Friday, January 20, 2006

Test Failures Slow U.S. Missile Defense

Behind the heavy barbed wire at this snowy range are silos containing eight interceptors designed to shoot down incoming enemy missiles. There were supposed to be as many as 16 in place by now.

But after an embarrassing series of test failures in the ambitious, expensive and highly criticized program to build a national missile-defense shield, the U.S. military is slowing the deployment of interceptors while it conducts more testing.

Fewer interceptors than the military had hoped for have been installed at Fort Greely, an 800-acre complex at the edge of an old burned spruce forest, and at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Vandenberg has just two interceptors instead of four.

The government has spent about $100 billion on missile defense since 1983, including $7.8 billion authorized for the current fiscal year. Interceptors, however, have failed five times in 11 tests, even though some critics of the program say the tests have been practically rigged to succeed.

Officials with the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency said its director, Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, decided to step back on the advice of two independent panels, which scrutinized the program after test failures in 2004 and 2005 in which the interceptors did not even make it out of their silos.

"The review groups recommended that more interceptors be made available for both ground and flight testing," said MDA spokesman Rick Lehner.

Under the program, interceptors would eventually be linked to other components, including satellites, ground- and sea-based radar, computers and command centers. The network would detect and track enemy warheads and launch interceptor rockets to destroy them.

Interceptors now in place can be activated on a limited basis in case of an emergency, Lehner said.

Military officials say the test failures have led to better equipment and a successful interceptor test Dec. 13 at Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific.

Retired Army Gen. Bill Nance, a member of one of the review panels, said test failures were due more to hardware problems and the like than any fundamental design flaws.

For example, officials said a kink in software timing kept the interceptor from launching in the December 2004 test, and an arm holding up the interceptor did not fully retract in the February test, automatically aborting the exercise.

"I think this system is going to work," Nance said.

Critics remain skeptical.

Philip Coyle, a former chief of testing for the Pentagon and a critic of the missile defense system, said that if highly scripted tests fail, it is hard to see how they could succeed in a surprise attack.

"The basic challenges haven't changed. Basically, hitting an enemy missile out in space, at 15,000 mph, is like trying to hit a hole-in-one in golf when the hole is going 15,000 mph," he said. He added that enemy countermeasures and decoys make the job even tougher.

Forty silos are planned for Fort Greely, about 100 miles from Fairbanks. Silo construction is half-completed. Officials will not say when interceptors will fill them.

"More will be deployed in 2006 and 2007," Lehner said, adding that he could not be more specific for security reasons.

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