(CBS) It was a miss heard 'round the world, reports CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin.
In a crucial test of the U.S. military's missile defense project, a high-tech missile interceptor was launched Tuesday night from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands in search of a Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile that lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The launches went as planned, but the interceptor missed its target -- apparently because an infrared sensor failed to hone in on the heat of the incoming warhead during the final seconds.
According to John Pike, Federation of American Scientists, "It's obvious that a lot of the pieces of (the prototype) worked. The problem of course, is that in actual combat all of the pieces are going to have to work, or the system fails completely. And the most important part, actually killing the warhead, didn't happen here."
The Pentagon says it must see two successful intercepts before it begins building a $12 billion missile defense that will protect the U.S. against an ICBM attack by hostile nations like North Korea, which tested a medium-range missile two years ago.
So far, however, they've only scored one hit, and only one more test shot is scheduled before the Clinton administration is set to decide whether to begin construction. "A lot is being crammed into a short period of time," admits Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon.
Republicans pushing for the earliest possible deployment of a missile defense system say one failure is no reason to slow down. "We already had a successful test," explains Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss. "The first test was a hit."
This is as much about politics as it is about technology, and the politics of missile defense call for the Democrats to stay one step ahead of the Republicans.
Pike thinks, "The Clinton-Gore decision on deploying missile defense is going to have more to do with defending Al Gore from George Bush than defending America from missiles."
The politics of missile defense may be easy to figure, but the U.S. military has not yet figured out the technology.
The Pentagon, working with Boeing Co. and other contractors involved in the project, is undertaking an extensive review of the test data, and the results may not be known for several weeks, officials said.
The next interceptor test is scheduled for April.
Copyright CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.