Another Missle Defense System Failure

A test of the national ballistic missile defense system failed Monday when an interceptor missile didn’t get out of its silo, the second failure in as many months.

The failed test came less than a week after North Korea declared it had nuclear weapons, giving new attention to a possible threat from that nation.

An initial test evaluation blamed equipment at a Pacific island site rather than the interceptor itself. If that assessment bears out, it would come as a relief to defense officials because it would mean no new problems had been discovered with the missile.

Still, the failure drew new fire from critics who say the technology is too expensive and unproven.

It was unclear how the latest failure would affect the experimental interceptor bases in Alaska and California, which are located to defend against missiles launched from North Korea across the Pacific Ocean.

In Monday’s test, the interceptor missile launched from Kwajalein Island in the Pacific was to target a mock ICBM fired from Kodiak Island, Alaska. The target missile launched at 1:22 a.m. EST without any problems, but the interceptor did not launch, the Missile Defense Agency said in a statement.

The previous test, on Dec. 15, failed under similar circumstances. The target missile launched, but the interceptor did not. Military officials later blamed that failure on fault-tolerance software that was oversensitive to small errors in the flow of data between the missile and a flight computer, and shut down the launch.

The Dec. 15 test was the first in two years. Before that, the program had gone five-for-eight in attempts to intercept a target. Missile defense officials say each test costs $85 million.

The two interceptor bases, at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., are still classified as experimental but officials say they could fire interceptors in an emergency. Six interceptors are at the Alaska site, with two more in California as backups. Up to 10 more will go into silos in Alaska this year, officials say.

The Bush administration had hoped to declare those bases operational by the end of 2004, but the Pentagon has not done so. But officials say they fire once certain mechanical blocks are removed from the interceptors themselves.

“In the event of an attack, the system could launch. Just nobody knows what the result would be,” said Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

The most common scenario Pentagon planners envision for such an attack would be one or more nuclear missiles launched from North Korea, targeting Hawaii, Alaska or West Coast cities.

“North Korea says it has a nuclear weapon, but it doesn’t say it has a means of delivery,” Thompson said. “We don’t really know the North Koreans have a bomb that can be fitted on any missile they currently operate.”

Critics say it is irresponsible to claim the system can protect the United States.

“Given the system’s track record, an ’emergency alert’ capability provides no comfort to anyone,” Stephen Young, senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement after Monday’s test. “Congress should not spend another dime of the public’s money until it can show this system would have some capability against a real attack.”

Missile defense programs face cuts in President Bush’s proposed budget, but officials say they will not affect the interceptor bases. Instead, they would reduce spending on some long-range programs, delaying plans for a second-generation interceptor missile and a third interceptor base in Europe.

Bush proposes to spend $8.8 billion on ballistic missile defense programs in his 2006 plan, down from $9.9 billion authorized for 2005. The administration is trying to trim $5 billion from missile defense spending over the next six years, officials said.

Other pieces of ballistic missile defense architecture remain in development. The airborne laser program, which proposes to mount a laser cannon on a Boeing 747 that shoot down missiles as they launch, will have a live-fire test in 2008, officials said.

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© 2005 The Associated Press