Pentagon plans for a June deployment readiness review of the proposed U.S. national missile defense (NMD) system remain unchanged after the system failed to intercept a target warhead in a January 18 test. The miss, attributed to malfunctioning infrared sensors on the kill vehicle, came days after the Pentagon admitted to an "anomaly" in its successful October 2 intercept test, casting doubt on the system's operation. President Clinton will decide whether to commit to a missile defense deployment following one additional test later this spring and the June Pentagon review.
In addition to the technological readiness of the proposed system, Clinton has repeatedly said the status of the threat, cost factors and the NMD system's impact on arms control measures, including the ABM Treaty, will factor into his decision. Administration officials recently reassured NATO allies, many of whom seriously question U.S. NMD plans, that their views will also be taken into account.
The Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), which oversees U.S. missile defense plans, has set a minimum goal of two successful intercepts before it feels it can confidently recommend that the system can be deployed. Yet one intercept-a criterion met by the October 2 test-is viewed by program officials as enough to award the initial construction contract, which President Clinton could do this summer.
Missing the Target
In the January 18 intercept test-the first in which the interceptor was not pre-programmed with the target's likely trajectory-the NMD system appeared to function properly until the final six seconds before missing a target launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Using prototype radar systems and Global Positioning System data from the target ICBM warhead, the missile defense tracked the target and relayed the information to the Battle Management/Command, Control and Communication (BM/C3) system, the "brains" of the missile defense. The BM/C3, based in Colorado, processed the information, planned the intercept and sent the intercept plan to the interceptor, which was launched from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
After less than three minutes of flight, the exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) separated from the surrogate interceptor booster about 2,250 kilometers away from the target. Following separation, the EKV conducted two "star shots," orienting itself by locating stars, and started its target search. The EKV, designed to destroy the target by colliding with it at closing speeds of more than 24,000 kilometers per hour, had to rely only on two infrared sensors to locate and hit the target in the final seconds, which it failed to do. In future tests, the EKV will also be able to receive further data from the BM/C3 after separating from the booster.
This test, according to a senior military official in a January 19 press conference, marked the first time that data from the BM/C3 was used to conduct an actual intercept, and it worked "within predictions." In assessing the entire test, the same official said, "A miss doesn't necessarily mean a failure; a hit doesn't necessarily mean success." Ken Bacon, spokesman for the Defense Department, described the test as exhibiting a "minimal failure at the end," but also noted that "this is a system that has to work." The Pentagon has stated that a complete evaluation could take several weeks.
Taking a Second Look
Four days before the latest test, Pentagon officials acknowledged the first intercept test on October 2, widely touted as a success, did not work exactly as planned or as initially reported. In that test, Pentagon officials pre-programmed the interceptor to place the EKV in the "target basket" area, the general vicinity of the incoming dummy warhead. However, the EKV did not see the warhead and instead aimed at the single decoy, a balloon deployed with the target. Upon doing so, the EKV's field of vision changed, allowing it to see the warhead, which it then targeted and hit. Program engineers had predicted the EKV would see, but not target, the decoy first because of the balloon's larger size and different signature.
Questioned during a January 14 press conference as to whether the EKV would have found the target without the decoy, a senior military official said, "Don't know, and we probably won't know. But it did what it was supposed to do." When pressed why this information was not volunteered earlier, the Pentagon official replied, "Didn't think it was that important to be honest with you."
Pentagon officials say a third intercept test, the fifth flight test, is still set for late April or early May. In the planned test, the EKV will be capable of receiving updated information from the BM/C3 after separation from the intercept booster, in addition to data gathered from its infrared sensors. This will be the last test before the Pentagon conducts the deployment readiness review in June.
A 12-member independent review panel, headed by retired Air Force General Larry Welch, recommended in November that the review be an assessment of the system's feasibility, rather than readiness to deploy, and warned against letting performance requirements be sacrificed to the calendar in such a high-risk program.
Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) released a statement the day after the failed test, calling the current NMD plan "too tightly scheduled" and suggesting a possible delay of the June review. A few NMD proponents, such as Senators Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and Gordon Smith (R-OR), have also requested deferring the NMD deployment decision to the next administration. Bacon dismissed questions about whether the review will be delayed, calling such thinking "premature."
Bacon also confirmed in January that the administration would request an additional $2.2 billion in funding for NMD, raising the planned deployment costs to a total of $12.7 billion. Most of the additional funds would cover deployment of 100 interceptors rather than the 20 originally envisioned.
The administration is continuing talks with Russia to amend the ABM Treaty, which bars nationwide defenses or the infrastructure for such defenses. Moscow, which strongly opposes U.S. NMD plans, has repeatedly rejected amending the treaty. Though the administration continues to reassure Russia that the limited defense will be directed at so-called "rogue" states, Russia is wary that the system could be expanded to undercut its deterrent.
North Korea, which U.S. officials commonly cite as the state posing the greatest emerging missile threat to the United States, reacted negatively to the NMD test, warning that Pyongyang would take into "serious consideration" its September 1999 suspension of long-range missile tests.