The big family road trip is a year away, so you carefully take apart the station wagon, replace any worn wing nuts and hire a team of Ph.D. auto mechanics to put it back together.
Then, on the big day, you pull out of the driveway, shift gears -- and all four tires blow out.
This is something akin to Lockheed Martin Corp.'s fate on the Army's THAAD anti-missile program, which failed a humiliating fifth straight test last week. Unfortunately for Lockheed Martin, the national media were paying attention to the test, which burned up $12 million in taxpayer money in 5.8 seconds.
What experts say was an understandable mishap from an engineering point of view was a disaster politically. On Thursday the Senate voted to cut almost $324 million from the $842 million the Pentagon wants for the program next year.
The chairman of the House defense appropriations panel said he might reconsider the whole 1999 allocation for THAAD, an acronym for Theater High Altitude Area Defense.
But most experts doubt that the overall $14 billion program will be canceled. THAAD is the military's premier effort to protect troops in the field from hostile missiles such as Iraqi Scuds. The THAAD missile is designed to hit enemy missiles in the upper reaches of the atmosphere.
With India setting off nuclear bombs last week, and with Iran and North Korea said to be refining their missile technology, the pressure to develop THAAD is enormous. But Lockheed Martin's continuing role in the program is unclear. The Pentagon has already taken one look at bringing in another contractor to clean things up, and a leading THAAD advocate in Congress is poised to seek a law requiring just that.
For the world's biggest defense contractor, a forced partnership would be doubly insulting. First, experts point out, programs as ambitious as THAAD always involve long cycles of failure.
And second, even though engineers embrace failure as the best way to learn, THAAD's politically sensitive program officers had done everything short of weather control to try to guarantee success in last week's test.
Program manager John H. Little could not be reached last week as he worked with the Pentagon to figure out what caused the THAAD missile to spin out of control and self-destruct at only 1,000 feet. But in an interview a few weeks before the test, he said he had literally taken the system apart and rebuilt it since a test failure a year ago.
When the program started in the early 1990s, Little said, Congress pushed to compress what should have been a four- to six-year development cycle into about 24 months.
"The result was that we made some decisions early on in the program to take off-the-shelf components tested on other programs at face value," Little said. They didn't work. After a successful test of the missile's engines, THAAD had two more system tests and four target tests leading up to last week's debacle. Every one of those previous tests failed.
Each failure had a different cause. "If there was a pattern to this thing, we could go work on the specifics," Little said. "Because there was no pattern, what we did was go back and just completely relook the whole way we go about developing the hardware, down to the component level."
Working at the Alabama manufacturing plant where the THAAD missile is built, company scientists found a series of relatively minor problems. There was a bug in the system that directs the rocket engine's thrust. There was a problem with the electronic system that opens and closes valves to steer and orient the missile.
The missile was supposed to be ready to fly in December, then its test was rescheduled for February, and finally to May.
"The bottom line is, we worked through all those problems," Little said. "We know a heck of a lot more about [the system] than before."
If he had found any sign of a problem even as the missile stood on its launcher at the test range in White Sands, N.M., Little would have canceled the flight. After a one-day delay because of winds, the THAAD missile and a target rocket were launched around 5: 20 a.m. Tuesday New Mexico time.
The target rocket worked fine. THAAD went into a routine TC maneuver to burn off fuel, lost control and automatically destroyed itself.
After all the work to make sure that the basic hardware was bug-free so that the test could stand or fall only on the new technology, it appeared to be a basic booster rocket failure.
Investigators are expected to report on the cause in about two weeks.
If the problem does prove rooted in old rocket technology and not something particular to THAAD, the program should be safe from budgetary wolves, said Steve Zaloga, a munitions expert with the Teal Group defense consulting firm.
But either way, Lockheed Martin probably can't win. An independent review panel raised serious questions about program management earlier this year. And Rep. Curt Weldon, the Pennsylvania Republican who organized a THAAD display on Capitol Hill last month to rally support for the program, said he is ready to tie Lockheed Martin to a stake.
The system's Raytheon-built radar has worked, Weldon said. "The issue is the missile. And if it's a quality-control issue, then maybe we ought to bring in a second contractor team to look over the shoulder of the first."
He has directed his staff to explore such legislation. Weldon also wants to find a way to make Lockheed Martin absorb some of the program's cost. The Pentagon has spent $3.2 billion on THAAD so far, and the company continues to make money even during test failures because it has a contract that covers cost plus an incentive fee, military officials said last week.
Some experts say the recurring problems demonstrate that no one can make such technology work within a realistic budget. Others say the high political stakes of ballistic missile defense have warped the usual process for developing breakthrough weapons.
"If you look back at ballistic missile programs in the 1950s what you see are a lot of missiles blowing up on the launch pad, almost at an embarrassing rate," said Andrew Krepinevich, director of the nonprofit Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Those rockets went on to power not only the first intercontinental ballistic missiles, but also the space program.
There are legions of other weapons that started disastrously but achieved great success. The original P-51 Mustang "was a stinker, but it went on to become arguably the best fighter plane of World War II," Zaloga said.
The M1 Abrams tank had a horrendous reputation during testing but was outstanding in Desert Storm, he said. The Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, or AMRAAM, had a troublesome development period. But with its ability to seek out a target aircraft from beyond enemy radar range, "the AMRAAM has turned out to be a revolutionary weapon," Zaloga said.
Pentagon officials had tried to pave the way for last week's THAAD test by pointing out that everything could function as planned and the missile could still miss its target. The Army would consider it a success, they said, if it got information from the last four seconds before the THAAD missile either hit its foe or whizzed on by.
Of course, it never got that close. But the failure did prove one point Little made before the test: There isn't enough money in the world to build a perfect missile.
Pub Date: 5/17/98