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Failure sets back missile defense plan

The drive to deploy a shield against ballistic missiles was set back Wednesday by what critics called a stunning failure of its first full flight test in two years.
/ Source: Reuters

President Bush’s drive to deploy a multibillion-dollar shield against ballistic missiles was set back Wednesday by what critics called a stunning failure of its first full flight test in two years.

The abortive $85 million exercise raised new questions about the reliability of the first elements of the plan, an heir to President Ronald Reagan’s vision of a space-based missile defense that critics dubbed “Star Wars.”

The interceptor missile never left its silo at Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific, shutting itself down automatically because of an “anomaly” of unknown origin, the Missile Defense Agency said.

About 16 minutes earlier, a target missile had been fired from Kodiak, Alaska, in what was to have been a fly-by test designed chiefly to gather data on new hardware, software and engagement angles, said Richard Lehner, a spokesman.

Tens of billions of dollars
The Defense Department plans to spend more than $50 billion over the next five years on all aspects of missile defense, aiming to weave in airborne, ship- and space-based assets. The system that failed Wednesday is known as the ground-based midcourse system. By some accounts, the Defense Department has already spent $130 billion on its missile defense efforts.

Despite widespread doubts among physicists about the technical readiness of the system, Bush had sought to have a rudimentary capability against North Korean missiles on alert by the end of this month.

“We say to those tyrants who believe they can blackmail America and the free world: You fire, we’re going to shoot it down,” he said at a campaign stop in Ridley, Pa., in August.

But all eight of the system’s intercept tests, the last of which failed in December 2002, have fallen far short of replicating realistic war scenarios, experts inside and outside the government have said. Of the total, five have succeeded in highly scripted conditions, never at night or in severe weather.

Philip Coyle, the Defense Department’s chief weapons tester under President Clinton, described as wrong-headed any decision to declare the so-called ground-based midcourse system, or GMD, operational after Wednesday’s failure.

“Premature declaration of operational status could mislead the Congress and U.S. taxpayers that they are being protected by the GMD system, when they are not,” he said in an e-mail message.

To develop the system, the Missile Defense Agency has planned 20 or 30 more flight intercept tests, each different from the last, before it will be ready for “realistic operational testing,” Coyle said.

“If these 20 or 30 tests each take two years, like the latest test, it could be 50 years before the GMD system will be ready” for deployment, he said. “And this assumes they all succeed. If some fail, as this latest test did, it could take even longer.”

Failure called ‘incredible’
Wade Boese, research director of the Arms Control Association, a private Washington-based group that favors reduced spending on the project, said: “The more one thinks about the test, the more incredible it is that it failed.

“The Pentagon had two years essentially to prepare ... and publicly described it in a way to guard against any chance that it could be deemed a failure,” he said.

Unlike the botched mission Wednesday, the last full flight test had as its chief goal to shoot down its target. It misfired on Dec. 11, 2002, when the warhead — a “kill vehicle” meant to obliterate a mock warhead by slamming into it — failed to separate from its booster rocket.

Neither the Missile Defense Agency nor the Defense Department responded immediately to questions about the failure’s impact on the deployment timetable.

Boeing Co., the Defense Department’s prime contractor on the project, also declined to comment.

The Defense Department has already suggested that its schedule is slipping.

“I’m not constrained by timing, exactly,” Michael Wynne, the department’s chief weapons buyer, said Dec. 8 in reply to a question about switching the system on. “But we’ll see how [the test] goes, and then we’ll see from there.”