Reuters / New York Times – 2004-12-18 21:31:34
WASHINGTON (December 15, 2004) — The first test in nearly two years of a multibillion-dollar US anti-missile shield failed on Wednesday when the interceptor missile shut down as it prepared to launch in the central Pacific, the Pentagon said.
About 16 minutes earlier, a target missile carrying a mock warhead had been successfully fired from Kodiak Island, Alaska, according to a statement from the Missile Defense Agency.
The aborted $85 million test appeared likely to set back plans for activation of a rudimentary bulwark against long-range ballistic missiles that could be fired by countries like North Korea.
In 2002, President Bush pledged to have initial elements of the program up and running by the end of this year while testing and development continued.
An “anomaly” of unknown origin caused the interceptor to shut down automatically in its silo at the Kwajalein Test Range in the Marshall Islands, said Richard Lehner, a spokesman for the Pentagon’s missile agency.
The test followed a week of delays caused by weather and technical glitches, including malfunction of an internal battery aboard the target missile on Tuesday, he said. “This is a serious setback for a program that had not attempted a flight intercept test for two years,” Philip Coyle, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester under late President Ronald Reagan, said in an e-mail exchange. The system is a scaled-down version of a ballistic missile shield first outlined in March 1983 by Reagan and derided by critics as “Star Wars.”
‘Not Constrained by Timing’
Pentagon officials had hoped the test would set the stage for any decision by Bush to put the system on alert in coming weeks. Initially, the system is designed to counter North Korean missiles that could be fired at the United States and tipped with nuclear, chemical or germ weapons.
“I’m not constrained by timing, exactly,” Michael Wynne, the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer, said on Dec. 8 in reply to a question about switching the system on. “But we’ll see how (the test) goes and then we’ll see from there.”
Because the mission was supposed to have exercised new hardware, software and engagement scenarios, it was officially described as a “flyby” rather than an attempted intercept. This meant gathering data was the primary goal, not downing the target, according to the Missile Defense Agency.
When a shootdown has been the chief test objective, the system so far has succeeded five of eight times in highly scripted conditions.
The last test, in December 2002, misfired when the warhead — a 120-pound “kill vehicle” of sensors, chips and thrusters designed to pulverize its target on collision — failed to separate from its booster rocket.
Boeing Co., as prime contractor, put together the ground-based shield, which is to be folded into a system involving airborne, sea- and space-based elements. All told, the Pentagon is spending $10 billion a year on the project.
Key subcontractors are Northrop Grumman Corp., for battle management; Raytheon Co., for the kill vehicle; and Lockheed Martin Corp. and Orbital Sciences Corp., which build the booster rockets.
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