Missile failures dim prospects

Posted: Monday, January 09, 2006

FORT GREELY - Many of the silos are in place, obscured by snow behind heavy barbed wire fences, void of the ballistic missile interceptors that are slow in coming to this windy range.

It's an abrupt departure from the fanfare that accompanied the July 2004 debut of the interceptors designed to shoot down enemy missiles.

As many as 10 missile interceptors were set to be installed at Fort Greely in Alaska's interior in 2005, joining the first six interceptors installed the previous year. But the final count was only two, raising questions about the Bush administration's commitment to an ambitious - and highly criticized - missile defense program plagued by a series of test failures.

Officials with the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, however, say MDA director, Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, decided to temporarily step back on the advice of two independent panels that were brought to scrutinize the test program after the latest failures in December 2004 and last February. The program is very much alive, they said, with much of the action in 2005 staged behind the scenes.

"The review groups recommended that more interceptors be made available for both ground and flight testing, and this is the reason why only two interceptors were deployed at Fort Greely," said MDA spokesman Rick Lehner.

The 10-interceptor schedule was the maximum that could go in during 2005, not a fixed number, said Army Maj. Eric Maxon, an Alaska-based spokesman.

"There's no rigid timeline for those remaining interceptors. There never has been," Maxon said during a recent tour of the 800-acre complex, built on barren terrain at the edge of an old burned spruce forest.

Currently there are eight interceptors at Fort Greely and two at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Officials initially said two additional interceptors would be put in at Vandenberg, but have since decided to keep two existing silos there available for tests expected to begin this spring, according to Lehner. He said at least two of those tests will involve mock targets fired from Alaska's rocket range on Kodiak Island.

Fort Greely, about 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks, remains the primary interceptor site for the national missile defense system, with 40 silos planned here. Silo construction is half-completed. As to when interceptors will fill them, officials aren't saying.

"More will be deployed in 2006 and 2007," Lehner said. "But for operational security reasons the Defense Department will no longer divulge how many interceptors are deployed, only that it is in excess of 10."

The interceptors could now be activated on a limited basis in case of an emergency, Lehner said.

Under the program being developed, interceptors would eventually be linked to other system components, including satellites, ground- and sea-based radars, computers and command centers. As envisioned by the military, the network would detect and track ballistic missiles, propelling interceptors fitted with optical sensors called "kill vehicles" to destroy enemy warheads fired from potential threats such as North Korea.

Congress has authorized $7.8 billion for program in the upcoming year.

In reality, however, the multibillion dollar system has been inconsistent. Interceptor tests have failed five times in 11 tests, fueling criticism that they have not proven themselves even in highly scripted exercises. Military officials say failures have led to better equipment and a successful interceptor test in December 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 flight test readiness than any design flaws in the interceptors themselves. 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.

Nance said the Missile Defense Agency has taken the panels' recommendations for more rigorous testing standards seriously. That means more ground testing of individual components to prepare for future flight tests, which have involved mock targets successfully fired from Kodiak. The panels also recommended taking some interceptors out of the production flow and devoting them to tests.

"I think this system is going to work," Nance said. "I think will be able to help defend America from ballistic missile attacks."

Critics remain skeptical.

The Missile Defense Agency is far behind in its testing program, and at the pace it's going, wouldn't be fully operational for decades - if it's not abandoned first by a future administration, said Philip Coyle, a former chief of testing for the Pentagon and an outspoken critic of the missile defense system being developed.

If highly scripted tests fail, it's hard to see how they could succeed in a surprise attack, said Coyle, who is now an adviser to the Center for Defense Information in Washington. Critics also question the validity of a hugely expensive, highly complex system that would have no effect on low-tech attacks employed by terrorists, such as suicide missions.

"The basic challenges haven't changed. Basically, hitting an enemy missile out in space, at 15,000 miles an hour, is like trying to hit a hole-in-one in golf when the hole is going 15,000 miles an hour," Coyle said. "If an enemy used counter measures and decoys, then it would be like trying to hit a hole-in-one when the green is going 15,000 miles an hour and the green is covered with a bunch of black dots that look just like the hole."

The military is forging ahead, encouraged by the successful return to interceptor testing Dec. 13.

"Every test objective was successfully met," Lehner said.



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