The Army missile system that tarnished Lockheed Martin Corp. with repeated test failures scored its second hit of the year yesterday, knocking a target warhead out of space in the most ambitious shot yet.
The $14 billion THAAD anti-missile program has been under enormous scrutiny as the top technology demonstrator in the nation's effort to build a shield against ballistic missile attacks.
With six test failures dating to April 1995, the program also has been a high-profile symbol of problems at lead contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda.
Just last week, the General Accounting Office released a study warning that THAAD could suffer more failures because much of the system's hardware was built before new quality-control measures took effect.
"If they can continue to have a string of these [hits], then that would suggest they've gotten over their quality-management problems," said Steve Zaloga, a munitions expert with the Teal Group defense consulting firm.
The company paid $15 million for missing a target in March, then finally hit the mark for the first time in June. Lockheed Martin would have faced a $20 million fine if yesterday's test had failed.
If the company can score a third hit before Jan. 16, the program can move into the next phase of development, in which the system is prepared for eventual production.
"By achieving a target intercept under a more stressing flight test scenario, we have been able to obtain the final missile-design information required to move this program forward," said THAAD Vice President Ed Squires of Lockheed Martin Missiles & Space in Sunnyvale, Calif.
THAAD -- which stands for Theater High-Altitude Area Defense -- is intended to protect troops in the field from medium-range missiles such as the Scuds Iraq used during 1991's Persian Gulf war.
The THAAD missile is designed to hit the hostile rocket and knock it back down on the enemy that fired it.
Congress ordered the Pentagon to develop such a system because ballistic missiles pose a growing threat that the military has no other reliable way to counter.
Yesterday's test differed from June's successful interception in that the THAAD missile struck its target outside Earth's atmosphere. A Hera rocket designed to mimic a Scud missile lifted off at the test range in White Sands, N.M., just before dawn, and the THAAD was launched shortly afterward from the other end of the range.
The faux Scud was more complex than previous targets, because a simulated warhead separated from the booster and the THAAD system had to figure out what to hit. It smashed both the warhead and the booster, according to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, which oversees the program.
Being able to find its prey in space was an especially tricky assignment, because THAAD's infrared targeting system can "see" enemy missiles more easily in the atmosphere, where friction heats up the target and makes it stand out, said Zaloga, the munitions expert.
"It's a bit more of a challenge to do it in space because the warhead temperature isn't as great," he said. "I wouldn't necessarily say that [yesterday's success] is a major technological breakthrough, but it's an important steppingstone in verifying that THAAD works."
Opponents of the project said the two recent successes are not enough to justify the $3.8 billion already spent on THAAD.
"They still have a long road ahead to prove overall reliability," said Brian Hughes, director of the National Security Reform Project at Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington.
"We know that the North Koreans, the Chinese and the Russians all have missiles that are faster and more elusive than the Hera test targets," Hughes said.
Nonetheless, yesterday's test offered a hopeful sign for Lockheed Martin, which has seen its stock hammered in recent months in the wake of unusually low earnings, botched rocket launches, delayed satellite deliveries, cost problems with the C-130J transport plane and a congressional funding threat to the prestige-laden F-22 fighter jet program.
With recent F-16 sales to Greece and Israel and now two straight hits on THAAD, "they can start to get a little momentum going," said John V. Pincavage, a financial analyst with Warburg Dillon Read LLC in New York City. "Anything helps. The cloud they've been under was probably bigger than the cloud they deserved."
Lockheed Martin stock gained 43.75 cents yesterday to close at $35.25.