WASHINGTON — The missile defense system that President Barack Obama plans to deploy in Europe starting next year may not function properly and could face significant cost overruns, a nonpartisan congressional watchdog agency warned Tuesday.
The report raises questions about legislation that would strengthen the U.S. commitment to the deployment plan that the White House was negotiating in return for Republican votes it needed for Senate approval of a new U.S.-Russia nuclear arms reduction treaty.
According to the Government Accountability Office, Obama has committed the Defense Department "to a schedule that could be challenging to meet, based on the technical progress of missile defense element development and testing programs."
Moreover, the administration committed the Pentagon "to this schedule before the scope of the development efforts was fully understood, GAO said in its report to a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. The GAO is an investigative arm of Congress.
The GAO report was released five days after an interceptor designed to destroy ballistic missiles in flight missed its target over the Pacific Ocean in the U.S. missile defense program's second failed test this year. It was the seventh failure in 15 tests since 1999.
Some experts question the integrity of the tests, saying they are staged under unrealistic conditions, according to the Pentagon's own data. Among other objections, critics say no decoys are used in the tests, and current sensor systems cannot differentiate between decoys and actual targets.
As in previous reports, the GAO raised concerns with the Pentagon's approach to producing, purchasing and deploying missile defense system components before they have undergone sufficient development and testing.
"The highly concurrent development, production and deployment effort DOD (the Department of Defense) is undertaking . . . increases risks that the capability eventually provided will not meet the war-fighter's needs, with significant potential cost and schedule growth consequences," the report said.
The Obama administration in September 2009 scrapped the former Bush administration's plan to deploy a sophisticated tracking radar in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptors in Poland to defend the U.S. and Europe against ballistic missile attack by Iran.
The administration unveiled its own plan, known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach, in February.
The EPAA involves phased deployments of what the Pentagon portrayed as proven technology, including sea- and land-based versions of the Navy's Standard Missile 3, or SM-3, and sea- and land-based radars linked to early warning satellites.
The U.S. next year would begin stationing warships off of Europe equipped with the current version of the SM-3 and Aegis radars as well as position a transportable tracking radar in southern Europe.
An improved version of the SM-3 would be deployed beginning in 2015 on ships and in Romania. The missiles would be positioned in Poland and at sea in 2018, and they'd be replaced by a third, more advanced model by 2020.
The GAO, however, found that the Pentagon had failed to implement a management system for the EPAA that synchronizes acquisitions of different elements of the system "and ensures transparency and accountability."
"The limited visibility into the costs and schedule for EPAA and the lack of some key acquisition management processes" could result in the production of system elements before they are adequately proven, "leading to rework, cost increases, delays, and uncertainties about delivered capabilities," the report said.
In comments included in the report, the Pentagon disputed the approach used by the GAO to assess the EPAA, saying that the report "inaccurately portrays the department's acquisition plans."
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