Studies show little confidence in missile system



WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration has spent nearly $43 billion over the past five years on missile defense systems, but with North Korea brandishing its most advanced missile yet, U.S. government assessments and investigative reports indicate little confidence in the centerpiece portion of the program.

Eleven ground-based interceptors in Alaska and at Vandenberg Air Force Base in central California, the cornerstone of the administration's new system, have not undergone a successful test in nearly four years and have been troubled by glitches that investigators blame, at least in part, on President Bush's order in 2002 to make the program operational before it had been fully tested.

In all, the interceptors hit dummy missiles in five out of 10 tests, but these were under controlled conditions that critics said did not reflect the challenges of an actual missile launch.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Sunday's early editions about U.S. missile defenses quoted Dave Kier of Lockheed Martin discussing the Navy's Aegis antimissile system. The article also mentioned Navy deployments of destroyers in the Pacific. The information about the deployments did not come from Kier, but from a Navy spokesman, Lt. Tommy Crosby.
The Sun regrets the error.

A little-noticed study by the Government Accountability Office issued in March found that program officials were so concerned with potential flaws in the first nine interceptors now in operation that they considered taking them out of their silos and returning them to their manufacturer for "disassembly and remanufacture."

"Quality control procedures may not have been rigorous enough to ensure that unreliable parts, or parts that were inappropriate for space applications, would be removed from the manufacturing process," the report found.

Since taking office in 2001, Bush has made a ballistic missile defense system one of his highest military priorities, advancing an array of programs designed to down enemy missiles in various stages of flight.

North Korea's Taepodong-2 missile is thought to be capable of reaching U.S. bases in Japan, the U.S. territory of Guam and possibly Alaska or Hawaii. The problems in the ground-based defense system, as well as the expense of the war in Iraq, have not dampened the administration's enthusiasm for the program.

The Pentagon has requested $10.4 billion for missile defense in next year's budget, which would be its largest annual grant to date. And according to the GAO, the administration plans to spend $58 billion, or 14 percent of its entire research budget, on missile defense over the next six years.

The bulk of spending has gone to the ground-based interceptor system, designed to take out long-range missiles as they arc through space toward a target. Interceptors are rockets that have missile-seeking devices meant to destroy incoming weapons.

In addition to the 11 interceptors, nine at Fort Greely in Alaska and two in California, the system includes a series of complex radar upgrades and a sophisticated command system that allows all its components to interact.

The ground-based system has received most of the attention and funding. Missile defense systems based on Navy ships equipped with sophisticated Aegis radar, which have proven more successful in tests, have been winning a growing percentage of the spending, at least in part because of the ground-based failures.

The most high-profile U.S. military involvement in any North Korean launch likely comes from Aegis-equipped destroyers, which regularly patrol the coastal waters off the Korean Peninsula. But the purpose of the radar is to track enemy missiles rather than to shoot them down.

The Navy first sent a destroyer with Aegis radar upgraded for tracking ballistic missile launches into international waters near North Korea in October 2004, when the U.S. guided missile destroyer Curtis Wilbur was deployed as part of the Navy's first operational missile defense mission.

None of the Navy's destroyers is equipped with rockets that can shoot down enemy missiles, said Dave Kier, who overseas the Aegis missile defense system for its prime contractor, Lockheed Martin. Instead, they are used to feed back real-time data on missile launches to the U.S. Strategic Command, the Pentagon division responsible for all missile defense systems.

Only three larger Navy cruisers - the Shiloh, Lake Erie and Port Royal - are equipped with anti-missile rockets. But these rockets are being developed more to combat shorter-range rockets rather than intercontinental ballistic missiles such as the Taepodong-2.

For its part, the Shiloh has already knocked down a missile launched from Hawaii on June 23. Unlike the test results for the ground-based system, cruisers have hit their targets in six of seven tests before the Shiloh's most recent attempt.

Because of the repeated misses by the ground-based system - including back-to-back attempts just over a year ago in which the interceptors failed to launch at all - Lt. Gen. Henry A. "Trey" Obering, director of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, suspended all ground-based tests early last year.

He ordered two teams - one internal and one run by three outside experts - to investigate the glitches. In December, an interceptor missile was launched without problems - but it was not aimed at a dummy missile.

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.