Our country has begun a transition to a new White House administration, with new faces, priorities and decision-makers. Change — even substantive change — during such a time is not only inevitable but to be expected. 

However, what is sometimes lost in the fog of this flurry of governmental activity is the very important concept of continuity. Incoming administration officials must be equally cognizant of what deserves support in carrying forward from the previous administration as they are of what they want to change. Continuity of effort is important, especially to new programs that have yet to garner sustainable funding from Congress.

Within the Department of Defense (DOD), one area that is receiving significant attention and debate is the future of homeland defense against long-range missile attacks.  

When DOD cancelled the Missile Defense Agency’s (MDA) only modernization effort planned for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, the amalgam of radars, command and control networks, and ground-based interceptors that protect the country from rogue nations’ intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the agency scrambled to find a viable way ahead.  

National security leaders knew that threat improvements, especially by North Korea, dictated that the U.S. make a generational “leap ahead” within ballistic missile defense, and began work in earnest on a new program — the Next Generation Interceptor (NGI). Currently, MDA is reviewing a number of bids from contractors, and teams of contractors, for the program.

Also ongoing is Congress’s work on the National Defense Authorization Act and Defense Appropriations Bill. Funding for NGI is clearly within the trade space being debated among defense committee staffers. Some commentators have advocated for an “interim GMD solution,” a small, incremental upgrade that may be fielded a year or less sooner than the first NGIs and with far less capability. This Band-Aid solution most probably would be obsolete by the time it is delivered to the warfighter and would unnecessarily divert funds, focus and effort from NGI.

MDA should insist upon a number of system attributes when communicating requirements with the competing defense contractors. Perhaps the core element the agency should prioritize when evaluating the various designs is the relative ease with which the system can be rapidly upgraded in response to threat advances. In the past, we called that process “pre-planned product improvement,” or “spiral development.” 

Previously, these processes took years to complete at significant additional cost to taxpayers.  Our nation no longer can afford the time or the money. We must get necessary upgrades down to weeks, with the cost included in the initial bid award.

Each of the competitors must have sufficient margin within their designs to provide additional physical space, and accommodate additional weight, power and cooling requirements, for all system upgrades designed to counter improved threat capabilities.  

Perhaps the greatest facilitator of such flexibility would be an open mission system architecture built into each design. This would allow additional, follow-on components and software to be immediately and completely compatible with technology that came before it. As non-proprietary interoperability is at the very heart of open architecture, it would also allow smaller, more agile companies to compete with defense Goliaths, reducing cost and perhaps improving schedule. 

Finally, every competitor’s design must feature advanced multiple-kill vehicles, which is absolutely required to defeat the emerging threat. In fact, a unitary-kill vehicle solution, which is currently employed on our fielded GMD interceptors, is likely already inadequate.

Overall, MDA must strive for an optimum balance between performance and risk, but it cannot be so risk averse as to stifle innovation. Competitors should be challenged to develop, and then prove, technological breakthroughs that advance NGI well beyond currently anticipated threat capabilities. MDA must consider, and then apply, lessons learned from its earlier modernization programs’ failures so as to not repeat them.   

Finally, MDA and the contractors they select must remain focused on the primary program goal: an improved shot doctrine, wherein the number of interceptors required against each inbound threat missile is substantially reduced. This would greatly enhance MDA’s ability to deal with the ever-increasing number of fielded threat IBCMs. 

The incoming Biden administration and Congress should fund the participation of two contractors well past MDA’s currently stated goal of just the preliminary design review, in order to leverage competition as far into the process as possible. Such a move would reduce risk, increase redundancy, and potentially accelerate fielding the first NGIs. Where DOD has chosen to do this in the past, it has yielded significant competitive successes, such as with fighter jet engines and air-to-air missiles.  

Continuing competition in NGI as far down the road as possible greatly increases the probability of a successful program, which in turn would provide a truly capable, and adaptable, ballistic missile defense for the nation for many years to come.

Retired Maj. Gen. Howard “Dallas” Thompson is a former chief of staff for NORAD/NORTHCOM and a former Air Force fighter pilot.

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