Pentagon: Sensors failed 'kill vehicle' in 2nd trial Critics fear that missile
defense is being rushed
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"as soon as technologically feasible."
defense official indicated Wednesday that such terms are open to
"A miss doesn't necessarily mean a failure; a hit doesn't necessarily mean
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.