WASHINGTON, Oct. 4 (UPI) -- It was fitting timing the U.S. Missile Defense Agency held its latest successful interception test of an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile on Sept. 26. The test took place five days before Brig. Gen. Patrick J. O'Reilly, the MDA's deputy director, received his second star.
O'Reilly, who has served as the MDA's No. 2 man behind Lt. Gen. Henry "Trey" Obering III since January, received the rank of army major general at the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama. Obering officiated at the ceremony.
The MDA noted in a statement that O'Reilly "oversees the agency's efforts to develop, integrate and sustain a worldwide capacity to defend the United States, its deployed forces, allies and friends from ballistic missile attacks of all ranges and in all phases of flight."
However, as we have previously noted in these columns, O'Reilly's rise most of all amounts to a vote of confidence by the Pentagon's top brass that the long-troubled Ground-Based Midcourse Interceptor system, whose prime contractor is Boeing, is back on track at last, in a large part due to O'Reilly's efforts.
The revival of the previously troubled GBI program under O'Reilly's direction was heralded 13 months ago on Sept. 1, 2006, when a GBI launched from Fort Greely, Alaska, exceeded expectations and successfully hit and destroyed a test missile that had been launched from California.
Since mid-2005 O'Reilly has been Obering's point man in rescuing the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense, or GMD program, the heart of the Bush administration's anti-ballistic missile program.
Under Obering's direction -- and with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith now gone from the Pentagon -- Obering and the MDA have been free of their relentless, reckless pressure to push ahead with GBI deployment at breakneck speed without component testing individual parts.
The Government Accountability Office in 2005 found this policy had left the first batch of GBIs deployed to guard against possible intercontinental ballistic missile nuclear attack by any so-called rogue state dangerously unreliable. The GAO report even recommended stripping those GBIs down, testing their parts and then laboriously reassembling them.
However, with Wolfowitz and Feith gone, Obering has been free to show himself the worthy heir of the U.S. Air Force engineering generals of the 1950s, like Bernard Schriever and Otto J. Glasser, who spearheaded the Minuteman and Atlas programs.
He has switched MDA resources away from high cost, speculative research and development programs beloved of the Pentagon's technocrats to systems that are either already operational, like the Patriot PAC-3, or to ones like the GBI that have the potential to go operational in the foreseeable future.
The achievements of Obering and O'Reilly bear testament to the United States' ever-increasing need for engineer-generals.
From the 1940s through the 1960s, men like Schriever, the driving genius behind the Air Force's successful and cost-effective Minuteman solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile program in the 1950s and early 1960s, and Glasser, who achieved similar extraordinary results helming the Atlas program, seemed to grow on trees.
Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves already had a legendary reputation as the U.S. Army's "go-to" man to get any apparently impossible engineering project done before he took on the Manhattan Project that built the entire industrial infrastructure necessary to produce the world's first nuclear weapons. He not only produced them in time for their operational use against Japan in 1945, he even had two entirely different but both successful designs ready. One of them worked in its first operational use on the city of Nagasaki without even being tested first.
And there were many others. Since the 1970s jealous critics and hostile biographers have nitpicked the reputation of U.S. Navy Adm. Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear Navy. Many argued that Soviet nuclear submarine designs outperformed Rickover's designs, especially in speed.
But U.S. submarines far outperformed the Soviet ones in the crucial area of stealth, and Rickover's obsessive fixation on safety and quality control gave the U.S. nuclear Navy a vastly superior safety record to the Soviet one. This was especially crucial as in a democratic society, particularly after the Three Mile Island nuclear power station crisis in March 1979, a host of nuclear accidents or well-publicized near misses could have shut down the nuclear fleet completely.
The trials and triumphs of the U.S. ballistic missile defense program, especially the checkered history of the Ground-based Mid-course Interceptor system, shows that the unfashionable qualities of men such as Schriever, Glasser and Rickover are more vital than ever. It is the nation's good fortune that Obering and O'Reilly have been displaying them.
(Next: The problems they faced)