WASHINGTON - For the second time in two months, a test of the national missile defense system has failed, Pentagon officials said yesterday.
Military technicians believe the failure of the $85 million test was the result of a problem with ground support equipment, not with the interceptor missile itself. A preliminary assessment indicated that the fault occurred in the concrete underground silo, where a variety of sensors perform safety and environmental monitoring.
The interceptor, at the Ronald Reagan Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean, was supposed to target a mock ballistic missile fired from Kodiak Island, Alaska. The target missile went off as scheduled at 9:22 p.m. Alaska time Sunday (1:22 a.m. EST yesterday), but the interceptor failed to launch.
The failure marked another delay for the program, but defense officials expressed relief that the problem did not appear related to the interceptor.
"The interceptor itself is fine and will be used for other tests," said Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency. "Hopefully, we'll be able to do another interceptor test in the next few months, using the same interceptor."
Yet analysts said each setback diminishes program credibility as the Bush administration deals with North Korea's announcement last week that it has nuclear weapons.
Supporters of the system, popularly known as "star wars," have envisioned it as an answer to the threat of a missile attack by North Korea.
"It's certainly embarrassing at a time when the administration has basically decided that its North Korea policy is missile defense. You don't get second chances in nuclear combat," said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a nonprofit defense analysis group.
"I don't think these problems go to the core questions of do they have the right technology," Pike said. "But it does go to the central question of whether the political system is going to trust this thing or is it going to become an object of mirth and merriment."
Defense officials, however, considered yesterday's failure less of a setback than the Dec. 15 launch, when the "kill vehicle" shut down without launching after sensors detected a problem later determined to have been caused by a fault in the interceptor's software.
That test - the first in two years - was the first to use the rocket proposed for the completed system.
In investigating that failure, technicians concluded that the software was too sensitive to minor errors in the way data flowed between the missile and a flight computer. They decreased the sensitivity.
Delays in testing and implementation have forced the administration to acknowledge that the system will not be operational early this year - a Bush campaign pledge. The administration had sought earlier to have a limited version of the system working by the end of last year.
"It's clear that the program is being pushed ahead for political reasons regardless of its capability," said David Wright, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It's as if Henry Ford started up his automobile production line and began selling cars without ever taking one for a test drive.
"This interceptor has never been tested in an intercept test. Yet the Pentagon has already put eight of them in silos and is building at least another dozen before even knowing if they work."
The interceptor is intended to be part of a multilayered system meant to protect the United States from missile attack. As envisioned, the system - proposed during the Reagan administration and brought to the forefront by Bush in 2001 - would rely on interceptors based at Vandenberg Air Force Base and Fort Greely, Alaska.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.