Pentagon keeps faith in troubled missile-defense system

May 26, 1999
Web posted at: 12:48 p.m. EDT (1648 GMT)

In this story:

Seventh test failure

Flawed technology?

Learning from mistakes

WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, New Mexico (CNN) -- Despite the latest failure of a costly and controversial anti-missile defense system meant to protect U.S. troops and allies, the Pentagon says it still has faith in the THAAD project.

The Army scratched Tuesday's test flight of a Theater High-Altitude Area Defense missile -- a missile fired to track and shoot down enemy warheads in flight -- when a target rocket developed problems shortly after launch at White Sands, New Mexico.

The THAAD is designed to strike enemy missiles fired from at least 800 miles (1,280 kilometers) away -- the kinds of weapons nations such as Iran, North Korea and Pakistan are developing. That raises the threat to U.S. allies, including South Korea and Japan, where U.S. troops are based.

Seventh test failure

The test failure was the seventh consecutive one for THAAD, a system developed by Lockheed Martin Corp. that has cost about $4 billion since the project began in 1992.

No date has been officially set for another try. Tuesday's was to be the 10th of a series of 13 scheduled test flights.

The latest failure was due to an unknown problem with the target missile, so "the THAAD (missile) was never launched," Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said Tuesday. "It's life. They will come back and try again."

The decision to abort the test was made within minutes after a Hera rocket, a converted Minuteman target rocket, was launched from White Sands at 5:14 a.m. (7:14 a.m. EDT, 1114 GMT).

"It tumbled chaotically out of control" after launch, Bacon said. He said the cause of the malfunction was under investigation.

Flawed technology?

John Pike
Pike says THAAD technology may give the United States a "false sense of security"  

Unlike the Patriot missile, which intercepts missiles at lower altitudes, THAAD is designed to protect troops and bases from attack by medium-range ballistic missiles, shooting them down in space or the outer atmosphere.

Defense officials cited a number of reasons for the THAAD system's disappointing results so far, including software errors and electrical failures on the interceptor rocket's target-seeking system.

The military calls it "hit to kill" technology, hitting a bullet with a bullet. Critics, however, believe the concept is flawed.

"It's certainly not going to be able to intercept all of them all of the time," said John Pike, director of space policy for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. "If we're talking about incoming nuclear missiles, that imperfect defense is going to simply be a false sense of security," he told CNN.

Learning from mistakes

The Pentagon charged Lockheed Martin a $15 million penalty for not achieving a hit during a March 29 test as required by its contract.

"The more it fails, the more money it seems Congress and the president are willing to throw at it," said Brian Hughes, director of Taxpayers for Common Sense's national security reform project.

Despite the failures, the Pentagon says much is learned from each test, whether or not an intercept takes place. Plans to deploy THAAD by 2007 are proceeding.

Tests are needed to learn about the system, and failure to intercept should not be equated with complete failure, said Tom Johnson, director of external affairs for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization at the Pentagon.

"If we allow (an enemy) to launch an attack against our troops overseas and not defend them, consider those costs," Johnson said.

Lockheed will have to achieve two successful hit-to-kill missile tests by June 30 or be penalized an additional $20 million, according to the contract.

Correspondent Aram Roston and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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