Interceptor missile fails to leave silo in test run

Problem raises new doubt about prospects of soon activating U.S. system

December 16, 2004|By John Hendren | John Hendren,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The first test of a national missile defense system in two years failed yesterday, making it nearly impossible for President Bush to achieve his goal of having a basic anti-missile system in place before the end of this year.

In the test of what the administration envisions as a shield over U.S. soil, the so-called kill vehicle was shut down by an automatic safety system at the last minute and could not be launched toward the target missile it was supposed to intercept.

Officials of the anti-missile program said failure to complete the test did not represent a failure of the system, but only a technical mishap that could be remedied.

Critics, on the other hand, saw the latest development in the program as providing new grounds for skepticism.

The plan was for the interceptor to be launched from the Ronald Reagan Test Site on the Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific and a target missile to be fired from Kodiak, Alaska; if successful, the kill vehicle would pass close enough to the target rocket to destroy it.

The target missile was fired at 12:45 a.m. Eastern Standard Time without event, but the interceptor never left its silo. Twenty-three seconds before it was to launch, a safety sensor detected an as-yet unknown problem and shut the system down, said Richard Lehner, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency.

If the $85 million test had succeeded, the Bush administration had been expected to use it as proof of the viability of a concept first introduced by President Reagan. At the time, critics derided Reagan's proposal as "Star Wars."

But the latest failure made it clear that debate would continue over the feasibility of a system that by some accounts has cost $130 billion so far and is slated to cost $50 billion more over the next five years.

In an era of tight budgets and a post-Cold War reduction in the threat of ballistic missile attacks on the United States, analysts said, it is increasingly likely that congressional and other critics of the anti-missile program would seek to shift money away from it.

"It means that the president is not going to fulfill his promise to open a facility in 2004," said Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Foundation, a nonprofit organization, who has criticized the program. "This was his last chance.

"The performance of these systems cannot support these inflated budgets. And as budgetary pressures grow, military leaders in the Pentagon are going to have their knives out to slice a little piece here or there off that program."

Lehner disputed the suggestion that the exercise had failed, saying it simply was not completed.

"We weren't able to complete the test that we had planned," Lehner said. "I definitely wouldn't categorize it as a setback of any kind. The test had been planned for a while, so it's a disappointment for those of us who were working on it. We will isolate the anomaly and fix it."

As envisioned, the eventual system - promoted by some supporters as an answer to the possible threat of a missile attack from North Korea - will rely on interceptors based at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and Fort Greely, Alaska.

The test, which was postponed more than once this month, was the first in which the interceptor was to use the same Boeing booster rocket scheduled for the future system.

In previous tests, the interceptors struck five of eight targets, although critics challenged the way the tests were conducted.

While the latest test merely sought to get the kill vehicle near the target rocket, the last previous test was designed to ram into a mock warhead. That test, Dec. 11, 2002, failed when the warhead did not separate from its booster rocket. The next test is scheduled for early 2005.

"Here is a system that is designed to defend the country that hasn't been tested for two years, and this test and the most recent previous test were both failures," said John Isaacs, president of the Council for a Livable World, a Washington-based arms control group.

"I see no problem in trying some basic research and conducting these tests, but the whole idea of trying to declare a system operational in 2004, I think, is a mistake. The system is clearly not ready for prime time."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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