Politics is fuse of controversial missile program

Critics say summer decision will put science in second place

The Huntsville Times 01/21/2000
By BRETT DAVIS, Times Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON - Is the National Missile Defense program getting too much, too soon?

White House officials are planning to ask for another $2.2 billion for the program in coming years, to get it ready to be put in the field. That's on top of the $10.5 billion they'd already planned to spend - and that was bumped up by an additional $6.6 billion just last year.

Just one more intercept test remains before President Clinton is supposed to decide this summer whether to start deploying the interceptors in Alaska, their most likely home. That decision will come before most of the tests are done, and before some actual production hardware is tested.

Even before that decision, White House officials have started talking with their Russian counterparts about amending the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a key arms control agreement that also happens to ban the sort of nationwide defense the program is intended to provide.

Republican lawmakers in Congress voted to put the system in place, and they did that before there were any intercept tests at all.

There's just one problem so far: no one is sure if the program will work as advertised.

The system's first intercept test, last October, was successful because the Raytheon-built kill vehicle knocked out its target, a mock warhead. But months later Pentagon officials admitted that the interceptor failed to orient itself properly by starlight and then initially homed in on a decoy before hitting the target.

Critics of the program said that meant the intercept really didn't work that well, because if the decoy hadn't been there, it might never have seen the warhead.

The failure of the second intercept test on Tuesday heightened concern that the program might be having problems, although military officials said everything seemed to be working perfectly until the last six seconds of the intercept, when the on-board heat seekers failed to locate the mock warhead.

''Obviously, this is the most complicated weapon the Pentagon is buying, and it's being tested less than any other weapon,'' said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists.

An outside military panel that reviewed the program concluded - in two reports - that the program is on a risky schedule. That panel, chaired by retired Air Force Gen. Larry Welch, said if the program has significant delays this year, Clinton should postpone his decision.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, another group skeptical of the program, has also called for Clinton to delay this summer's decision. ''These three tests are the first of 19,'' said Tom Collina, the director of the arms control and international security programs for the group.

''The fact there is a decision this summer is a politicization of the testing program that just skews everything in the most unhelpful way.''

Military officials want to have two successes before this summer's decision, one of which is supposed to be a full-systems test.

That could be stretched, however. Missile defense officials have said there could be just one successful test before the decision (which they've already had), with the idea that a full systems test would have to be successful sometime before site construction could begin in Alaska.

The National Missile Defense program is handled largely by the Army Space and Strategic Defense Command in Huntsville, along with lead contractor Boeing. Raytheon workers in Huntsville helped develop the kill vehicle that attempted to strike the warhead.

The program languished in research and development backwaters for years, but lately it has gained momentum, spurred largely by intelligence reports that indicated the country soon could face a limited missile threat.

Supporters of the program have rallied around it, saying an intercept failure does not doom the program, and in fact may make it better.

''If we stopped every testing program after one failure, the Wright Brothers would never have gotten off the ground at Kitty Hawk, the United States would never have launched a man into space, and our nation never would have sent a man to walk on the moon,'' Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., an ardent defender of missile defense programs, said in a statement issued this week.

Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville, agreed, saying the test ''was more complex than the first one with testing of the communications system and ground radars. It's natural that we might not get it right the first time with a first-time test of something this complex.''

But the National Missile Defense program is in an unusual situation because of the deployment decision expected this summer, in the midst of what promises to be a heated presidential race.

Both sides of the missile defense debate agree that this summer's decision is political, but for different reasons.

Pike said Clinton is widely expected to move toward deployment to deprive Republicans of an issue to use against Vice President Gore's run for the White House.

''I think the decision this summer has got more to do with defending Al Gore against Republicans than defending America against missiles,'' Pike said.

''The Republicans want it as a campaign issue and the Democrats want it to go away as a campaign issue.''

Weldon agreed the decision is political, but only because Congress has already passed a bill saying the United States will deploy the system as soon as it's technologically possible.

''We need increased funding for a more robust testing program for national missile defense if we are to successfully work out the kinks and move forward with deployment,'' Weldon said.

2000 The Huntsville Times.