- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The first test in two years of the multibillion-dollar U.S. missile-defense shield failed yesterday when an interceptor missile set to launch from a remote island in the central Pacific suddenly shut down, defense officials said.

The test, which cost the Pentagon nearly $85 million, broke down when the ground-based interceptor at the Ronald Reagan Test Site in the Marshall Islands “shut down due to an unknown anomaly,” the Missile Defense Agency said.

Although one former senior missile tester called it “a serious setback,” Pentagon officials and analysts downplayed the failure, saying it did not indicate deeper problems in the system, which administration officials have pledged to declare “operational” by year’s end.

“The start of operations is not dependent on a single test event, whether successful or unsuccessful,” said Chris Taylor, a spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency, the Pentagon unit in charge of designing and fielding missile defenses.

“Whether we can get a rocket to launch correctly, that’s a matter of time,” added Michael O’Hanlon, an analyst with the Brookings Institution, who co-authored a 2001 book on missile defense.

Mr. O’Hanlon said the administration no longer faces political pressure regarding the missile shield because the presidential election has passed. “There’s no particular urgency to declare operational a system that clearly has some major glitches,” he said.

The United States already has a system in place to stop one or more long-range missiles fired by North Korea. The system runs from missile interceptor bases in Alaska and California.

Yesterday’s test involved the interceptor at the test site in the Marshall Islands, formally known as Kwajalein Atoll. The Missile Defense Agency said a target missile carrying a mock warhead successfully launched from a site in Kodiak, Alaska. About 16 minutes later, the Kwajalein Atoll missile — designed to intercept the target missile — was preparing to launch when it “automatically shut down.”

“We don’t yet know why,” said Mr. Taylor, who added it “remains to be determined” whether the failure will cause a delay in the Pentagon’s declaration of the system as “operational.”

Philip Coyle, who served as the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester under President Reagan, said in an e-mail to Reuters News Agency the failure was “a serious setback for a program that had not attempted a flight intercept test for two years.”

Mr. O’Hanlon, however, said he was “not worried,” as the United States has successfully launched rockets in the past. The biggest problem, he said, is getting the rocket to work effectively with a “hit-to-kill vehicle” — a body of sensors designed to ensure that the interceptor demolishes its target — mounted on top.

The Pentagon has contracted Boeing Co. as the “lead system integrator” for the National Missile Defense Program. With funding for missile defense deployment at about $10.5 billion for fiscal 2005, the goal is to develop a system that can protect the United States from an attack involving missiles topped by nuclear, chemical or biological warheads.

Although the modern framework was conceived during the tail end of the Cold War under the Reagan administration, the United States has been implementing the system since June 2002 when President Bush officially withdrew the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Russia withdrew from the treaty days after the United States.

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