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BMD Focus: Quality Control Works

by Martin Sieff
UPI Senior News Analyst
Washington (UPI) Mar 20, 2006
The senior executives who run Boeing's ballistic missile defense interceptor program made a revealing admission last week: They talked about the basic and disciplined engineering approach with which, they say, they are getting it back on track.

In doing so, they implicitly confirmed a recurrent theme of our coverage of the program in these columns over the past year: That it was precisely the lack of such an approach that caused the program's most serious problems in the past. And one executive also confirmed that the rush to push the program too fast, without adequate testing that resulted in two highly damaging test-failures, came not from them, nor from the Missile Defense Agency, but from the Bush administration that was breathing down their necks.

The executives gave a revealing interview on March 10 to Washington reporters who cover ballistic missile defense issues. They were confident and upbeat on their current progress in getting the much troubled ground-based interceptor system in Alaska back on track. But the language they used was revealing both about why the program was doing so much better now, and why it had faltered so badly a couple of years ago.

The Boeing executives repeatedly used phrases like "attention to detail," "back to basics," "focused," and "disciplined." Anyone who has spent any time with engineers and high-tech systems experts know that these values are second nature to them. No senior systems expert or executive in any major high-tech defense contractor ever ignores "basics" or "details" -- unless they are forced to because of lack of resources as was the case with the ground-based interceptor-program, or because of arbitrary and rushed deadlines to deploy that were imposed not by senior military officers but by their civilian overlords at the Department of Defense, who usually had no technical expertise or practical experience in the field at all.

Privately, senior Air Force officers and industry engineers have been saying for several years now that major problems and test failures in the Alaska-based ground-based interceptor program came from the Bush administration's insistence on rushing the interceptors into deployment with too few, or even no tests of key components.

It was, therefore, both revealing and encouraging that the Boeing executives repeatedly focused on the thoroughness of the testing they were now being allowed to do.

The ground-based interceptor program "has had a pretty rough road ... the past couple of years," Scott W. Fancher, Boeing's vice president and program director for ground-based missile defense, told the reporters.

The old Missile Defense Agency strategy was (to) go full ahead," he said Now, instead, both the MDA and Boeing were "getting back to basics with a much more focused, disciplined approach," Fancher said. "I am very impressed with what I have seen about the discipline that has been put in place."

Fancher also noted that "a lot of recommendations" to improve and upgrade the interceptor system's Kill Vehicle were already being implemented. There were already underway "significant efforts to improve the quality of production of the Kill Vehicle in Tucson,' he said.

And as a result, "We saw far fewer quality control issues with (the second ) Kill Vehicle than the first one," he said.

"These are very complex vehicles," Fancher said. "We (already) see significant improvements." However, he cautioned, "We want to see several more deliveries to (confirm) we've turned the corner."

No Boeing executive at the meeting ever said outright that the Bush administration had pushed them to deliver too fast on the interceptor program. But Mitchell B. Kugler, Boeing's director of its Strategic Initiative Missile Defense Systems, made clear that the original deadlines Boeing was forced to deliver under had been imposed on them from the outside -- and not by the armed forces either.

"The government imposed a schedule base on the need (to deploy a ground-based anti-ballistic missile interceptor defense) and our job is to respond to that as best we can," Kugler said.

Fancher also noted that Boeing is now being allowed to implement a wider range of testing that has been implemented in a comprehensive way.

In the end it is all about integrating testing and validating capability against existing threats he said.

And despite the earlier stumbles, "we have (now) got two solid tests under our belt representing ... significant steps further than we had planned to go (at this stage of the program)," he said.

"The past year, we have been continuing to wring out the reliability of the system," said Patrick M. Boeing's vice-president and general manager for missile defense systems.

The optimism echoed that of U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry "Trey" Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency. In December, he told UPI in an exclusive interview that the MDA planned to have as many as 38 Ground-Based Interceptors available to defend against potential threats from North Korea and Iran in its emerging block capabilities for 2008.

Obering then also discussed the reasons for the much-publicized failures of the December 2004 and February 2005 Ground-Based Interceptor tests. In the December 2004 test, he said, there was a software timing issue. "We discovered that we had constrained ourselves by building (excessively low) tolerances into the software for some built-in self checks that the interceptor goes through prior to launch. The fix that was required to prevent the error happening again was a change in one line of code of software. That solved the problem and solved that synchronization issue."

In the February 2005 test, "the issue (that caused the failure) was not in the missile or its programming but one of the three lateral seismic support arms holding for the interceptor in the silo," Obering said. "One of those three arms did not completely retract. Some salt water had got into the bottom of the silo on Kwajalein Island after it had been modified to accept the operational booster configuration and corroded a hinge mechanism on the support arm."

And Obering's assessment of the underlying reasons for the engineering problems in the program was almost identical to the ones given by Boeing executives. "It wasn't rocket science. It was a fault in basic construction quality control," he said. "So for the last 10 months we've gone back to basics."

Funny thing about those basics. They always seem to work. The engineers, systems analysts and uniformed officers who are charged with developing the nation's ballistic missile defense always knew that. Now maybe the politicians are starting to learn it too.

Source: United Press International

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