Lockheed Martin Corp. failed to hit the target yesterday for the fifth straight time with a high-profile Army missile system that it spent the past year trying to perfect. The $12 million test lasted 5.8 seconds.
The failure of the system, which has come under harsh congressional scrutiny as a symbol of trouble in the nation's ballistic missile defense program, marred what could have been a grand day for the Bethesda company.
Several hours after the disastrous New Mexico flight test, the United Arab Emirates agreed to a major purchase of F-16 fighter planes.
Vice President Al Gore announced the $7 billion sale of 80 advanced versions of the popular jet. The package will bring several thousand jobs to the Texas factory where the F-16 is built, and will help sustain 400 jobs at the Northrop Grumman plant in Linthicum that makes radars for the plane, a spokesman there said.
The combination of events whipsawed emotions at Lockheed Martin headquarters in Bethesda, where company President Peter Teets watched a video feed at 7: 20 a.m. Eastern time as the Army's Theater High-Altitude Area Defense missile, or THAAD, lifted off the launch pad.
The THAAD's rocket booster, designed to track a target missile and smack it into oblivion on the edge of space, went out of control and self-destructed at just over 1,000 feet.
"I saw three major emotions here today," corporate spokesman Chip Manor said. "Obviously I saw outright jubilation over the U.A.E. news, [but] that was tempered by the keen disappointment over the unsuccessful THAAD flight test. The other emotion I saw was one of determination. People are going to do everything possible to get this program back on track."
The company could wind up with unrequested help in that effort. A key congressional supporter of THAAD said yesterday that he might seek legislation requiring the Pentagon to bring in a second contractor to look over Lockheed Martin's shoulder.
Company officials "have to bear the brunt of the blame," said Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican who organized a THAAD display on Capitol Hill last month to rally support for the program. He said he also might seek legislation forcing Lockheed Martin to share in the cost of the expensive tests, to "put more heat on the contractor."
The Pentagon looked this year at bringing another company into THAAD, and an independent panel recently blamed the program's four previous misses on poor management. Some experts speculate that THAAD's woes might have influenced the Pentagon to spurn a Lockheed Martin consortium and choose Boeing Co. last month to build a national missile defense system.
THAAD's last test failure was more than a year ago, and the company spent the interim dissecting the program to root out problems.
Military and company investigators could have a report on what went wrong within two weeks, a Pentagon official said.
The system is scheduled for another test flight in August or September, but the official said yesterday's failure will have to be explained before the military decides how to proceed.
Weldon said he will push for more tests, not fewer, to whip the program into shape.
Political opponents point out that the nation has spent $50 billion on ballistic missile defense over the past 15 years and has no working system to show for it.
The latest THAAD failure will energize that faction, but Weldon and industry experts see little likelihood that the program will be canceled.
Congress mandated development of a system like THAAD after Desert Storm as the only way to protect U.S. troops in the field from the expanding threat of hostile ballistic missiles.
Industry analyst Roger Threlfall of J. P. Morgan Securities cited that fact and the good news of the F-16 contract as reasons not to panic at THAAD's ill fortune.
The company has been "on a roll with contract wins in just about every other area," Threlfall said. "Now space seems to be under a bit more pressure. These things happen."
Investors seemed to share that sanguine attitude yesterday, as Lockheed Martin stock rose 81.25 cents, to $113.3125 a share.
Pub Date: 5/13/98