WASHINGTON -- Lockheed Martin Corp.'s troubled THAAD Army missile program missed its target yesterday for the sixth straight test despite a year of preparation and enormous pressure to succeed.
The Bethesda-based defense company stands to forfeit $15 million in expenses for the failure. The Pentagon so far has spent about $3.8 billion on the $14 billion program.
The stakes could hardly have been higher for what is intended to be the premier defense against ballistic missiles for U.S. troops in the field. After a miss on the test range in May, congressional outrage prompted Lockheed Martin to revamp its management of the system, with promises to finally bring in the best people.
"I am convinced that American industry can do this," Army Lt. Gen. Paul J. Kern said yesterday.
But Lockheed Martin can't do it yet. About 1 minute after liftoff before dawn at the White Sands, N.M., test range, the THAAD system mysteriously stopped transmitting telemetry data.
Ninety seconds later, the missile whizzed past a target rocket more than 125 miles overhead -- though military officials said the THAAD may have missed by as little as 33 feet.
Because of the loss of telemetry data, scientists do not yet know why it failed to strike the target. They plan to use video and tracking radars to search for answers in the crucial final seconds of the missile's flight.
The good news was that several ground systems and Raytheon-built radar worked well during the test, Kern said.
"We are much closer to success than we have been in some time," he said.
Lockheed Martin Space and Strategic Missiles Sector President Thomas A. Corcoran watched the test on a monitor at the Pentagon.
"My expectation going in was that it would hit the target, but I also knew that this is a very complicated product in development, and I was bolstered by the fact that we came very close," the Lockheed Martin executive said.
Corcoran was named to his post in the housecleaning that followed last year's failure. Several top-level program officials also were replaced, and the THAAD system was analyzed piece by piece -- much as it was in the year before the previous failure.
The aim of THAAD -- which stands for Theater High-Altitude Area Defense -- is to protect ground troops from medium-range ballistic missiles such as Iraqi SCUDs.
Congress ordered the Pentagon to develop such a weapon, so the political pressure on the program has been enormous.
While Pentagon officials went out of their way yesterday to praise Lockheed Martin for doing "yeoman's work" to get the program back on track, one expert said the latest miss may be one too many.
"They're in serious trouble. They were counting on this one being successful to move the program ahead," said munitions expert Steve Zaloga of the Teal Group consulting firm.
"I'm certain there are going to be some major changes here. It's not going to be the same old THAAD."
Congress could renew calls for bringing in another contractor to clean up the mess, he said, or force the Pentagon to shift emphasis to a similar program being developed by the Navy.
Corcoran said yesterday that he is confident in the program's political support.
One price Lockheed Martin is almost certain to pay, though, is a penalty agreed to in the wake of last year's failure. If yesterday's miss is blamed on the THAAD missile itself, the company must eat $15 million in expenses. What's more, if the program fails to at least mount two more tests by the end of June -- and Kern said that will be difficult to do -- the company will forfeit another $20 million.
The company is at risk for a total of $75 million in penalties this year if several goals are not met on THAAD. The costs come at an especially poor time for Lockheed Martin, which is attempting to streamline itself in the wake of disappointing financial performance.
Just yesterday, the company announced that it would cut 1,200 jobs at its astronautics division in Denver.
Pub Date: 3/30/99