Experimental anti-missile system scores a hit

Cable News NetworkAugust 2, 1999
Web posted at: 6:06 p.m. EDT (2206 GMT)

From staff and wire reports

WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, New Mexico (CNN) -- A costly and controversial experimental antiballistic missile system shot down an incoming target on Monday, the second success after six failed attempts, according to U.S. military officials.

The Theater High-Altitude Area Defense system is designed to use ground-launched missiles to destroy high-altitude enemy missiles from 800 miles away or more, a distance that current U.S. weapons cannot reach.

The target missile was launched from just north of the Army's restricted White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico, said Pam Rogers, a spokeswoman for the THAAD program office.

A THAAD missile was launched minutes later from the southern end of the missile range, she said.

When the simulated warhead separated from the target missile booster, the THAAD interceptor apparently picked out the fake warhead and hit it, Rogers said.

"It appears at this point that the correct target was intercepted," she said.

The interceptor missile's sensor system had to distinguish the incoming warhead from other parts of the target missile, which was designed to break up, the Pentagon said.

The success is the second for a THAAD missile at the missile range. The program scored a hit on June 10.

But it had missed in six previous attempts, generating criticism from scientists and government officials, who call the program too costly and problematic.

Development already has cost $3.8 billion

Development of the system has already cost $3.8 billion. And Lockheed Martin, which makes the missile, was fined $15 million by the Pentagon following the last failure in May.

The Pentagon has since said that it will cancel the fine if the defense contractor improves THAAD performance, and that it is confident Lockheed Martin can successfully develop the system.

A recent report by the General Accounting Office, Congress' watchdog agency, found that the flight-test failures were caused primarily by manufacturing defects, and that the program had been pushed ahead too quickly to allow adequate testing.

The Pentagon has since lengthened the test schedule, removed deployment requirements and increased emphasis on quality, the report said.

THAAD is designed to protect troops in the field from medium-range ballistic missiles. However, critics say the missile defense system offers only the illusion of security.

"It's a lot easier to hit one of our own targets on a test range than it is for them to actually intercept nuclear- tipped missiles in a combat environment," said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists in June.

Unlike Patriot missiles or 'Star Wars' defense

In contrast, the Patriot missiles used during the Persian Gulf War were designed to hit missiles at lower altitudes. They also rely on a warhead exploding near the target, rather than a direct hit.

Military officials say THAAD shouldn't be confused with the Strategic Defense Initiative defense system proposed during the Reagan Administration. That system, which became commonly known as the "Star Wars" program, called for a shield to knock thousands of enemy missiles out of the sky using orbiting lasers.

The Pentagon hasn't determined how many tests it will require before beginning full-scale production, but military officials hope to deploy THAAD by 2007.

Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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