Defense officials say unusual delays in conducting an Air Force intercontinental ballistic missile test may have more to do with politics than technical problems.
The Air Force Global Strike Command, based at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., planned to conduct a Minuteman III flight test earlier this year but has scrapped the launch three times.
One missile was fired in April, but a second test is now delayeduntil after the presidential election.
Defense officials disputed the official explanation for the delays: that components used in the missile’s self-destruct mechanism malfunctioned and needed to be replaced.
That claim was challenged by a missile specialist who said it was an excuse. The official said such glitches are normally remedied with redundant systems, or a relatively quick parts replacement that should not take nine months.
Further suspicions of a political decision behind the testing delay were fueled when the Strike Command recently announced the test now will take place Nov. 14 - after the presidential election - when it may well be put off again.
“The launch for GT 206 is scheduled for Nov. 14,” said Strike Command spokeswoman Michele Tasista, referring to the number designator. “This is the only test window remaining for us in 2012. We expect four test launch opportunities in 2013.”
According to Obama administration arms control officials, concern about Chinese or Russian reaction to the routine and necessary test-firing likely intervened to put off the test so as to avoid upsetting the Russians.
“These things can’t just be fired off because [Air Force Strike Command] decides to,” said one official. “They are carefully planned and controlled by treaties.”
The political misgivings are the result of senior U.S. officials fearing a nuclear-armed adversary might mistake the test launch for a pre-emptive nuclear attack.
By contrast, Russia’s military apparently has no similar concerns. Moscow test-fired a new ballistic missile in May that Russian officials said has new capabilities to penetrate U.S. missile defenses, a major Russian concern.
Officials at the Air Force Strike Command, which is in charge of the test, disputed the assertion of political interference but declined to answer questions about the testing delays beyond a brief statement.
“The only policy issue we are aware of pertains to range safety, and that is why we are replacing a test-unique instrumentation component on the missile,” Ms. Tasista said.
The three ICBM launch postponements, first set for March 1, then April 10 and most recently May 16, were due to the same problem related to the missile’s self-destruct capability, according to the command.
The missile was to be fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., home of the U.S. long-range missile defense interceptors that are part of the system that has upset Russia and China because of their capabilities to shoot down high-speed long-range missiles.