Pentagon: Sensors failed 'kill vehicle' in 2nd trial Critics fear that missile defense is being rushed

Andrea Stone
USA TODAY January 20, 2000, Thursday, Pg. 12A

WASHINGTON -- Two malfunctioning heat-seeking sensors on a prototype missile interceptor might have caused it to miss its target, the Pentagon said Wednesday.

However, Tuesday's failed test of a proposed national missile defense system is unlikely to derail President Clinton's timetable to decide this summer whether to deploy it. It is designed to defend against a small-scale attack of nuclear, biological or chemical warheads that might be launched by North Korea, Iran and other rogue nations.

Clinton still intends to ask Congress for $ 2.2 billion next year for more testing. That would bring the program's total cost to $ 12.7 billion.

Tuesday's test began at 9:19 p.m. ET, when a modified Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California. About 20 minutes later, a 121-pound, 55-inch long "kill vehicle" was launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, 4,300 miles away.

In a briefing Wednesday, a senior Defense official speaking on background said that preliminary data indicate that the interceptor, which is made by Raytheon, separated from its booster as planned. It then "saw the target nearly dead center" as it approached at 15,000 miles an hour over the central Pacific Ocean. But six seconds before it was to smash into the mock warhead, the seeker's two infrared sensors apparently stopped working. That prevented the interceptor from locking onto the missile, causing it to veer past it.

Experts don't know how near the vehicles came to each other, but Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said, "It was extremely close." The defense official said the test team was disappointed but said the group was confident that the problem could be corrected.

The failed test, which cost $ 100 million, was the second of three aimed at helping to decide whether the program should proceed. Officials said it was more complex than the first trial that only tested whether the interceptor could locate and hit the target. The latest test also tracked the performance of space-based sensors, ground-based radar and a battle management control system that is the brains behind the system. The defense official said those components worked as designed.

In the first test in October, the interceptor collided with a similar warhead and destroyed it on impact. Pentagon officials called that test a success. But they acknowledged last week that the "kill vehicle" had first locked onto a balloon decoy before finding and destroying the real warhead in another part of the sky.

Critics called the first test a lucky shot and said it shouldn't count toward the two successful trials that the Pentagon needs before it can give a go-ahead recommendation to the White House. The third test is scheduled for April or early May.

Critics say what might be the most complicated system the Pentagon has ever developed is being rushed because of politics.

Republicans in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail strongly favor building the system. Though Clinton at first opposed the system, which is a scaled-down version of former president Ronald Reagan's anti-Soviet, space-based "star wars" program, he reversed course in 1998 after North Korea launched a three-stage missile over Japan.

"Hit or miss, it's absurd to think the United States would be ready to make a deployment decision this summer after three tests," said David Wright, a senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group that opposes the system. "But the White House is afraid if they decide not to stick to this (timetable) that they will lack credibility" and hand Republicans a campaign issue this fall.

John Pike, a defense analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, suspects that even another test failure wouldn't kill the program. "This is a political decision driven by the need to defend Al Gore against the Republicans rather than defend America against missiles," he said.

However, Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said fielding an anti-missile system is not an important issue for voters. Even in the context of national defense issues, he said, voters care more about military readiness and the threat of terrorism.

"The public is not interested in funding a missile defense system that doesn't work," Mellman said. "If the Republicans say fund it (anyway), people are going to want to send them off to an asylum."

Tuesday's test failure might, in fact, make it easier for Clinton to veto the plan and leave it to the next president to decide. The National Missile Defense Act of 1999, which he signed in July, states that U.S. policy is to deploy a system "as soon as technologically feasible."

The defense official indicated Wednesday that such terms are open to interpretation: "A miss doesn't necessarily mean a failure; a hit doesn't necessarily mean success."

To Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., who chairs a House Armed Services subcommittee on research, the test was "not a setback." He said Congress should increase funding and noted that testing failures are "necessary to perfect a system's performance."

Even if the Pentagon does get the anti-missile system to work, U.S. officials must assuage Russian and Chinese fears that such a shield would threaten their nuclear arsenals. Moscow contends that the defense system would violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972. Russia has refused U.S. requests to modify the treaty. U.S. officials, in turn, have said that Russian objections would not delay deployment if that is what the administration decides to do.

Copyright 2000 Gannett Company, Inc.