WASHINGTON - The "kill vehicle" never even got a chance to perform its deadly mission.
Yesterday's test of a national missile defense system was a "humiliating" and "astonishing" failure, said critics of the proposal. But Pentagon officials and congressional supporters were not willing to declare defeat, clinging to hope that construction of a 50-state shield against ballistic weapons could still win approval this year.
The 4 1/2 -foot-long kill vehicle failed to separate from its booster rocket and quietly spun off into space instead of slamming into a mock enemy warhead some 140 miles above the Pacific Ocean. It was the second failure of three intercept attempts that began last fall.
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen will advise President Clinton in the coming weeks whether the planned system of 100 interceptor missiles in Alaska - designed to shoot down up to two-dozen missiles fired from a rogue state such as North Korea - is technically feasible. Clinton would then decide whether to begin constructing the $60 billion system, which would be partially in place by 2005.
"The president awaits the secretary's analysis and recommendation and will make a decision on deployment later this year," P. J. Crowley, a spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House, said yesterday. Yesterday's failed test "is something we have to take into account as we look at the technical feasibility of this program," he said.
A glum Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, director of the Pentagon's ballistic missile defense effort, told reporters during an early-morning news conference that officials had no details on the mishap and were "intensely investigating" what happened. In another misstep, the decoy balloon that accompanied the mock warhead failed to inflate, he said. He added that a more detailed explanation of what went wrong during the test was expected in the coming days.
"What it tells me is we have more engineering work to do," Kadish said. "We've said all along that this is a very difficult, challenging job."
Both Kadish and Jacques S. Gansler, the Pentagon's undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, told reporters that important information was gained even from failures and that officials believed that a system to shoot down enemy missiles in space is workable. "We've tested the major elements of this system sufficiently to say that the design is probably one that's pretty solid," Gansler said.
The next test of the system is due in October or November, the two officials said, although that launch may be put off, depending on the outcome of the evaluation.
Last fall the interceptor missile successfully destroyed a mock warhead, but in January a problem with the kill vehicle's coolant system caused it to malfunction and miss the target by more than 200 feet.
What was curious about last night's $100 million test was that the newly designed and complex system of computers, radars and "battle management" communications systems worked well while the well-tested technology of the booster rocket failed to complete its mission. "It wasn't even on my list" of concerns, Kadish acknowledged. "I was more disappointed than shocked."
'A humiliating failure'
Critics of a national missile defense system dismissed the positive slant by Pentagon officials and said the failure of such a simple system shows that Clinton should not approve construction of the Alaskan interceptor missiles.
"I think they're in denial. It's a humiliating failure," said Joseph Cirincione, director of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They couldn't get the car out of the garage."
Theodore A. Postol, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and a former Pentagon adviser on missile defense who doubts that the proposed system can work, said he was surprised that there was such an "elementary" system failure. Booster rockets and decoy balloons have been used for some 40 years, said Postol. "At every step it was astonishing," he said. "I think it's quite remarkable they could claim some success. ... There's no way they can make a decision to move ahead."
But supporters of missile defense on Capitol Hill played down yesterday's test failure and said the Pentagon could still give the program a thumbs-up. "This is not a technology show stopper," said Rep. Curt Weldon, a Republican from Pennsylvania. "We have to learn from the test and correct it. The other parts of the system operated as they were supposed to."
Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, said that because the booster rocket is not new technology, fixing the problem won't slow the program. He also noted that critics have said that enemy missiles could be accompanied by decoys that could easily confuse U.S. missile interceptors. Pointing to the failure of the decoy balloon to inflate in yesterday's intercept, Kyl said, "That's not so easy."
Plans to build a national missile defense system have strong implications for foreign affairs and presidential politics.
Russian leaders argue that it would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which allows only limited defensive systems but not a national one. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has refused to support amending the treaty to allow the Alaska-based interceptors, even though they could do little to defend against an attack by Russia's thousands of nuclear missiles.
'An empty waste of money'
Yesterday Russian generals welcomed the failure of the test, with Gen. Vladimir Yakovlev, commander of Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces, calling the missile shield technically unworkable and "an empty waste of money," according to Itar-Tass news agency.
Chinese leaders argue that the United States' proposed defensive missile shield could negate its estimated 20 ICBMs capable of reaching the United States. Defense Secretary Cohen is scheduled to travel to China this week to try to convince Chinese leaders that the system is designed to work only against smaller, rogue states.
Since President Ronald Reagan raised the possibility of a space-based defense against ballistic missiles 17 years ago, Republicans and Democrats have furiously debated whether such a system was possible or necessary. For many Republicans it has become something of a touchstone for their party.
During the past several years, intelligence reports have said North Korea, Iran, Iraq and other nations are working on ballistic missiles that could reach the United States. Two years ago, North Korea shocked the world by launching such a missile over Japan.
More and more Democrats came to support a national missile shield, and President Clinton reluctantly came on board, signing into law a bill last year that called for constructing such a system as soon as it's technically feasible.
Vice President Al Gore, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, favors the 100 Alaska interceptors. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive GOP choice, talks of an expanded system that could include land-, sea- and space-based defenses. Bush has also said he might share such technology with U.S. allies, who are worried that a national missile shield would leave them unprotected and spur a new arms race.
Before yesterday's test, some officials said that Clinton might try to forge a middle course, starting construction on the system's radar while holding off building the missiles themselves. Lawyers at the State Department, the National Security Council and the Pentagon are arguing that mere site preparations in Alaska for a radar system would not constitute a violation of the ABM treaty, Pentagon and administration officials say.
Vulnerable to rejection
By steering such a course, Clinton could show that his administration - and particularly Gore - is not soft on defense, said officials. Meanwhile, Clinton could work on developing the interceptor missiles and try to negotiate ABM treaty changes with the Russians. The more difficult decisions on whether to construct the entire system would be left to Clinton's successor.
But yesterday's failure might allow the president to reject a system that is clearly questionable, said Cirincione, and not suffer any political fallout. "This has taken the issue out of the presidential election," he said.
Weldon, the Pennsvlvania congressman and missile defense advocate, agreed that the president could now reject the system based on the latest mishap.
"It gives Clinton an excuse to do what he really believes, which is to postpone movement forward on national missile defense," the congressman said. "It won't stop us in Congress. We're going to learn what happened and move on."