Missile Defense: Recent changes to procurement policy balance risk and flexibility, but action is needed to refine the requirements process

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What GAO found

In 2002, the Department of Defense (DOD) provided the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) with flexibilities to deviate from traditional requirements setting and procurement processes and instead implement a one-size-fits-all approach to manage its acquisitions. After completing studies in 2019, the DOD revised these flexibilities in 2020 by making significant changes to the MDA requirements definition and procurement processes (see figure). In particular, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, rather than the Director of MDA, now determines whether major MDA programs can progress through the development phases.

2020 Changes made by the Ministry of Defense to the procurement process for missile defense

Most of the changes are consistent with the best procurement practices identified by GAO and align with changes previously recommended by GAO. For example, MDA must now obtain independent cost estimates and approval from the Under Secretary of Defense for its procurement strategies. The combatant (military planners and weapon system operators) also now has a greater responsibility for setting requirements. GAO had previously recommended these actions to improve the likelihood of MDA providing effective capabilities to the fighter as promised.

However, the DOD did not establish processes and products that would fully align missile defense capabilities early in development with the operational requirements of combatants. Instead, the DOD continues to rely on MDA to identify its own operational-level requirements, which could force MDA later to make expensive and time-consuming design changes to meet the needs of combatants.

The GAO also found that the DOD generally met statutory requirements established by Congress to change non-standard missile defense procurement processes and responsibilities. by: (a) consulting those responsible for the required DOD; (b) certifying that this consultation has taken place; (c) report changes to Congress; and (d) generally wait the required 120 days before implementing changes. The US Strategic Command determined that it did not need to take those same steps on the changes it made to the requirements setting processes. The GAO also found that the DOD generally met a legal requirement to obtain an independent study of the MDA acquisition process and organizational placement within the DOD. As needed, the DOD informed the Congressional defense committees of the scope of the study report and provided the report to the Congressional committees. However, the DOD has exceeded the statutory reporting deadline by 13 days.

Why GAO did this study

Since MDA’s inception in 2002, DOD has invested more than $ 174 billion in the development and commissioning of missile defense capabilities. MDA has used its procurement flexibilities to rapidly develop and deploy capabilities, but has also seen setbacks. In 2020, the DOD determined that changes to MDA’s acquisition flexibilities were needed to better balance risks.

Congress recently prohibited the DOD from changing certain missile defense procurement processes and responsibilities unless certain requirements are met. Congress also asked DOD to contract for an independent study of MDA’s acquisition process and its organizational placement within DOD. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 included a provision for GAO to assess whether the DOD was in compliance with these requirements. This report assesses the effects of recent changes made by the DOD to non-standard missile defense procurement processes and responsibilities and whether in doing so it has met legal requirements.

The GAO reviewed DOD documents and policies released in 2020 and interviewed DOD officials.


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