouldn’t be ready until the 2030s. The MDA director has since said it’s possible to field the next generation interceptor by 2028.

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the bill includes a provision requiring the agency to develop an interim Ground-based Interceptor (GBI) for the GMD system.

The interim interceptor would meet current proposed capabilities of the RKV and use existing technologies for the kill vehicle and the booster. It also requires 20 of the interim interceptors be delivered by 2026 after rigorous flight testing, according to the legislation.

The SASC language includes waivers to get out of development effort. These include if the technology isn’t feasible, if the capability is not in the national security interest of the United States and if the NGI can be fielded faster. To seek a waiver, the defense secretary must issue a report to the relevant congressional committees explaining why the waiver is needed along with an updated schedule.

In the House version of the defense policy bill, lawmakers aren’t asking for an interim interceptor, but they are requiring that MDA notify congressional defense committees within a week if any changes are made to the requirements for the NGI.

The agency would also be required to brief congress within two weeks of awarding a contract for the interceptor.

An interceptor for the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System.
An interceptor for the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System.

House lawmakers also want a report within three months of the passage of the bill that seeks an explanation of how existing contracts for GMD could be used to improve and sustain the current kill vehicle and boosters, a plan for a service life extension program, how much it would cost and a schedule to produce boosters for 20 additional interceptors by 2026 as well as an analysis of policy implications.

The bill also requires the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office to conduct an independent cost assessment of the NGI program and have it validated by the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, which has been mulled as a future home for the MDA.

Two successful flight tests of NGI are also mandated as part of the House version of the bill and a briefing of the test results to congressional defense committees, including a rundown of how operationally realistic the tests were, should be delivered before any initial production decision for the interceptor.

The underlay

The agency’s FY21 budget did not lay out a clear plan for what an underlay for ballistic missile defense for the homeland might look like, so the SASC is also limiting half of the appropriated funding for the underlay until a report is submitted on a strategy to build such an architecture. The report should include analysis of requirements and capabilities and an assessment of basing and sites for the assets within the underlay.

On the House side, lawmakers want an analysis of alternatives on using THAAD and Aegis for homeland ballistic missile defense. That analysis should cover sensors that would be used, an assessment of locations to provide similar coverage to the GMD system, acquisition objectives for interceptors and what command-and-control aspects need to be improved.

The report should also include manning, training and sustainment, a schedule for establishing the underlay, lifecycle cost estimates and a comparison of capabilities with additional GMD sites.

The provision includes a requirement for another report by the Defense Intelligence Agency on reactions from adversaries and potential responses to those reactions.

“Together, these half dozen legislative provisions mark a bipartisan and bicameral vote of no confidence in one person’s ability to assemble and communicate a short, medium, and long-term plan for the future of homeland missile defense,” Tom Karako, a missile defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Defense News. “But circumstances have recently changed, and the dust is settling.”