Getting to the Elusive “Right Side of the Cost Curve”

April 12, 2016

By: BGen Kenneth Todorov (USAF, Ret.) at CSIS:

The specter of a ballistic missile attack on the United States and its allies continues to grow. Threat systems from rogue nations continue to mature in quality and quantity. As adversaries improve their missile technologies, they’re demonstrating more sophisticated and reliable systems with increasing complexity, range and accuracy. America’s ability to develop robust yet affordable missile defense is, in a word, challenging.

To protect the homeland, we need defensive options. Options come with a price, but so does ignoring the threat. Some argue missile defense is too expensive. But in the wake of continued threats from state and non-state actors, how can we put a price on deterrence or quantify the cost of a major U.S. city or American lives?

Defense leaders understand this, but there is still much debate around cost. Most agree that we must get to the “right side,” of the “cost curve,” where cost and efficiency are more affordable and sustainable. Despite support for the mission, DoD budgets continue to be strained and missile defense spending continues to decline.

So, what is the ultimate outcome? Today, the Department’s efforts are centered on three core concepts that are critical to keep in mind:

1. Cost per kill: Reducing the number of interceptors engaging a threat, thereby cutting the cost per kill.
2. Target descrimination: Ensuring that the target being engaged is, in fact, the threat and not a decoy or piece of debris.
3. Left of launch: Developing technologies and emerging concepts to reduce the number of incoming objects to engage.

With this in mind, the question becomes how do we “do it differently with less,” or what’s the prescription that keeps the U.S. and our allies’ safe without breaking the bank?

First, we must return MDA to its core mission. A victim of its own success, MDA’s budget has increasingly tilted in favor of procurement and operations. As a result, research and development (R&D budget) and the exploration of innovative experimental technologies has suffered. MDA’s original charter was to develop cutting-edge missile systems and then transfer operating responsibilities to the respective braches of Service – but in almost all cases, this has not happened. Rather, the trend is accelerating toward operations, maintenance, and procurement of existing systems, versus research and development of new ones.

MDA’s budget takes a $322 million cut to R&D for FY17. For MDA to be able to improve the existing BMDS while finding new and innovative ways to reduce the cost per kill, the Department must reverse course on these trends, or Congress must consider legislating a solution.

Second, the Pentagon should increase its strategic research and development efforts and provide the resources necessary to back up those efforts. MDA must have sufficient resources to develop concepts that can flip the cost curve in our favor.  There is no miracle solution – we must develop a balanced, integrated and flexible architecture that can evolve over time. There are two ways this can be accomplished: one, reduce the number of interceptors required to destroy each credible, lethal object in the raid; and two, reduce the number of targets we have to engage.

Given that an adversary may be able to launch large numbers of missiles, reducing the cost to intercept these adversarial missiles is paramount. There are many good ideas on the table – the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV), Multi-Object Kill Vehicle (MOKV), boost phase defenses, directed energy, the electromagnetic rail gun and non-kinetic kill platforms based on offensive cyber to name a few, all have the potential to defeat ballistic missiles of all ranges and all must be pursued to achieve the same end state.

Third, industry partners must be willing to collaborate with each other and the DoD to derive more cost-effective solutions. Now more than ever, moving from proprietary systems toward more open architecture that allows users (Pentagon and allies) to plug and play with complimentary and interdependent systems is key. Think of your iPhone which communicates with your iPad and even with your PC. Industry partners should be encouraged to share ideas and build their systems to interoperate in a similar way.

MDA has facilitated this approach with the advent of the RKV process.  Development of the system will be performed by a cross-industry team with the Department functioning as the design authority.  In the end, MDA will determine the overall best design solution based on cost, schedule, performance, and risks. RKV advances will improve the reliability of the BMDS, ultimately increasing interceptor reliability, increasing performance, and addressing the evolving threat by improving availability, maintainability, testability, producibility, fleet standardization, and manufacturing cost. Approaches like the one being undertaken for RKV mean the DoD can implement affordable change, one that more effectively allows for technological upgrades and adjustments to meet the evolving threat– rather than throwing out previous investments.

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