Important Test for Missile-Defense System Ends in Failure

By DAVID STOUT

New York Times

December 16, 2004

WASHINGTON, Dec. 15 - An important test of the United States' emerging missile-defense system ended in an $85 million failure early today as an interceptor rocket failed to launch as scheduled from the Marshall Islands, the Pentagon said.

A target rocket carrying a mock warhead was successfully launched from Kodiak, Alaska. But the interceptor, which was to have gone aloft 16 minutes later and picked off the target 100 miles over the earth, automatically shut down instead because of "an unknown anomaly," the Defense Department's Missile Defense Agency said.

Despite the disappointment, today's event was not a total failure, said Richard A. Lehner, an agency spokesman. He said "quite a bit" had been learned from the aborted test, which he called "a very good training exercise." He noted that the rocket that failed to rise can be used later. The target rocket landed in the ocean some 3,000 miles from Kodiak, he said.

Mr. Lehner said he could not predict when the cause of the shutdown might be determined. No future tests have been scheduled.

The missile agency had attempted a test several times this month, but weather and other factors caused postponements. Today's test was to have been the most advanced so far, Mr. Lehner said. The interceptor was equipped with the same type of booster rocket that the defense system is to use when it is fully operational.

The test was also to have been the first for the multibillion-dollar program since Dec. 12, 2002. That test was also a failure; the interceptor did not separate from its booster rocket, missed its target by hundreds of miles and burned up in the atmosphere.

Before today's test, the Pentagon agency had conducted eight tests with interceptor vehicles, scoring hits in five. Some critics of the Missile Defense Agency, which has spent more than $80 billion since 1985, say the entire program is unrealistic, and that the tests have been scripted.

On the contrary, the agency says. It says the tests are designed to answer specific questions and "to build confidence in the system that we are working to design." Although individual tests are expensive, Mr. Lehner said fewer are necessary than with missiles of years past because of advanced modeling and simulation techniques.

The missile system under development is a scaled-down version of the "Star Wars" defense envisioned by President Ronald Reagan two decades ago against a rain of missiles from the Soviet Union. But the end of the cold war made President Reagan's original vision outdated. The system now contemplated would guard the United States against attack from smaller "rogue nations."

The administration of President Bill Clinton explored a much less advanced system. Then George Bush pledged during the 2000 campaign to push for a scaled-down version of the Reagan plan.

It was not immediately clear how long today's failure might delay deployment of the system. In December 2002, President Bush said he hoped the system would be operational by the end of 2004.