Missile failure fuels long-running debate

Malfunction blamed

future of proposed defense system in doubt

January 20, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In the final seconds, the "kill vehicle" didn't eliminate its intended target, missing a "warhead" heading toward the United States.

As the stubby, 55-inch missile streamed along about 140 miles above the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday night, its two heat-seeking guides malfunctioned and therefore could not lead it to the dummy warhead, Pentagon officials said yesterday.

"There was an anomaly with both sensors," said a senior defense official. "The very end-game is the [infrared] sensor. Were we tracking the target? Apparently so until the last six seconds."

Other parts of the $100 million test, including the web of ground-based radars and satellites, worked as planned, based on preliminary test information, the official said.

The mishap, however, has fueled a contentious debate, which began two decades ago, over whether to construct a national missile defense system that will cost tens of billions of dollars.

Opponents argue that Tuesday's failure highlights a system that is technologically unworkable or easily fooled. Supporters counter that problems with the complex project can be overcome. More tests and research money, they say, would prove the worth of a missile shield for all 50 states from an intercontinental ballistic warhead fired by North Korea or another rogue state.

Joseph Cirincione, director of the nonproliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Tuesday's failure raises questions about whether President Clinton will approve construction of a national missile shield, a decision scheduled for this summer.

"If this test had been successful, I think a deployment decision was almost certain," he said. "This puts the president's decision very much in doubt because it exposes the fragility of the technology."

Ted Postol, a professor of science, technology and national security at MIT, said the failed infrared sensors show problems of engineering and competence, though there are more fundamental issues. A foe who can build an intercontinental ballistic missile, he said, can easily build a credible decoy, since the kill vehicle senses only a "warm blob" in space.

But Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican and a leading missile defense proponent, dismissed the naysayers.

"This is not a setback by any means," he said in a statement. "The purpose of a testing program is to determine problems and resolve them before a system goes into production."

If one failure doomed a program, Weldon said, "the Wright brothers would never have gotten off the ground at Kitty Hawk." And he noted that some of the current weapons in the Pentagon arsenal did not have a glowing testing record -- such as the Sidewinder missile, which had no successful intercepts in 13 attempts.

Still, a national missile defense shield is no simple missile program. It is the most complex weapons system ever built, said Pentagon and congressional aides, pointing to the interconnecting web of ground-based radars, satellites and rocket-borne "kill vehicles" designed to track and then intercept and eliminate an incoming missile before it lands on U.S. soil.

In the oft-repeated comment in the Pentagon, the system is essentially a "bullet hitting a bullet."

The system, however, is a shadow of the "star wars" system first proposed in the 1980s by President Ronald Reagan, a vast system of killer satellites and ground-based interceptors designed to counter a massive Soviet attack.

The current proposal initially calls for 100 interceptor missiles in Alaska that could defeat a few dozen missiles. The Pentagon estimates the plan could cost at least $12.7 billion over the next five years and could be ready for use by 2005.

Last fall, national missile defense passed a key hurdle when the kill vehicle, launched atop a rocket from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, intercepted and destroyed an unarmed Minuteman rocket launched from California to simulate a missile attack.

Pentagon officials and missile defense supporters said the success showed the "hit to kill" technology can work, though there were several technical problems with the test that the Pentagon acknowledged only last week.

The kill vehicle initially homed in on a decoy balloon, later destroying the rocket after it emerged from behind the balloon. Officials are uncertain whether the rocket would have been destroyed had it not been near the balloon. While opponents highlighted these problems, Pentagon officials called them insignificant.

Tuesday night's test was even more complex than the one last fall.

Those who watched the test late Tuesday night on TV screens at the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Office said a 10-second countdown preceded the expected hit. Last fall a flash was visible on the monitors; this time there was nothing but a blank screen.

The next scheduled test of the prototype system will be at the end of April or early May, the last test before the Pentagon makes a recommendation to Clinton about whether to go forward with deploying a system.

There is a strong political element to national missile defense that could affect a decision.

For several years, Republicans have vigorously pushed Clinton to spend more on missile defense.

The leading GOP presidential candidates, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have pressed for the deployment of a missile shield as soon as possible, while Vice President Al Gore and Bill Bradley take a more cautious approach.

Moreover, North Korea's launch of a three-stage missile over Japan in the summer of 1998 shocked the defense community and added a new sense of urgency to the question of missile defense.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.