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Pentagon downplays importance of BMD test
4 May 2000
Huntsville, Ala. (Reuters) - Pentagon planners are playing down the importance of a coming test many outsiders had viewed as a crucial hurdle for a proposed U.S. anti-missile shield.
Project leaders say they do not want a failure in the next test to automatically derail the tight timeline for national missile defense deployment.
The next shot, "no sooner than June 26," need not necessarily hit its target for the project to get a thumbs up at an impending Pentagon "deployment readiness review," officials said at the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command here this week.
If a miss occurs, "it will depend on what caused the failure," said Mike Biddle, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO).
A mechanical glitch, as opposed to a design flaw, might not be a show stopper, he said, even though it might mean launching a multi-billion-dollar program based on a 1-for-3 record.
The coming test will be the last of its kind before President Clinton is to make a high-stakes decision on whether to break ground for the multi-billion-dollar project, which critics argue could trigger a new arms race.
Russia has said the United States would put decades of arms-control efforts at risk by building a missile shield barred by the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union.
The proposed system would use ground-based interceptor missiles to launch "kill vehicles" designed to destroy their targets by smashing into them outside the earth's atmosphere.
So far, the national missile defense program has succeeded once and failed once in tests often likened to trying to hit one speeding bullet with another.
Initially, the BMDO had said it wanted two successful hits before the readiness review, which is due to take place about 30 days after the coming test. The review will assess the maturity of the technology, project feasibility and cost.
Biddle said the original 2-for-3 goal had been "self-imposed," not an absolute requirement. Even so, hitting the next target could all but ensure the breaking of ground next spring for construction of a radar station in Alaska, the start of missile defense deployment.
Defense Secretary Bill Cohen told Congress April 26 that a second hit "would be sufficient for me to make a recommendation to the president to go forward."
"You'll have to make a determination on your own as to whether you think that there is a viable threat out there," Cohen told the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. "I happen to believe that given the spread of technology that, yes, if it isn't here today, it'll be here tomorrow."
Clinton is expected to decide by November at the latest on launching the first phase of the plan, which is to be completed by 2005 in line with what U.S. intelligence calls the mounting missile threat from countries like North Korea, Iran and Iraq.
The first intercept, over the Pacific on Oct. 2, 1999, smashed a dummy warhead. But the second, on Jan. 18, missed by less than 100 meters when water molecules froze in a cooling pipe the width of a human hair and blocked the interceptor's heat-seeking sensors.
Lt. Gen. John Costello, who heads the Army Space and Missile Defense Command, told reporters here he was confident now that "that the system will work" and that "we're on the right track."
The third test would be the most complex yet, incorporating an inflight communications system used to update the Raytheon-built Exo-atmospheric "kill vehicle" twice during flight on the target.
In recent weeks, the Pentagon has projected the total life cycle cost of the proposed system, including research and development, acquisition and staffing, at $36.2 billion in then-year dollars from 1991 to 2026, taking inflation projections into account.
Boeing is the lead system integrator for the ground-based program. TRW builds the system's battle command, control and communications system. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor on the current booster system.
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