From 2002 through early last year, the Pentagon conducted 11 flight tests of the nation's homeland missile defense system.
In the carefully scripted exercises, interceptors of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, or GMD, were launched from underground silos to pursue mock enemy warheads high above the Pacific.
The interceptors failed to destroy their targets in six of the 11 tests -- a record that has prompted independent experts to conclude the system cannot be relied on to foil a nuclear strike by North Korea or Iran.
Yet over that same time span, Boeing Co., the Pentagon's prime contractor for GMD, collected nearly $2 billion in performance bonuses for a job well done -- Boeing received a total of more than $21 billion.
The cumulative total of bonuses paid to Boeing has not been made public before. The Times obtained details about the payments through a lawsuit it filed against the Defense Department under the Freedom of Information Act.
A Times investigation also found that the criteria for the yearly bonuses were changed at some point to de-emphasize the importance of test results that demonstrate the system's ability to intercept and destroy incoming warheads.
Early on, Boeing's contract specified that bonuses would be based primarily on "hit to kill success" in flight tests. In later years, the words "hit to kill" were removed in favor of more generally phrased benchmarks, contract documents show.
L. David Montague, co-chair of a National Academy of Sciences panel that documented shortcomings with GMD, called the $2 billion in bonuses "mind-boggling," given the system's performance.
Montague, a former president of missile systems for Lockheed Corp., said the bonuses suggest that the Missile Defense Agency, the arm of the Pentagon that oversees GMD, is a "rogue organization" in need of strict supervision.
The newspaper also reviewed Boeing-related contract documents obtained independently of the lawsuit.
A spokesman for the missile agency, Chris Johnson, said that despite the GMD system's record in flight tests, Boeing had "earned" its bonuses "based on the criteria specified in the contract." He said the payments "complied with all appropriate acquisition regulations."
"These types of contracts allow regular and consistent evaluation by the government, and fees are paid only when companies meet clearly defined targets," Johnson said in an emailed statement.
A spokesman for Boeing, Dexter Q. Henson, referred questions about the bonuses to the missile agency while defending the company's work on GMD.
Boeing "has met contractual requirements and a variety of incentives across a wide range of program objectives," Henson said by email.
"As the lead contractor, we have partnered with the Missile Defense Agency in the development and operation of the only homeland defense system that can defeat long range missile attacks," he said.
In the event of an attack, interceptors at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County, Calif., and Fort Greely, Alaska, would burst from their silos and begin a fiery ascent toward the upper atmosphere.
The interceptors are multistage rockets, each with a 5-foot-long "kill vehicle" at its tip. The kill vehicle is designed to separate from its rocket in space, fly independently at 4 miles per second and crash into an enemy warhead.
The GMD system, which became operational in 2004, is intended to thwart a "limited" nuclear strike by a non-superpower. It has cost taxpayers more than $40 billion to date.
(c)2016 Tribune Co.