Index

Chicago Tribune January 19, 2000

U.S. TEST OF MISSILE DEFENSE FAILS

INTERCEPTOR FROM PROTOTYPE SYSTEM MISSES TARGET OVER PACIFIC, PENTAGON SAYS


Washington Bureau
January 19, 2000

WASHINGTON -- A live test of a prototype national missile defense system ended in failure Tuesday night as a missile interceptor missed its dummy warhead target high over the Pacific Ocean.

The failure represents a setback for a multibillion-dollar weapons system that President Clinton was poised to approve as early as July.

The tests conducted by the Pentagon involved launching a Minuteman II missile with a dummy warhead and a balloon decoy into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., at 8:19 CST. Twenty minutes later, some 4,300 miles away, on Meck islet in the Kwajalein atoll in the southwestern Pacific, an "exo-atmospheric kill vehicle" was launched in a two-stage rocket.

Built by Raytheon Co., the kill vehicle, nicknamed a "smart rock," weighed 120 pounds and carried optical sensors, fuel tanks and thrusters. It was designed to discern between the balloon decoy--which, in the vacuum of space, zipped along at the same speed as a warhead--and the dummy warhead.

"Government and industry officials will conduct an extensive review . . . to determine the reason or reasons" for the failure, said spokesman Marc Raimondi of the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. The review would take several weeks, he said.

In the first live-fire test in October, the kill vehicle closed on its target and, by the force of a collision at a combined speed of 15,000 m.p.h., reduced it to dust.

Last week, a senior defense official briefing reporters on the missile defense program conceded that in the October test, the kill vehicle initially locked onto the balloon decoy and couldn't find the intended target. Only because the two were close together did the kill vehicle steer toward and hit the dummy warhead.

Tuesday's test plan had the same basic profile with an added degree of difficulty. In October, the kill vehicle's computer knew ahead of time where to fly to come within range of the missile. This time, the Pentagon was trying to see whether its network of radars and communication links could guide the smart rock to its target.

"It's hard to hit a bullet with a bullet at closing speeds of 15,000 m.p.h., and a lot of elements have to come into play for it to work," said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon before the test.

The financial and security risks of building such a missile defense--to say nothing of the technical challenges underscored by Tuesday night's failure--are huge. The program would cost at least $13 billion. Russia could make good on a threat to abandon its arms control commitments. China could accelerate its missile-building effort.

Tuesday's test was particularly important because the Clinton administration is requiring two hits, one involving a fully integrated system, before he gives the system a go-ahead.

If another test scheduled for April or May ends in a success, Clinton could be ready as early as July to declare that the national missile defense system is ready for development and deployment by 2005. The White House already is adding $2.2 billion to the budget for national missile defense, bringing the sum the Pentagon plans to spend over the next five years to nearly $13 billion by the time the system is ready for action. The General Accounting Office estimates the first 100 interceptors could cost as much as $28 billion.

There are political risks to a decision against deployment. All the leading Republican presidential candidates want to build and deploy a system that could protect all 50 states against a limited missile attack. The political pressure is on President Clinton to protect Vice President Al Gore's political flank by approving development of the defense system, a smaller-scale heir to President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as Star Wars.

"This has got everything to do with defending Al Gore against the Republicans and not much to do with defending the United States against missiles," said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, a watchdog group that follows national security issues. "A simple political commitment by this president to deploy a national missile defense simply inoculates Al Gore in the fall campaign."

The missile defense system is not designed to protect the U.S. against a massive Russian attack involving thousands of incoming warheads. The point is to ward off a limited strike by a "rogue" state such as North Korea or Iran.

Even the most modest missile defense system would require the U.S. to negotiate with Russia for changes in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The accord places strict limits on the scope of missile defenses the two superpowers could deploy, based on the idea that missile defenses could lead the country that has them to launch a nuclear first-strike without fear of major retaliation.

Dimitri Yakushin, a senior aid to acting Russian President Vladimir Putin, was in Washington meeting Tuesday with U.S. officials on a variety of issues, including the ABM Treaty.

"We want to stick to the ABM Treaty. Our position has not changed," Yakushin said. "Any kind of move can destabilize the situation."

Daniel Goure of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the system envisioned by the administration poses no threat to Russia because it could not defend against an attack of the scale Russia could mount.


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