By David Willman, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)
WASHINGTON — By his own account, Patrick J. O’Reilly was at times “a cheerleader and an advocate” for the Missile Defense Agency during his four years as director. But he broke ranks with his predecessors at the agency by questioning flawed programs that cost taxpayers billions of dollars.
In a series of interviews, O’Reilly said members of Congress whose states or districts benefited from missile defense spending fought doggedly to protect three of the programs long after their shortcomings became obvious.
He described how Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., reacted when he outlined his reservations about the Airborne Laser project, envisioned as a fleet of Boeing 747s that would be modified to fire laser beams at enemy missiles.
O’Reilly, who led the agency from 2008 to 2012, said he told McKeon in private Capitol Hill briefings that the planes would have to fly so close to their targets that they would be defenseless against anti-aircraft fire.
“Buck McKeon just ripped me apart,” said O’Reilly, a physicist and retired Army lieutenant general. “He’d immediately start talking about, ‘OK, we’ve got a problem. So how much money are you putting towards the problem? How much money do you need?’ I was trying to say, ‘On the technical merits, it doesn’t make sense.'”
McKeon served four years as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and his district adjoined Edwards Air Force Base, where Boeing Co. and other contractors were developing the Airborne Laser. The project was killed in 2012, after a decade of testing and $5.3 billion in spending.
McKeon, who retired in January, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
O’Reilly grew skeptical of another missile defense project, the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, after he learned that Navy ships would have to be retrofitted — at a cost of billions of dollars — to accommodate the 40-foot-long rocket. Existing ships could not carry interceptors longer than 22 feet, he said.
“This was unbelievably expensive — to mess with the fundamental structure of a ship,” he said. “The technical issues were not minor; they were revolutionary.”
The project’s backers included Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, then the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, and GOP Sens. Jeff Sessions and Richard C. Shelby of Alabama. O’Reilly said the three senators bristled when he suggested that the Kinetic Energy Interceptor was unworkable.
Many of the jobs related to the program were in Alabama and Arizona.
“When I would say things like, ‘I’m having difficulty understanding, sir, how to put this on a ship,’ the answer would come back, ‘We have very smart aerospace engineers and we have the strongest military-industrial complex in the world. We can solve anything,'” O’Reilly said. “And they would hand-wave.”
Shelby, in a May 13, 2009, letter to O’Reilly, said killing the Kinetic Energy Interceptor would be “irresponsible.”
The program nevertheless was discontinued that year. By then, $1.7 billion had been spent on it.
O’Reilly said the same three senators defended another project, the Multiple Kill Vehicle, after he raised questions about its feasibility. The project envisioned a cluster of tiny interceptors that would destroy enemy missiles in space. It was shelved in 2009, after nearly $700 million had been spent.
Neither Shelby nor Sessions responded to emails and phone messages seeking requests for comment.
Kyl, now a Washington lobbyist, said that he did not recall discussing specific defense systems with O’Reilly, and that he supported “the most funding that we could possibly get” for missile defense, regardless of the economic benefit to Arizona.
“I believe that having a robust missile defense to protect the United States is a critical component of not only national defense but our strategic deterrent,” Kyl said. “I’m not pleased that after all this time and a great deal of money spent, we don’t have more to show for it than we do.”
O’Reilly, now 58 and living near Huntsville, Ala., said he regretted that elected officials did not focus on careful consideration of the cost and practicality of the troubled projects.
“These things really didn’t have a lot of merit,” he said. “It was just how they were packaged and sold in Washington.”
Keep reading for a rundown of troubled Missile Defense Agency Programs:
Troubled Missile Defense Agency programs
The concept: A fleet of Boeing 747s, each modified to fire an infrared chemical laser through a 5-foot-long telescope in its nose. The laser would incinerate enemy missiles shortly after launch, before they could release decoys that might fool U.S. radar.
Major contractors: Boeing Co., Northrop Grumman Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp.
Early optimism: “We are building forces of good to defeat the force of evil. And in that vein today we are taking a major step to give the American people their first ‘Light Saber.'” _Henry A. Obering III, then-director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, Oct. 27, 2006.
Problems: Because of the laser’s limited range, each 747 would have had to fly near or within an adversary’s borders, leaving it vulnerable to antiaircraft missiles. To operate at a safer distance, the laser would have had to be 20 to 30 times more powerful. And the laser’s potassium hydroxide and hydrogen peroxide fuel posed severe safety risks to the crew.
Disappointment: “I don’t know anybody at the Department of Defense … who thinks that this program should, or would, ever be operationally deployed.” _Robert M. Gates, then-secretary of Defense, May 20, 2009.
Status: Killed in 2012.
Cost: $5.3 billion
Kinetic Energy Interceptor
The concept: The fastest U.S. rocket-interceptor, to be fired from land or Navy ships at enemy missiles during their early “boost” phase.
Major contractors: Northrop Grumman Corp. and Raytheon Co.
Early optimism: “That high acceleration with the mobile capability of Kinetic Energy Interceptor is very, very attractive.” _Henry A. Obering III, then-director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, April 7, 2005.
Problems: Extending 40 feet, the KEI would have been longer than anything ever launched from a Navy ship. To carry it, Navy vessels would have had to be retrofitted at a cost of billions of dollars. And the interceptor’s range was too limited to allow it to be land-based. It would have had to be positioned so close to its target that it would be vulnerable to attack.
Disappointment: “No matter how successful tests might one day have been, the system would have had negligible utility.” _National Academy of Sciences review panel, Dec. 31, 2012.
Status: Killed in 2009.
Cost: $1.7 billion
Multiple Kill Vehicle
The concept: A “bandolier” of eight to 20 miniature interceptors that would destroy missiles and decoys.
Major contractors: Raytheon Co. and Lockheed Martin.
Early optimism: “The Multiple Kill Vehicle is a transformational program adding volume kill capability to the ballistic missile defense system as early as 2013.” _U.S. Missile Defense Agency news release, July 19, 2006.
Problems: The technical challenge of creating and launching tiny “kill vehicles” that could find and destroy far heavier warheads in space proved insurmountable. Among many other obstacles, existing ground-based rockets would have had to be retrofitted or replaced. The concept never reached the stage where a test flight could be conducted.
Disappointment: “To more effectively hedge against future threats, we propose to … terminate the Multiple Kill Vehicle … in lieu of more operationally efficient alternative technology architectures.” _Patrick J. O’Reilly, then-director of the Missile Defense Agency, May 21, 2009.
Status: Shelved in 2009.
Cost: $700 million
Sea-Based X-Band Radar
The concept: A floating radar powerful enough to detect and track long-range missiles and distinguish enemy warheads from decoys.
Major contractors: Boeing Co. and Raytheon Co.
Early optimism: “It is the most powerful radar of its kind in the world and will provide … a highly advanced detection and discrimination capability.” _Henry A. Obering III, then-director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, May 10, 2006.
Problems: The radar’s field of vision is so narrow that it could not reliably track a sequence of incoming missiles. Its sensitive instrumentation is prone to corrosion at sea, and it needs millions of dollars in fuel to operate for even short periods.
Disappointment: “Just how this was going to fit into the (missile defense) system _ I don’t think anybody paid much attention to that. … SBX was designed for a mission other than that required.” _Radar specialist David K. Barton.
Status: Downgraded to “limited test support status.” It sat idle in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, for more than eight months in 2013.
Cost: $2.2 billion
Source: Statements posted by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, Boeing Co., Raytheon Co., Northrop Grumman Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp.; transcripts of congressional testimony; a National Academy of Sciences-sponsored report, “Making Sense of Ballistic Missile Defense,” Dec. 31, 2012; interviews with missile defense specialists.
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Photo: On July 21, 2009, at Edwards AFB, Calif., the Airborne Laser completed a test flight over the Mojave Desert. The Airborne Laser program was envisioned as a fleet of converted Boeing 747s that would fire laser beams to destroy enemy missiles soon after launch, before they could release decoys. It turned out that the lasers could not be fired over sufficient distances, so the planes would have to fly within or near an enemy’s borders continuously. This posed an insurmountable problem because the 747s would have been all but defenseless against anti-aircraft missiles. The program was canceled in 2012, after a decade of testing. The cost: $5.3 billion (U.S. Department of Defense)