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GAO Findings Show Component Faulty Despite Positive Report

By Paul Richter
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- WASHINGTON

A team of defense contractors described a 1997 test of a key missile defense component as “excellent” and a “success” even though the results indicated that the component had a variety of performance problems, congressional investigators reported Monday.

A General Accounting Office report said that officials from Boeing and TRW offered the upbeat assessment despite a flight test showing that their prototype anti-missile “kill vehicle” had trouble finding its intended targets in space, and couldn’t distinguish a mock warhead from decoys. The component also had problems with cooling, noise and calibration, the report said.

The report comes amid debate over whether the complex and costly anti-missile system proposed by the Bush administration can be made to work. In January, the Congressional Budget Office put the ultimate cost of the program at between $23 billion and $68 billion or more, depending on the design. Critics of the missile defense program contended Monday that the GAO study should raise further questions about the program’s viability.

But both the Pentagon and defense contractors said the report was irrelevant, since the Defense Department has since selected a different design for the system.

The January 1997 flight test became the subject of a series of official inquiries after a fired TRW engineer, Nira Schwartz of Torrance, Calif., sued the company. Her lawsuit included allegations that the company had faked work on the project to promote its product.

In its report, the GAO found no fraud and said that, taken together, the contractors’ reports to the Pentagon did convey the test results and the system’s limitations. But it faulted the contractors’ use of imprecise favorable language, saying that the use of subjective terms “increase the likelihood that test results would be interpreted in different ways, and might even be misunderstood.”

The kill vehicle is lofted into a space atop an interceptor missile, where it is supposed to rely on a suite of sophisticated sensors to locate and destroy an incoming warhead.

In a joint effort, Boeing made the kill vehicle and sensor while TRW wrote the computer programs designed to enable the system to differentiate the warhead from other objects. The Pentagon rejected the Boeing-TRW prototype in 1998 in favor of a competing model made by Raytheon.

Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the missile defense program, said the GAO’s findings had no bearing on the anti-missile effort, since the component “hasn’t been part of this program for more than four years.” He said the TRW-Boeing component differed from the component now in use in several ways, including the sensors and the discrimination system.