Missile Defense System Fails Fourth Test
Lockheed Martin Stock Falls Amid Doubts About $17 Billion Project
By John Mintz Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 7 1997; Page G01 The Washington Post
An anti-missile missile being developed by Lockheed Martin Corp. failed its fourth test flight in a row yesterday, clouding the future of the $17 billion program and illustrating anew the technical difficulties in the missile defenses envisioned by President Reagan in the 1980s.
The Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), the military command conducting the test, said it hasn't determined why the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile failed to hit its missile target at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
"The interceptor took off fine and the radar worked," said Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, a BMDO spokesman. "It just didn't hit the target." Test operators then blew up both missiles by remote control, he said. "Preliminary indications" are that an on-board computer that prevents the missile from shimmying malfunctioned, Lehner said.
The three previous failures had prompted mounting concern about the program inside the company and the Pentagon. Last month, Pentagon acquisition chief Paul Kaminski said another test failure in the near future would prompt a major restructuring of the project. "I don't think we're going to see funding for ballistic missile systems that aren't working," Kaminski told Aviation Week & Space Technology then.
Capt. Michael Doubleday, a Pentagon spokesman, said yesterday that "it's too early to tell" whether the latest setback endangers the program. But he added, "It certainly is not a result we had hoped for."
Lockheed Martin declined comment. Its shares fell $1.75 to $87 on the New York Stock Exchange.
The THAAD missile is designed to strike incoming missiles higher and earlier in flight than the Patriot missile, which was used by U.S. soldiers in the Persian Gulf War. THAAD is supposed to protect U.S. and allied forces from missile attack in a wide area -- the size of a country, say -- while the Patriot missile defends a zone the size of a large city. THAAD is scheduled to be deployed starting in 2004.
Critics of Pentagon weapons programs said the failure raises questions about the recommendation by Congress's Republican majority that new missile development and deployment be sped up. Democrats favor continued testing of various missiles before committing huge sums of money to production.
John Pike, space policy director for the liberal Federation of American Scientists, pointed out that since 1980 the Pentagon has conducted 14 tests of THAAD and similar systems that are supposed to hit enemy missiles at high altitude and only two destroyed their targets.
"That's a pathetic showing," Pike said. "You've got to see whether there's any water in the pool before you jump in the deep end," he added, referring to the GOP proposals for expedited deployment of the unproven missile defenses.
Every aspect of missile defense policy is a matter of debate. While the Army and Raytheon Co., maker of the Patriot, have defended that missile's performance in knocking Iraqi Scud missiles off course in the gulf war, critics in the Israeli military and in American peace groups said the Patriots were relatively ineffective.
But all sides agree that engineers at Lockheed Martin and Raytheon face a daunting task designing missile defenses -- what's known as "hitting a bullet with a bullet." Radar built into trucks is supposed to track an incoming missile hurtling through space at several thousand miles an hour. After the THAAD missile is launched, sensors in its nose must spot the enemy missile, then help guide the THAAD on its "hit-to-kill" mission.
THAAD's first intercept test failed 15 months ago because a software error prompted the missile to make an "errant maneuver" that in turn caused it to run out of fuel as it scrambled through space to resume course toward the target, military officials said.
A malfunction in the separation of the missile's booster caused a test failure last March. The THAAD failed four months later because of an electronic glitch in the missile's seeker "eye," which overloaded the on-board computer that processes information about the target's flight path.
Military officials expressed disappointment in the latest test but took heart in the fact that the three previous failures were blamed on unrelated causes, suggesting there is no inherent breakdown.
BMDO spokesman Lehner urged Pentagon planners considering THAAD's fate to keep matters in perspective. "How many weapons systems in development haven't had technical and bureaucratic problems?" he said.
THE THAAD MISSILE:
WHAT IT IS
Theater High Altitude Area Defense missiles are designed to intercept targets high in the air or in space, detonating the incoming missiles' nuclear, biological or chemical warheads. That way, debris would fall farther from the defended area than with the Patriot missile defense system. THAAD missiles can reach altitudes of 50 miles and destroy a target by force of impact.
HOW IT WOULD WORK
THAAD radar receives data on an enemy missile launch, with updates on direction. Guided by computers in Humvees on the ground, the THAAD heads for its target. As the THAAD closes in, an infrared seeker in its nose takes over.
SOURCES: Lockheed Martin, U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Organization
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company