Crucial NMD Test Misses; Booster Failure Responsible

July/August 2000

By Wade Boese

In the much-anticipated July 8 test of the Clinton administration's proposed limited national missile defense (NMD), the system's most high-profile element, the exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV), never separated from its booster, preventing the EKV from attempting to seek out and collide with an incoming target warhead high above the Pacific Ocean. Asserting that they still had confidence in the system's design, disappointed Pentagon officials admitted, "We need more flight tests." The abbreviated test gives the Pentagon little new information to evaluate for its recommendation to President Bill Clinton for his decision on whether to deploy the system and may increase pressure on Clinton to defer a deployment decision.

The test, which had been postponed from April 27 and then June 26, marked only the third of 19 planned intercept attempts, but it was the final one before the Pentagon's deployment readiness review, which will inform Defense Secretary William Cohen's recommendation to the president on NMD deployment. Cohen, in a July 7 interview on National Public Radio, estimated there would be "at least three or even four weeks" before he makes his recommendation. In its two previous intercept tries, the NMD system has had one miss and one hit, though critics, including a Pentagon reviewer, have charged that a large decoy balloon deployed near the target aided the successful intercept. (See ACT, January/February 2000.)

Delayed by two hours, the July 8 test started after midnight with the launch of a modified Minuteman ICBM from California toward the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. NMD prototype and surrogate radar systems acquired and tracked the target successfully and relayed its flight information to the battle management/command, control, and communications (BM/C3) system, which formulated an intercept plan.

Located at the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, the interceptor, consisting of the EKV and its booster, received the BM/C3 intercept plan and took off approximately 20 minutes after the target's launch. The 120-pound EKV, a small propulsion system guided by computers and infrared seekers, was to collide with the target some 230 kilometers above the Pacific Ocean at a closing speed of roughly 25,000 kilometers per hour. But instead of hitting its target, the interceptor splashed into the ocean, never having come near the target.

Almost immediately after the test failure, Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), which oversees U.S. missile defense programs, told reporters that the EKV never received the signal to separate from the booster carrying it into space. The booster, which is only a surrogate for the actual model still under development, is tasked with signaling the EKV when to separate and start its mission. Not receiving this signal, the EKV never separated. Asked where such a failure had ranked on his list of concerns heading into the test, Kadish replied, "It wasn't even on my list."

Touted as the first integrated test of the system (except for the booster), the test aimed to incorporate, for the first time, the in-flight interceptor communications system (IFICS), which sends target updates to the EKV before and after its separation from the booster. Because no separation occurred, however, a full assessment of the communications system's operation will not be possible.

A July 8 Pentagon press release noted that all other NMD elements, including the BM/C3 and X-band radar, had worked as expected and that the EKV and IFICS had performed as designed up to the failure point. The Pentagon stated that the prototype X-band radar, which is responsible for helping the EKV distinguish objects in space, discriminated between the target warhead and the debris of a deployed decoy balloon that did not properly inflate. However, participating in the July 8 briefing with Kadish, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Jacques Gansler said, "We didn't get the data we had hoped to have."

According to Gansler, Pentagon officials had wanted to obtain "much more information on the interceptor portion" of the test. Given that the EKV also missed its target in the January 18 test, Gansler observed that "the question is whether we have enough information on the terminal phase" to assess whether to start building the system. In making that determination, Kadish said the Pentagon "will do the best assessment we can given where we are today."

Though Kadish said that the recent test shows "we have more engineering work to do," both he and Gansler defended the system. Gansler described the system's design as "pretty solid," while Kadish argued that the first intercept success of October 2, 1999, gave "us all a lot of confidence" in the interceptor.

The next NMD test will be in October or November, but Kadish questioned whether data could be gathered from that test in time to impact the "types of decision-making we want in the fall time frame." Pentagon plans call for the president to officially select a site this fall for the system's planned 100-interceptor missiles and to authorize construction contracts for an advanced radar to be built on Shemya Island in the Aleutians. According to Pentagon plans, construction needs to begin next summer if the system is to be operational by the 2005 target date.

National Security Council spokesman David Stockwell said this latest test failure would not "impact the timeline" of the president's decision. According to Stockwell, the president expects to receive a full report regarding the latest test and the system's technology in the next few weeks, after which he will consult with his national security team and make his decision based on four oft-stated criteria. Those criteria are the system's technological readiness, the maturity of the threat, financial cost, and the impact on U.S. national security, including arms control.

Appearing on CBS a day after the test, national security adviser Samuel Berger said, "Obviously, [the recent test failure] does go to the question of technical feasibility or how far along the system is," but he cautioned that he did not want to "prejudge the [president's] decision." In an interview just days prior to the test, another White House official noted that any decision the president makes on missile defense is "not irreversible" and could be "modified by future administrations."