Congress and the Administration Must Reassess Failing Missile Defense Programs

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In the defense world, every four to eight years both industry and their Pentagon overseers have the opportunity to reevaluate major defense programs and oversight processes. The U.S. Army’s Integrated Air and Missile Battle Command System (IBCS) is one such candidate program that also points to broken processes. While the goals of the program are laudable and important to the warfighter, in development, execution, and oversight, the Department of Defense might be best served by hitting the pause button, culling some well-needed lessons learned, and resetting.

In 2006, the U.S. Army’s IBCS was created to provide a “single, unambiguous view of the battle space” and “significantly enhance aircraft and missile tracking… and the ability of combatant commanders and air defenders to make critical decisions within seconds.” The system promised connection of all military branches to one another to seamlessly carry out missions and/or deter threats. The technology not only promised to connect all branches of the military’s satellites and sensors to improve security but would allow all troops to track, deter and respond to incoming missile threats.

In short, IBCS was conceived with laudable goals, only made more important over the past decade as North Korea and Iran continue to develop missile systems. However, to say the program has fallen short is charitable at best, with those charged with oversight failing just as well to effect change.

A decade into development, IBCS has no real path to become operational and continues to slip as it misses key milestones. In 2012, the system’s design review yielded no tangible results – ultimately keeping the program in the development phase, rather than transitioning to the production and deployment phases. The program’s initial timeline was 80 months or just over six and a half years at the cost of $5.4 billion. Now, delays push fielding well beyond that timeline and will tally over $7 billion.

As for those charged with oversight, the system drastically failed the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation’s 2016 test. The details are compelling.

  • IBCS “demonstrated poor system reliability, with 6 to 8 hours of Mean Time Between System Abort (MTBSA) compared to the (Army) entrance criteria of 31 hours MTBSA. (It) demonstrated a 6 percent likelihood that it could operate for 72 hours without experiencing a failure that would result in system abort. The warfighter requirement is a 90 percent likelihood…. a failure that results in ineffective operations; this is significant when compared to the minimum requirement to operate for up to 446 hours.”
  • “The Battle Command System (IBCS) software is neither mature nor stable, as evidenced in numerous software problems reports. Also, software immaturity contributed to the Engagement Operation Center’s (EOC) reduced reliability; operator workstations often became sluggish and ceased to operate.”
  • Additionally, the test that was conducted last year was a lower level test than was originally planned – and IBCS still failed. The Pentagon’s chief weapons tester, J. Michael Gilmore, said in a report that despite concerns that it is an immature system and not ready for a milestone C decisions, the Army elected to proceed with an operational test.

Such a devastating DOTE critique begs the question as to why the program is still proceeding apace?

IBCS’s struggling development is only half the battle – in the eleven years it has been in development, the threats facing the United States have changed, and IBCS’s software has not adapted to address the threat or to incorporate major technological advances. IBCS does not include sufficient cyber hardening or electronic protection. The software is vulnerable to a cyber hack due to its dated conception. This is largely because IBCS is designed to replace seven different command and control systems, some of which were never meant to provide sufficiently precise data for targeting. 

We need to prioritize, reconsider, and reevaluate defense spending considering the threat environment, warfighters needs and value for the taxpayer – rather than holding steadfast to outdated, underperforming programs. Those charged with oversight in the new Administration need to step up to the challenge of taking lessons learned and providing new direction. Defense technology and weapons systems are critical to the success of our military. The handling of IBCS is neither good business practice nor good government oversight. The Army needed an Integrated Air and Missile System a decade ago. Today, because of IBCS, American taxpayers are spending billions to develop an outdated system that is still a work in progress.

Gregory T. Kiley is a former senior professional staff member, Senate Armed Services Committee; and U.S. Air Force Officer.

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