The Bush administration's national missile-defense program suffered a major setback yesterday when a malfunction forced a shutdown of a new missile before its first test flight.
WASHINGTON The Bush administration’s ambitious national missile-defense program suffered a major setback yesterday when a malfunction forced a shutdown of the first test flight of a new high-speed interceptor missile just before launch.
The test failure raised serious questions about the reliability of the seven multimillion-dollar interceptor missiles already loaded into underground silos in California and Alaska.
The failure also made it unlikely that President Bush will be able to make good on a 2002 pledge to have the first components of a national missile-defense system to protect the United States operational by the end of this year.
The system is intended to protect the country from limited missile attacks by North Korea or other adversaries.
The Bush administration has sunk more than $15 billion into the national missile-defense program over the past four years. Critics say such a system isn’t technologically feasible and that the pace of the effort is being driven by politics, rather than defense needs.
Opponents also argue that a foe is more likely to smuggle a nuclear, biological or chemical warhead into the country, rather than risk devastating retaliation by firing missiles whose launch points can be immediately detected by U.S. early-warning satellites.
In a brief announcement yesterday, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency said yesterday’s test flight was aborted automatically by an “unknown anomaly” as the new interceptor missile was about to be fired from Kwajalein, an atoll in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean.
The interceptor missile was carrying a “kill vehicle,” which it was to have released on a collision course with a target warhead lofted into outer space about 16 minutes earlier from Kodiak Island, Alaska. The test cost $85 million.
“Program officials will review prelaunch data to determine the cause for the shutdown,” the Missile Defense Agency announcement said.
MDA officials earlier said the test’s primary objective was not to hit the target warhead but to test the new missile, collect data and put new software and hardware through their paces.
It was the first major test conducted by the national missile-defense program in nearly two years and followed weeks of delays as engineers and military officials conducted rigorous checks in an effort to find glitches.
Of eight previous tests, five have resulted in the kill vehicle ramming and destroying the target warhead.
Previous tests were arranged carefully and used substitute interceptor missiles that were far slower than the kind that was to have been tested yesterday for use in the system.
Even though no flight tests had been conducted previously, six models of the untested new interceptor missile are loaded in underground silos at Fort Greely, Alaska, and one of two planned for Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., has been installed there.
Ten more production models, built under a $300 million contract by Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Va., are to be deployed at Fort Greely next year as part of the initial deployment phase of the program.
Pentagon officials had hoped a success yesterday would have allowed Bush to declare the Fort Greely and Vandenberg interceptors operational.
Chris Taylor, a spokesman for the MDA, said the agency wouldn’t speculate on whether the failure meant that Bush would be unable to meet his year-end deadline for placing them on alert.
Several experts, however, said that the failure to launch the test missile showed the initial components shouldn’t be declared operational.
“The major purpose of this test was to show that the so-called production representative booster with a kill vehicle worked, and it didn’t,” said Philip Coyle, the chief Pentagon weapons tester from 1994 until 2001.
Depending on the malfunction, he said, engineers might have to modify all interceptors loaded in silos, as well as those in production.