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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Los Angeles Times February 15, 2005

Interceptor Missile Test Fails

In another delay for the new defense system, a problem with ground equipment apparently keeps it from launching.

By John Hendren

For the second time in two months, a test of the national missile defense system has failed, Pentagon officials said Monday.

Military technicians believe the failure of the $85-million test was due to a problem with ground support equipment, not with the interceptor missile itself. A preliminary assessment indicated that the fault occurred in the concrete underground silo, where a variety of common and widely used sensors perform safety and environmental monitoring.

The interceptor, located at the Ronald Reagan test site at Kwajalein Atoll in the western Pacific Ocean, was supposed to target a mock ballistic missile fired from Kodiak Island, Alaska. The target missile went off as scheduled but the interceptor failed to launch.

While the failure marked yet another delay for the program, defense officials expressed relief that the problem did not appear related to the interceptor. No date has been set for another test.

"The interceptor itself is fine and will be used for other tests," Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency, said Monday. "We'll just keep trying, keep testing, and hopefully we'll be able to do another interceptor test in the next few months, using the same interceptor."

Yet analysts said that each setback diminished the program's credibility at a time when the Bush administration must deal with the announcement last week by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il that his country had nuclear weapons.

Supporters of the system, popularly known as "Star Wars," have envisioned it as an answer to the threat of a missile attack from North Korea.

"It's certainly embarrassing at a time when the administration has basically decided that its North Korea policy is missile defense. You don't get second chances in nuclear combat," said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a defense analysis group. "I don't think these problems go to the core questions of do they have the right technology.... But it does go to the central question of whether the political system is going to trust this thing or is it going to become an object of mirth and merriment."

Defense officials, however, considered Monday's failure less of a setback than the Dec. 15 launch, when the "kill vehicle" shut down without launching after sensors detected a problem later determined to have been caused by a fault in the interceptor's software. That test -- the first in two years -- was the first to use the rocket proposed for the completed system.

In investigating that failure, technicians concluded that the software was too sensitive to minor errors in the way data flowed between the missile and a flight computer, and decreased the system's sensitivity to errors.

Delays in testing and implementation have forced the Bush administration to acknowledge that the system will not be operational early this year -- a key Bush campaign pledge. The administration had earlier sought to have a limited version of the system working by the end of last year.

"It's clear that the program is being pushed ahead for political reasons regardless of its capability," said David Wright, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It's as if Henry Ford started up his automobile production line and began selling cars without ever taking one for a test drive. This interceptor has never been tested in an intercept test. Yet the Pentagon has already put eight of them in silos and is building at least another dozen before even knowing if they work."

The interceptor is intended to be part of a multilayered system meant to protect the nation from missile attack. As envisioned, the system -- proposed during the Reagan administration and brought to the forefront by Bush in 2001 -- would rely on interceptors based at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County and at Ft. Greely, Alaska.

The program, by some accounts, has cost $130 billion and is scheduled to require $50 billion more over the next five years. Bush's recent budget request for the 2006 fiscal year cut about 10% from this year's funding of almost $10 billion.

Much of the design work on the interceptor has been done in California. Chicago-based Boeing Co. is the lead contractor and has several hundred engineers working on the project in Anaheim. Raytheon Co. built many of the sensors, radar and targeting equipment at its electronic systems unit in El Segundo.

Copyright 2005, Los Angeles Times