Pentagon Missile Defense Test Fails

By Jim Banke
08 July 2000

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A key demonstration of new missile defense technology never got a chance to prove itself thanks to the apparent failure of a booster rocket supporting the early Saturday morning test over the Pacific Ocean. But military analysts say the Pentagon should take little comfort blaming the failure on something other than the experimental "star wars" technology the exercise was designed to test.

"If this was a real war we would have just lost Chicago," John Pike, director of space policy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington D.C., said after the test. "Aunt Minnie and the rest of the city would be ashes in the stratosphere right now."

Pentagon officials were hoping a successful test would clear the way for President Clinton to decide by this Fall whether to deploy the estimated $60 billion National Missile Defense (NMD) program before 2005, a year by which some theorize the United States could be threatened by new nations packing nuclear missiles.

Instead, the results of Saturday's $100 million test marked the second failure in a row for the missile defense system and gave critics of the effort new ammunition in their claims that the NMD is wasteful, not necessary and ineffective in its ability to protect Americans from missile attacks.

Clearly disappointed in the events as they unfolded overnight, Pentagon managers speaking to news media emphasized their resolve to determine what happened, correct the trouble and continue testing the technology. "What it tells me is we have more engineering work to do," said Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. "This is rocket science, and things do happen on this stuff that is not expected."

The test

Saturday's test began at 12:18 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (0418 GMT) with the launch of a modified Minuteman 2 missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. During this test, the Minuteman 2 played the role of an "enemy" missile bearing down on an unsuspecting country. As part of the test, the Minuteman 2 was to deploy an inflated mylar balloon that would act as decoy for the "kill vehicle" being sent to destroy the missile. Launch of the target vehicle was delayed more than two hours because of a battery problem with the Minuteman 2 rocket that was solved by taking the time to recharge the battery.

Although Greenpeace activists said they intended to delay the test by positioning a boat in the launch danger zone off the California coast, no such activity was reported as a concern by the Air Force and the Minuteman 2 lifted off without incident.

Once the solid-fueled missile cleared its launch silo, a suite of ground-based radars and space-based satellites quickly identified the missile as a potential "threat" and began providing the information necessary to target the "kill vehicle" on a collision course with the Minuteman 2.

At 12:40 a.m. EDT (0420 GMT) another rocket took off, this time from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Its job would be to smash into the Minuteman 2 at a combined speed of some 15,000 mph, instantly destroying the target vehicle and preventing "mass destruction." As the time for the interception passed by, mission controllers looked in vain at TV monitors tracking the progress of the kill vehicle and target and did not see the tell-tale sign of a bright flash on the screens.

About an hour after the initial Minuteman 2 launch, Pentagon officials confirmed the test had failed and began pointing fingers at the kill vehicle's booster rocket, which according to an initial look at information radioed to the ground from the interceptor spacecraft revealed the kill vehicle had not separated from the rocket's second stage. "The failure was in the boost phase," Kadish said.

Apparently still attached to the spent second stage, the interceptor continued radioing information to mission controllers as it fell toward the Pacific Ocean and eventually smashed into the water. Officials still were unsure why the spacecraft had not separated from the booster stage, noting that this particular rocket configuration - based on Minuteman hardware - had worked perfectly during four previous flights and is scheduled to be used three more times.

After that the booster will be replaced during tests by the same type of rocket the Pentagon intends to use if the National Missile Defense system is deployed across North America. The only other trouble noted from the failed test was with the Minuteman 2's mylar balloon decoy, which did not inflate as it was supposed to.

A chorus of criticism

The high-stakes demonstration came amid a rising chorus of criticism over the $60 billion program that is designed to protect the United States from an attack by "rogue" nations like North Korea and Iran. Critics say if President Clinton decides to deploy the NMD, it would violate terms of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty and provoke a new arms race with China and Russia, both of whom consider a U.S. missile "umbrella" to be a threat to their own national defenses. In addition, the critics contend that the missile tests, even if they do work, do not accurately reflect the real life conditions that would be faced if the United States were attacked. "From a technical standpoint, this is another test of hit-to-kill. But it doesn't get at the issue of whether it can deal with realistic countermeasures from another country," said Lisbeth Gronlund, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The single decoy that you have on this test is really nothing like what we think another country might do if it were to launch missiles at us," she said.

Writing the president

In a letter sent to Clinton Thursday, a group of 50 Nobel laureates called the NMD a waste of money and harmful to U.S. interests. The group, organized by the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., said that independent scientists contend foes could easily fool or overwhelm any such defensive missile system. The Nobel laureates also noted that North Korea recently has taken steps to improve its relations with U.S. ally South Korea, further weakening the threat of a future nuclear attack from that nation.'s Washington Bureau Chief Paul Hoversten and Cape Canaveral Bureau Chief Todd Halvorson contributed to this report.