Key missile system test is a failure

`Kill vehicle' fired over Pacific misses mock enemy target

Setback for Clinton plan

System is intended to defend U.S. from attack by rogue state

July 08, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A key test of a national missile defense system failed this morning when a 4 1/2 -foot "kill vehicle" missed a mock enemy warhead more than 100 miles above the Pacific Ocean - setting back chances for an umbrella system advocated by President Clinton.

"We failed to achieve intercept," said Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman.

The mock warhead roared into space at 12:19 a.m. Eastern time atop a missile fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, accompanied by a decoy balloon.

Twenty minutes later, the "kill vehicle" was launched from Kwajalein Atoll, in the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific.

The test was essentially a tie-breaker between a successful one last fall and a failure in January, when a coolant system in the kill vehicle malfunctioned.

Now, the contentious issue of a national shield to protect all 50 states from intercontinental ballistic missiles, which has wide implications for presidential politics, foreign affairs and Pentagon spending, is in the hands of Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.

He will advise President Clinton in the coming weeks whether the system is technically feasible to construct. Clinton has said he would make a decision this fall on whether to build the system.

Cohen and other top officials hade already said that a failed test this morning would not necessarily mean the system is unworkable, saying they have learned a great deal even from malfunctions.

The defense secretary said recently that he might still approve the system if a failure was "minor in nature." Pentagon officials said it could be a week or more before they have more information about the most recent test.

The current plan is a distant and diminutive cousin of President Ronald Reagan's proposal for a space-based anti-missile shield that critics labeled "Star Wars."

The latest plan calls for 100 interceptor missiles to be constructed in central Alaska, along with a powerful radar on Shemya Island in the Aleutian chain. The system is designed, Pentagon officials said, to shoot down up to two dozen missiles fired by a rogue state, such as North Korea, Iraq, Iran or other countries believed to be working on intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach America.

If the Pentagon can sign building contracts by the fall, 20 of the U.S. interceptor missiles could begin operating by 2005, by which time, intelligence officials say, North Korea could have a missile capable of reaching the continental United States.

The entire U.S. system is expected to cost $60 billion to build and operate through 2026.

Critics of missile defense, including some of the nation's top scientists and former senior government officials, argue that the proposed system is either unworkable or that more testing is needed before any construction decision is made.

Earlier this week, 50 Nobel laureates sent a letter to Clinton saying the system would offer "little protection" and would damage relations with Russia and China, which are vehemently opposed to the national missile shield.

Moreover, America's European allies are wary of America's missile defense plan, since it would leave them out of the protective umbrella.

Though the system could do nothing to defeat an attack by thousands of Russian missiles, Russian leaders argue that the plan would violate the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which bans national missile defense systems.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has refused to support amending the treaty to pave the way for a U.S. missile shield.

China says America's proposed interceptor missiles could negate its force of ballistic missiles, which includes only about 20 that could reach the United States. Leaders of both countries say a decision by Clinton to deploy the system could set off a new nuclear arms race.

Meanwhile, the American Physical Society, the world's largest group of physicists, has called on Clinton to delay a deployment decision until there is more testing, as have former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat and defense expert, and former Defense Secretary William J. Perry.

Theodore A. Postol, an MIT professor and former Pentagon adviser on missile defense, has asserted that the Pentagon rigged its past tests to try to guarantee success and argues that the planned system is unable to distinguish between an enemy warhead and a decoy.

"There's no way to select the right object," he said.

This week even the Pentagon's top weapons tester, Philip Coyle, questioned the value of this morning's test, given that Kadish and his staff knew the launch time, location, speed and trajectory of the mock enemy warhead - information that would not be available if a rogue state struck with a flurry of missiles.

Pentagon officials strenuously deny that any tests were rigged and say Postol's assertions are misplaced because they deal with a type of "kill vehicle" that has been replaced by a more sophisticated one that can distinguish between an enemy warhead and a decoy.

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