Missile interceptor not only missed its target, it never even tried

Saturday, July 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON - The missile interceptor the Pentagon is developing as the key component of a national missile defense not only missed its intended target over the Pacific Ocean early Saturday, it didn't even try to hit it.

In a new twist for the Pentagon's oft-criticized missile defense program, the "kill vehicle" that was supposed to guide itself into the path of a dummy warhead in space - destroying it by the force of impact - never separated from the booster. So it never activated its sensors to hunt for the approaching target.

The interceptor passed harmlessly by the target, and few of the critical technologies of missile defense were put to the test.

The $100 million test was the third to attempt an intercept, and the second to fail. The first failure, in January, was blamed on moisture inside the "kill vehicle" that prevented it from using heat-seeking devices to "see" its target.

"We did not intercept the warhead that we expected to have tonight. We're disappointed with that," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, director of the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization.

Kadish said he had never had a concern about the booster properly releasing the "kill vehicle."

"It wasn't even on my list" of potential problems, he said, adding that it had been used successfully on earlier tests. He said the kill vehicle did not separate from the booster because it did not receive the necessary electronic signal. It may take days for officials to understand why the signal was not received, he said.

At an early morning news conference in the Pentagon, Kadish was asked what he learned from the failure.

"What it tells me is we have more engineering work to do," he replied.

Anthony Cordesman, a defense strategist at the private Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview after Saturday's test that, logically, the failure should mean a delay in the Pentagon's fast-track timetable for building a national missile defense. The target date is December 2005, but even the Pentagon's own advisers have acknowledged that this may be overly ambitious.

President Clinton is expected to decide by this fall whether to approve sticking to that timetable. The president will base his decision in part on a recommendation from Defense Secretary William Cohen, who told National Public Radio on Friday that he expected to make his recommendation in three or four weeks.

It remained unclear Saturday whether the Pentagon still believed the missile defense project was ready to move toward deployment.

"Logically, you do regroup after something like this and you don't go forward with the existing schedule," Cordesman said, although he added that pressure from Congress might compel the Pentagon to go ahead.

The next attempted intercept is scheduled for this fall, but that schedule might now be put back. More than a dozen additional flight tests are scheduled before 2005.

If Saturday's test had succeeded, it could have moved the United States a step closer to building a national missile defense shield that Congress says is urgently needed, but that critics decry as unworkable.

After technicians fixed a last-minute glitch that delayed the start of the test by about two hours, a modified Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile with a dummy warhead atop its second-stage rocket blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., at 12:19 a.m. EDT.

The rocket headed toward the central Pacific.

Twenty-one minutes later, at 12:40 a.m. EDT, an interceptor missile carrying the "kill vehicle" launched from Kwajalein Atoll.

The "kill vehicle" was supposed to separate from the second-stage rocket booster exactly 2 minutes and 37 seconds into flight, then maneuver itself into the path of the mock warhead. Television monitors showed no flash indicating a collision.

Nearly a half-hour passed before officials who monitored the flight test from a basement office in the Pentagon reported that the interceptor missile had missed its target.

The "kill vehicle" was programmed to use target data gathered from ground-based radars to maneuver itself into the path of the dummy warhead 140 miles above the Earth. The goal was a 16,000-mile-an-hour collision that would disintegrate the warhead by sheer force of impact.