Friday, June 20, 2003

Preliminary data from a sea-based missile-defense test show that the failure of a solid-fuel guidance system caused a Navy interceptor missile to miss a target missile, Pentagon officials said.

Officials familiar with the test results, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said a solid-fuel engine used to control the interceptor’s kinetic warhead stopped functioning and the warhead did not hit a target missile near Hawaii on Wednesday night.

Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, said it is still too early to know whether a single component caused the test failure.

“We’ll certainly analyze the performance of the solid divert and attitude control system (SDACS), along with the performance of every other component from which we received data during the test,” Mr. Lehner said in a statement.

The Missile Defense Agency announced in a statement late Wednesday that the SM-3 deployed its nonexplosive warhead, “but an intercept was not achieved.” It was the first failure in four tests conducted using the sea-based Aegis weapons system.

The Aegis system is expected to be a major element of the Pentagon’s efforts to develop systems that can knock down both short-range and long-range missiles. The Navy system is considered valuable because it can be moved easily on ships.

The warhead-guidance package is known as a solid-fuel divert and attitude control system. The system uses jets that guide a warhead to its target.

Missile-defense officials said the Navy in the past was urged to use a liquid-fuel mechanism, but rejected the idea because liquid fuel is more difficult to store safely on a ship than the solid-fuel system.

“The Navy insisted on a DAC with solid fuel, but the technology makes it more difficult for it to burn and stop, and burn again,” the official said.

In the recent test over the Pacific, one of the “cells” of solid fuel failed to ignite.

“The Navy is demonstrating an inability to get the DAC to work right,” the official said. “They keep saying they think it’s ready, but it’s not. They have got to figure out how to fix it.”

The Navy has invested several years and millions of dollars in the development of the solid-fuel DAC for the Standard missile, the central element of the Navy’s ship-based missile-defense program, the officials said.

The test Wednesday involved a Aries target missile launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii.

The SM-3 interceptor was fired from the USS Lake Erie guided-missile cruiser near Hawaii.

The sea-based missile-defense program is run by the Missile Defense Agency and the Navy. Raytheon Missile Systems of Tucson, Ariz., is the main contractor of the SM-3.

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