WASHINGTON -- An experimental missile defense system failed its most basic test Monday for the sixth time, failing to hit a missile launched at a New Mexico test site.
While Monday's failure illustrates the daunting technical challenges that have yet to be overcome, it also raises questions about Clinton Administration efforts to persuade its Asian allies to consider deploying a system that to date has never worked.
Already China has protested American plans to set up theater missile defense systems with Japan, South Korea and possibly Taiwan to protect allied and American troops based in northeast Asia.
"There is no question about the political sensitivity of China," said Gerrit Gong, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Analysts in Beijing and elsewhere who follow this should be somewhat relieved that this is a very complicated set of issues and technologies being developed that have to be worked out over time."
The test failure today will cost the prime contractor Lockheed Martin Corporation $15 million in penalties. And if the system fails two more attempts to intercept missiles before June 30 the company will be penalized $20 million more.
The $3.89 billion program begun in the early 1990's has had a nearly unending series of setbacks. But today both the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin were upbeat about the tests.
"We came very close to hitting this target -- within 30 meters or less -- and we're very encouraged by that," said Thomas A. Corcoran, president and chief operating officer of the Lockheed Martin Space Sector. "Much of the operation was as it should be."
At the Pentagon, spokesmen emphasized that 16 of the 17 objectives of the tests were met.
"It was a very close miss, however, we do know it was a miss," said Jennifer Canaff, Pentagon spokeswoman. "But we're positive about Lockheed Martin and the system."
The next test of the system will be held in May followed by two more tests before June 30.
Critics of the theater missile defense system say they understand the difficulty of creating this complicated technology but doubt that it will ever work well enough to be of any use.
"I think they'll eventually hit something," said John Pike, a defense analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, "but the odds are pretty slim that they are going to be able to consistently and reliably hit every missile and that's what is required when you're defending against a nuclear armed missile."
The theater missile defense system is meant to be used overseas to knock out incoming missiles in battle zones and to protect United States troops stationed at bases. The experimental system being developed to protect the United States itself is at a much earlier stage of development.
The theater missile defense system has a shorter range and a higher altitude and any success, or failure, in its development will have little effect on a national missile defense system, the Pentagon and defense analysts say.
The five earlier test failures were deeply disappointing to the Pentagon and prompted Lockheed to overhaul its design team to head off any suggestion of canceling the program.
"Last year we replaced the team and put in new leadership," Corcoran of Lockheed said. "We believed we needed greater control of changes plus we needed design changes."
If Lockheed succeeds in its next tests and actually intercepts a missile for the first time, the company will move into the next phase of engineering and manufacturing. The actual development of the system is still years away.
"Part of what's going on here is simply bad luck," Pike said. "But with six consecutive failures another problem has to be that there is no margin for error so that if even the smallest thing goes wrong it fails."
A continued series of failures of the Lockheed Martin system to hit the target could eventually cost the company up to $75 million in penalties.
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company