Missile Defense Fails Test; System Remains Grounded

Wade Boese

A long-range ballistic missile interceptor failed to get off the ground in a December test. So did President George W. Bush’s plans to declare the initial elements of a U.S. anti-missile system operational by the end of last year.

Bush stated Dec. 17, 2002 that the United States would have a limited missile defense system ready for action in 2004. The president’s announcement came only six days after the system failed an experiment, dropping its testing record to five successes in eight attempts to destroy a warhead target under scripted and unrealistic conditions.

The Pentagon responded to the president’s declaration by pouring its energy into fielding elements of the system and did not conduct another test of the system against a missile in flight until Dec. 15, 2004.

Yet, in this most recent test, the system failed again. Seconds before the system’s interceptor was to soar into space toward a mock warhead, it “automatically shut down due to an unknown anomaly,” according to a statement issued by the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The interceptor never left its silo. The target, which was launched from Kodiak Island, Alaska, splashed into the Pacific Ocean.

In an interview with Arms Control Today, MDA spokesman Rick Lehner said investigators had yet to pinpoint a reason for the malfunction.

The most recent test was supposed to be the first flight test of the missile interceptor model that the Pentagon has already deployed—currently six in Alaska and one in California—to serve as the centerpiece of Bush’s planned defense. A slower interceptor comprised of substitute and prototype components was employed in the system’s earlier intercept tests.

Although the latest experiment was not characterized as an official intercept attempt, MDA held out the possibility that the new interceptor might strike its target. The interceptor employs a kinetic warhead that zeros in on the target using onboard infrared sensors and then destroys it through a high-speed collision.

Administration officials downplayed the test failure. Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Stephen Rademaker told a Washington audience two days afterward that missile defense “is proving itself, notwithstanding the predictable setbacks from time to time.” MDA Director Lieutenant General Henry Obering deemed the aborted launch a “minor glitch.”

Lehner said the test does not yet dispel any confidence in the interceptors already emplaced in silos because the mishap might have resulted from a problem in equipment unique to the test interceptor.

“One of the main purposes of testing is to learn about any problems that could affect operational assets and fix them,” said Michael Kucharek, a spokesperson for Northern Command, which is charged with defending North America. In a statement to Arms Control Today, Kucharek added, “if it is found that the anomaly could affect deployed interceptors, they will be fixed.”

Whether the failure had any impact on the lack of an announcement putting the deployed interceptors and the entire system on alert as previously envisioned by the president remains unclear. Prior to the last test, Pentagon officials said the status of the system did not hinge on the outcome of any specific experiment.

Signs that the president’s end-of-year goal would remain unfulfilled were already evident before the interceptor failed to fire. Late last year, MDA changed language in its press releases from “later this year” to “in the near future” referring to when the system would be operational.

Moreover, various military commands that are expected to have a hand in operating the system avoided making predictions on when they would complete a system “shakedown”—a process to assess the system’s capabilities and delineate rules of engagement and command and control procedures. (See ACT, December 2004.) This “shakedown” is still underway, and its completion is seen as a prerequisite for the system being declared operational.

Nonetheless, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld maintained public optimism about the system. Describing the system as being “well along,” he said Dec. 22, “at some point soon it will have a modest capability.”

Strategic Command spokesman Major William Ashworth told Arms Control Today Dec. 6 that regardless of the system’s official status it provides some protection. “Inherent in this development/testing effort is a limited defensive capability against a limited long-range missile attack against any of our 50 states,” he stated. Strategic Command is responsible for coordinating and integrating all missile defense operations.

The next test is set for March or April, but that date could be affected by the outcome of investigations into the last test flop or could slip for other reasons. Originally scheduled for early 2004, the December experiment was postponed several times for various reasons, including most recently three separate instances of bad weather and once for a test-range safety equipment problem.

The impact of the December test on longer-term missile defense plans could be negligible. The Boeing Corp. already has a contract to emplace 10 more interceptors in Alaska in 2005, and two days prior to the last test, MDA awarded the company a $928 million contract to put another 10 interceptors there starting in 2006.