The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 20.0°F | Mostly Cloudy

Missile Defense System Test Fails, Ground-Support Probable Cause

By David Stout

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

The nation’s fledgling missile defense system suffered its third straight test failure when an interceptor rocket failed to launch Sunday night from its base on an island, leaving the target rocket to splash into the Pacific Ocean, the Pentagon said Monday.

The target rocket was launched from Kodiak, Alaska, at 9:22 p.m. Sunday (1:22 a.m. Monday, Eastern Standard Time), but the interceptor that was supposed to go up 15 minutes later remained on its pad in the Marshall Islands, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency said. The target rocket fell into the ocean near Wake Island.

The agency took some consolation from indications that the launch failure was caused by a malfunction in ground-support equipment rather than in the interceptor missile itself, said Richard A. Lehner, a missile agency spokesman. “But it’s a disappointment, in that we had a test planned and were unable to complete it,” he said.

Lehner said the interceptor reacted to an erroneous “abort” command a few seconds before it was scheduled to launch. Scientists think the order may have been generated by something in the silo, by electronic monitoring equipment or by some other device, he said.

The latest problem with the multibillion-dollar missile system comes at an awkward time, as Congress begins to consider President Bush’s Defense Department budget of $419.3 billion for the 2006 fiscal year, as well as a supplemental budget of more than $80 billion for this fiscal year, most of which would cover the costs of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lehner said it was too soon to speculate on when another test might be held, because it takes about 60 days to construct a target missile. He said the latest failure was similar to one on Dec. 15, when an interceptor also failed to launch from the Marshall Islands to chase a target sent up from Kodiak, although that misfire was linked to a problem in the interceptor itself.

The Dec. 15 event was a major disappointment, because it was the first full test of the defense system since Dec. 12, 2002, when an interceptor failed to separate from its booster rocket, missed its target by hundreds of miles and burned up in the atmosphere.

Lehner said the latest test, like the one in December, was budgeted at about $85 million. The trials are part of an effort to install a scaled-down version of President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” defense system, envisioned two decades ago to protect against missiles from the Soviet Union.

President Bush pledged during the 2000 campaign to work for the deployment of a streamlined system suitable for the era after the Cold War, and he has pushed to make it operational even as tests are being carried out -- an approach that has prompted heavy criticism, especially with the recent failures.

“It’s as if Henry Ford started up his automobile production line and began selling cars without ever taking one for a test drive,” said David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which describes itself as a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous scientific analysis.

Wright, co-director of the organization’s global-security program, said it is “irresponsible and potentially dangerous” for the Pentagon to assert that the emerging missile system is a reliable defense.

In December 2002, Bush said he hoped to have the system operational by September 2004.