Thaad missile misses mark for a 4th time Lockheed project faces 'restructuring,' Pentagon official says

$16.7 billion undertaking

Congress has pushed for fielding system as soon as possible

March 07, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It was strike four yesterday for a $16.7 billion Lockheed Martin Corp. missile project being tested in the New Mexico desert, and a senior Pentagon official said the program now faces restructuring and delays.

The Theater High Altitude Area Defense program, known as Thaad, is an Army missile designed to smack enemy missiles out of space or the upper atmosphere.

In four test shots, including one yesterday, the Thaad missile has yet to hit its target.

Pentagon acquisitions chief Paul Kaminski said yesterday that he was not poised to cancel the program, but that he would like to slow it down.

Yesterday's failure "will probably require that we do some restructuring of this program," Kaminski told a House National Security subcommittee.

A spokesman for Lockheed Martin said the company would let the Pentagon handle all comment.

The Army has spent about $2.5 billion so far on Thaad, and asked for $556 million for the next fiscal year.

The program's total cost is expected to be about $16.7 billion.

Congress is pushing the military to field the system as soon as possible. Last year, Congress added about $120 million to the Pentagon's request for Thaad funding -- appropriating $621.8 million even though the military asked for only $481.8 million.

And the Pentagon bowed to congressional pressure and moved up the date for fielding the system to 2004 from 2006.

"Now it looks to me like they're probably going to go back to 2006," said Paul Nisbet, a defense analyst for JSA Research Inc.

"Obviously they're having some difficulties here."

Nonetheless, Nisbet said he was confident the system eventually will work.

"They've got the technology to do it, it's just a matter of getting all the bugs out of the process," he said.

Critics are not so sure.

"I think it's a waste of money in the sense that I don't think they're ever going to get it to work well enough to make a difference," said John Pike, space policy director for the Federation of American Scientists.

But Pike, who questions not only the technology but also whether there is any need for such a system, said he did not expect the program's river of funds to dry up or even diminish.

"Congress has been shoving money at this stuff just totally independent of whether they hit anything," he said.

Scud killed 21 in gulf war

Ballistic missile defense became a national priority after 21 American soldiers were killed when a Scud missile hit their barracks during the Persian Gulf war. Patriot missiles fielded against the Scuds had a mixed success rate.

About 30 nations now bristle with thousands of ballistic missiles, and the Pentagon is pursuing seven separate programs and spending roughly $3 billion a year to counter the growing threat.

The updated Patriot missile is now eight times more accurate than the ones used in the Persian Gulf, officials say.

But Pike points out a huge difference between low-altitude, relatively short-range missiles like the Patriot and the high-altitude, long-range Thaad:

Patriots actually hit their targets. In 14 tests of various high-altitude missiles over the last 15 years, Pike said, 12 have been failures.

Kaminski conceded to lawmakers yesterday that the challenge is enormous. Both the Thaad and its prey are moving twice as fast as a bullet from an M-16 rifle, he said. And, unlike other missiles that detonate near their targets, the Thaad has no explosives and actually has to hit the other missile to kill it.

"The bad news is that close doesn't count," Kaminski said.

"These are very challenging technical issues. This really is rocket science."

Lt. Gen. Lester L. Lyles, who heads the national Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, told lawmakers yesterday that he would personally oversee an investigation into the cause of the latest test failure.

He said the Thaad missile's radar, which is built by Raytheon, appeared to function well. The problem came at "end game," or just as the missile was supposed to hit its target hurtling high over the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

A mystery

"The divert and attitude control system did not get the proper signal. We couldn't divert [the missile] to intercept, to kill," Lyles said.

"Why that happened is still a mystery."

He said he was confident that the design of the missile is sound, but said "we have system engineering problems that seem to be hampering us."

Pub Date: 3/07/97

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