The military is working on hypersonic weapons, but will it be able to defend against them?

Even as the armed forces develop hypersonic missiles, the Missile Defense Agency pursues a project to develop measures to counteract enemies' hypersonics. But t...

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Even as the armed forces develop hypersonic missiles, the Missile Defense Agency pursues a project to develop measures to counteract enemies’ hypersonics. But the program is having significant oversight problems and technical risks. For details, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin turns to the acting director for contracting and national security acquisitions issues at the Government Accountability Office, John Sawyer.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Sawyer, good to have you on.

John Sawyer: Thank you.

Tom Temin: Let’s talk about this program at the MDA. Is it something that is completely in the research stage? Do they have products they’re delivering to the military? Or is this something that is kind of in post? Where does it stands at this point?

John Sawyer: All of the above. The agency is responsible for acquiring and developing defense capabilities for threats. So at any point in time, they are delivering assets. They are performing testing, they are acquiring, developing anywhere throughout that acquisition process. So the answer is all of the above.

Tom Temin: Now they have countermeasures that I guess are more mature for missiles that don’t go so fast that might be coming from an enemy. Where does the hypersonic defense stand? It looks from reporters if they have been able to develop glide interceptors that kind of catch these things in mid-flight?

John Sawyer: Yes, sir. They have and hypersonic, hypersonic weapon, as you just alluded, really relates to weapons that can travel really fast, five times or greater than the speed of sound. That is one of the characteristics, not only just ballistic missiles but hypersonic. Another thing interesting about a hypersonic missile is that it is able to travel at lower altitudes than a ballistic missile. And the third thing that would distinguish a hypersonic is that it has the ability to maneuver during flight. In other words, it’s almost like a baseball pitch, that curveball where you think that curveball is going one direction, but it has the ability to maneuver during flight. And that is the challenge that the Missile Defense Agency has in fielding a capability that can outperform the threat. And that is where they are with their hypersonic defense.

Tom Temin: And is this something that is developed entirely by the government or are there contractors involved in the countermeasure development?

John Sawyer: This is something that is developed with the government being the overseer of the project. However, the government, DoD, the Missile Defense Agency, does rely on contractors, contractors to assist with the development, product development, the technology development, currently with the glide phase interceptor, you have Lockheed Martin is involved, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, they are all, they have contracts and they are looking at concept design and risk reduction. There’s also another effort that is used for hypersonic or being considered for hypersonic defense and that is the hypersonic and ballistic tracking space sensor. HBTSS is what is a called, and you also have contractors involved in that process. L3Harris and Northrop Grumman, are two contractors that I can think of that are involved in assisting the Department of Defense and the Missile Defense Agency in fielding capabilities to protect our homeland, our allies abroad.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with John Sawyer, he’s acting director for contracting and national security acquisition issues at the Government Accountability Office. So it sounds like the agency then is developing sensor capabilities. There must be tons of software assessment and processing that happens here. And in the case of the glide interceptor, that’s kind of a form of a missile itself, correct?

John Sawyer: Correct. Correct. The glide interceptor is just that. It is a missile designed to intercept a hypersonic weapon. As I mentioned earlier, in order to defeat a hypersonic weapon, you need to field a capability that is four or five steps ahead or able to outperform that threat. And that is exactly what the glide phase interceptor is being designed to accomplish. It is a missile that is designed to intercept a threat.

Tom Temin: And in looking at this program, then I guess, maybe it’s a collection of sub-programs. What were your main findings? Because it seems like you were concerned a lot about whether there is technical oversight from an independent point of view that is really needed here.

John Sawyer: Our main findings and in our review our assessment, this is the 19th year that we have performed the assessment of the Missile Defense Agency with a specific emphasis on assessing what progress has been made in achieving delivery and testing goals, what progress has been made in delivering assets and meeting their testing goals. And the second thing that we looked at was just what we’ve just talked about, the hypersonic counter weapons. Our main findings this year, that was consistent with prior years, that each year MDA plans to deliver certain assets, they plan to perform certain testing, but they were unable to meet their goals. On average, over the past five years, the MDA agency has been able to meet, like 52% of its testing goals. And we believe that additional attention should be given to that area, because those are areas that that are funded and budgeted for. But they have demonstrated a history of being unable to meet those goals. Some of those goals or some of those delays or are acceptable. But we just believe in an area like this, where you are constantly fielding capability capabilities to mitigate threats, that you you need to have the most accurate information available, accurate information as it relates to costs, as it relates to risk to enable you to go fast. And that’s one of the terms used, to go fast in order to meet the warfighters’ requirements.

Tom Temin: Because the hypersonic enemy situation itself is sort of a moving situation, because they’re developing greater and different capabilities all the time. So it sounds like they need some flexibility. And to do that you need that testing capability.

John Sawyer: Absolutely. Absolutely. That is exactly what testing is designed to do. Testing is that key tool that is designed to assist decision makers with demonstrating system performance. How are our programs able to perform in certain scenarios, integrated together, the the one of the goals that makes the system work is that they integrate the elements or programs and testing is all the more important to give management that information to assist in better informed decisions.

Tom Temin: Well, then let’s just summarize your main recommendations, then.

John Sawyer: In this report, we issued three recommendations. Our recommendations are really centered on ensuring that management performed or did what it needed to do, the recommendations were directed to the Secretary of Defense. And what we asked was that ensure that the agency performs the cost estimates and independent cost estimate to know what it will cost to really field or to acquire these these programs that you’re trying to acquire. We also felt that there was a need for an independent technical risk assessment, which all of these things according to best practices, leading practices, these items should be performed before product development to assist management in making better informed decisions. And then lastly, we have a recommendation that as it relates to the HBTSS, which is a sensor that is, that involves space, that there are also other agencies involved in space work. And we believe that there should be better coordination, a memorandum of understanding to ensure that the Department of Defense, MDA has a plan in place to manage duplication and overlap. You want to make sure that the agencies leverage what other agencies may be doing, and not to, to duplicate or overlap what they are doing. Those were the recommendations in our report. We have also summarized recommendations that we have issued in the past 10 years since 2010. GAO has issued 61 recommendations to help improve missile defense acquisitions. While MDA has made considerable progress in implementing those recommendations, 23 of them remain open and we will continue to monitor the corrective actions that the Defense Department and MDA will put in place to address those recommendations so that we can give the agency credit and properly identify those recommendations as closed.

Tom Temin: And just a detail question before we close that might or might not be within the scope of what you looked at when calling for independent technical assistance. And I think that’s something the MDA promised it would do and still needs to do on hypersonic defense. Is the industry in hypersonics mature enough that there is someone they could turn to for independent technical evaluation?

John Sawyer: Thank you. That is a good question. That is something that our report did not address, but there are offices, there are departments within the Defense Department who have responsibility for overseeing and performing these independent technical risk assessments. And I believe that the department has a process designed that would effectively give them the information needed to assist in these decisions.

Tom Temin: John Sawyer is acting director for contracting and national security acquisition issues at the Government Accountability Office. Thanks so much for joining me.

John Sawyer: Thank you, Tom.

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