Published Tuesday, March 30, 1999, in the Miami Herald

Missile defense system test fails sixth direct-hit attempt in a row

Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- A weapon designed to knock enemy missiles out of the sky failed its sixth direct-hit attempt Monday, raising questions about the technological feasibility of a defense system that is now a national priority.

Pentagon officials in charge of the Army's Theater High-Altitude Area Defense missile program put a positive spin on the test, saying all targeting, radar and launch systems worked well together for the first time. And they predicted a complete success soon, although they couldn't say exactly what caused the miss.

``Everything seemed to work very, very well with the exception, obviously, of what happened relative to the closing end game for the missile,'' Lt. Gen. Lester Lyles, director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, told a Pentagon news conference.

Critics of the program were skeptical, however, given that the Pentagon has spent more than $50 billion on research and limited testing on missile defense with few results, dating to the Reagan administration's ambitious space-based ``Star Wars'' system.

``At some point you have to wonder if this is in the category of developing fusion power,'' said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists. ``The fact is, even the smallest malfunction means you missed the target. It says something about how difficult this is to do. Everything has to work exactly right, or it doesn't work at all.''

High-altitude strikes

The Theater High-Altitude Area Defense is designed to strike enemy missiles at altitudes of 800 miles and higher -- just the kinds of weapons that nations such as Iran, North Korea and Pakistan are developing, raising the threat to U.S. troops and allies overseas.

Lyles said scientists won't know exactly what went wrong with the hit-to-kill part of the missile test until reviewing radar, infrared and visual data. The telemetry system, which tracks how the system is performing, went down one minute into the test, which could hamper efforts to figure out the problem and try to correct it, he said.

Monday's test was the ninth in a series of 13 flight tests for the program and the sixth attempt at intercepting a missile. The system has cost $3.8 billion so far.

The Theater High-Altitude Area Defense -- by definition a regional rather than national missile defense system that could protect American cities from attack -- has technology that is the most sophisticated military weaponry, and it would contribute to development of a system that could protect the United States.

In mid-March, the House and Senate passed separate bills making the deployment of a national missile defense as soon as possible a U.S. government priority.

Administration's shift

President Clinton, who had threatened to veto similar legislation in the past, this year proposed spending $6.6 billion more through 2005 for missile defense work.

Given the technological hurdles, the administration moved its target date for deploying a national missile defense system -- if one can be built -- from 2003 to 2005.

On Monday, the missile came within 10 to 30 yards of hitting its target, a modified Minuteman 2 missile called a Hera, during an early-morning test at the White Sands Missile Range, N.M. The missile self-destructed 10 seconds after the miss, which occurred about 300 meters above the ground.

The Pentagon charged Lockheed Martin Corp., the maker of the anti-missile system, a $15 million penalty for not achieving a body-to-body hit during Monday's test as required by its $15 billion contract, modified last June under congressional order.

Lockheed will have to achieve two successful hit-to-kill missile tests by June 30 or be penalized another $20 million, according to the contract. In all, the company could face up to $75 million in penalties by the end of 1999 if there are more failures.

The Pentagon could scrap the program or pump more money into the Navy's high-altitude missile defense system, which is still a year away from its first hit-to-kill test.

``We are looking at backup plans just in case,'' Lyles said.

The next Theater High-Altitude Area Defense flight test is scheduled for May.

Copyright © 1999 The Miami Herald