Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Test Failure Sets Back U.S. Missile Defense Plan

Yahoo! News

Test Failure Sets Back U.S. Missile Defense Plan

By Jim Wolf

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Bush's drive to deploy a multibillion-dollar shield against ballistic missiles was set back on Wednesday by what critics called a stunning failure of its first full flight test in two years.

The abortive $85 million exercise raised fresh questions about the reliability of the first elements of the plan, an heir to former president Ronald Reagan's vision of an space-based missile defense that critics dubbed "Star Wars."

The interceptor missile never left its silo at Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, shutting itself down automatically because of an "anomaly" of unknown origin, the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency said.

About 16 minutes earlier, a target missile had been fired from Kodiak, Alaska, in what was to have been a fly-by test chiefly designed to gather data on new hardware, software and engagement angles, said Richard Lehner, a spokesman.

For instance, a booster built by Orbital Sciences Corp. was to have been exercised for the first time in the way it would actually be fielded. One of the test's goals was to show it was ready for production.

"Obviously it isn't," said Philip Coyle, who was the Pentagon's chief weapons tester under President Bill Clinton, "and now they also will have to fix the boosters that have been installed in silos in Alaska and Vandenberg" Air Force Base, California.


The Pentagon plans to spend more than $50 billion over the next five years on all aspects of missile defense, aiming to weave in airborne, ship- and space-based assets. The system that failed on Wednesday is know as the ground-based midcourse system, or GMD. By some estimates, the Pentagon has already spent $130 billion on missile defense efforts.

Despite widespread doubts among physicists about the technical readiness of the system, Bush had sought to have a rudimentary capability against North Korean missiles on alert by the end of this month.

"We say to those tyrants who believe they can blackmail America and the free world - you fire, we're going to shoot it down," he said at a campaign stop in Ridley, Pennsylvania, on Aug. 17.

But all eight of the system's intercept tests, the last of which failed in December 2002, have fallen far short of replicating realistic war scenarios, experts inside and outside the government have said. Of the total, five have succeeded in highly scripted conditions, never at night or in severe weather.

Coyle described as wrong-headed any decision to declare the system operational despite the latest failure.

"Premature declaration of operational status could mislead the Congress and U.S. taxpayers that they are being protected by the GMD system, when they are not," he said in an e-mail.

To develop the system, the Missile Defense Agency has planned 20 or 30 more flight intercept tests, each different from the next, before it will be ready for "realistic operational testing," Coyle said.


"If these 20 or 30 tests each take two years, like the latest test, it could be 50 years before the GMD system will be ready" for deployment, he said. "And this assumes they all succeed. If some fail, as this latest test did, it could take even longer."

Wade Boese, research director of the Arms Control Association, a private Washington-based group that favors reduced spending on the project, said: "The more one thinks about the test, the more incredible it is that it failed."

"The Pentagon had two years essentially to prepare ... and publicly described it in a way to guard against any chance that it could be deemed a failure," he said.

Unlike the botched mission early Wednesday, the last full flight test had as its chief goal to shoot down its target. It misfired on Dec. 11, 2002, when the warhead -- a "kill vehicle" meant to obliterate a mock warhead by slamming into it -- failed to separate from its booster rocket.

Neither the Missile Defense Agency nor the Pentagon responded to questions about the failure's impact on the deployment timetable.

Boeing Co., the Pentagon's prime contractor on the project, referred comment to the Missile Defense Agency.

The Pentagon has already suggested its schedule is slipping.

"I'm not constrained by timing, exactly," Michael Wynne, the Pentagon's chief weapons buyer, said on Dec. 8 in reply to a question about switching the system on. "But we'll see how (the test) goes and then we'll see from there."