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    The New York Times
    December 16, 2004
    Defense Missile for U.S. System Fails to Launch

    WASHINGTON, Dec. 15 - An important test of the United States' fledgling missile defense system ended in failure early Wednesday as an interceptor rocket failed to launch on cue from the Marshall Islands, the Pentagon said.

    After a rocket carrying a mock warhead as a target was launched from Kodiak, Alaska, the interceptor, which was intended to go aloft 16 minutes later and home in on the target 100 miles over the earth, automatically shut down because of "an unknown anomaly," according to the Missile Defense Agency of the Defense Department.

    The launching had been planned as the first full test in two years of this element of the Bush administration's effort to deploy a multilayered missile defense shield.

    The setback threatened to delay further the initial step of activating a basic missile defense, which had once been planned for September but slipped into next year after a series of canceled tests and developmental difficulties.

    The launching had been delayed several times because of bad weather or problems with equipment at the Pacific test range on Kwajalein Atoll, where officials must now try to determine what went wrong on Wednesday.

    The last test of the interceptor, on Dec. 12, 2002, was also a failure, as the interceptor failed to separate from its booster rocket, missed its target by hundreds of miles and burned up in the atmosphere.

    But shortly after that, President Bush ordered the Pentagon to proceed with initial deployment of a limited system, a goal that he campaigned on in the election this year.

    In 2003, a test of another part of the system, based on Navy ships, also failed.

    Before Wednesday's test, the Missile Defense Agency had conducted eight tests with interceptor vehicles, scoring hits in five under carefully controlled conditions. Some critics of the agency, which has spent more than $80 billion since 1985, say the entire test program is unrealistic and that the tests have been scripted.

    The failure was the latest challenge to the administration's drive to deploy the system piecemeal even as developmental tests, fraught as they are with technical difficulties, are carried out.

    The overall missile defense program is to cost more than $50 billion over the next five years; the first group of land- and sea-based missiles, sensors and associated systems envisioned for deployment is to cost more than $7 billion, and this test alone had a budget of $85 million.

    The failure Wednesday may renew a running debate on Capitol Hill over the missile program when the new Congress convenes early next year.

    A Democratic member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has been critical of the program, Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, said the latest setback might make lawmakers wonder whether money for the Pentagon might be better spent elsewhere, particularly in light of the mounting costs of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    "It reinforces the point I've been trying to make," Mr. Reed said in a telephone interview. "This is a very complicated system that requires testing."

    But a spokesman for Senator John Kyl, Republican of Arizona, a strong advocate of the program, said "one bum test" would not alter support for it.

    Indeed, despite a series of delays in testing this year, Congress has embraced the deployment of a rudimentary system, which is favored by those who want to field even a limited system sooner rather than later.

    Advocates say that fielding even a few interceptors of modest abilities, and improving them later, would help defend against potential threats that themselves are only just emerging, especially from North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons programs.

    The military spending bill that Congress approved in October allocated $4.6 billion in the current fiscal year to support the initial fielding of the ground-based missiles. Recognizing the "challenges" involved in the attempt, the House and Senate members who negotiated the final bill approved an additional $200 million, and ordered the Pentagon to "fully fund this critical program" in next year's budget request.

    The idea is to deploy 10 interceptor missiles initially, 6 in Alaska and 4 in California, to be supplemented later by another 10. Later still would come ship-based missiles that could hit enemy missiles as they lifted off and an airborne laser defense to intercept inbound warheads as they re-entered the atmosphere.

    Right now, there are six missiles in silos in Alaska and one in California, with one more due in California by the end of the month, said Richard A. Lehner, a missile agency spokesman. None of those in place are operational.

    Mr. Lehner said that despite the disappointment, Wednesday's event was not a total failure. He said "quite a bit" had been learned from the aborted test, which he called "a very good training exercise." He said the rocket that failed to rise could be used later. The target splashed down in the ocean some 3,000 miles from Kodiak, he said.

    The Pentagon said it did not know whether the problem that stymied the launching was serious enough to cause major delays. Mr. Lehner said he could not predict when the cause of the weapon's shutdown might be determined. No other tests have been scheduled.

    Wednesday's test was to have been the most advanced so far, Mr. Lehner said. The interceptor was equipped with the same type of booster rocket that the defense system is to use when it becomes operational, although a next-generation booster is already in the works.

    The agency says the tests are devised to answer specific questions and "to build confidence in the system that we are working to design." Although individual tests are expensive, Mr. Lehner said, fewer are necessary than with missiles of years past because of advanced modeling and simulation techniques.

    The missile system under development is a scaled-down version of the so-called Star Wars defense envisioned by President Ronald Reagan two decades ago against a rain of missiles from the Soviet Union. But the end of the cold war made Mr. Reagan's original vision outdated.

    President Bill Clinton's administration explored a much less advanced system. Mr. Bush pledged during the 2000 campaign to push for a scaled-down version of the Reagan plan. By walking away from the Anti-ballistic Missile treaty during his first term, Mr. Bush cleared the way for a deployment.

    Mr. Lehner said there was no new target date for deployment of the system. In December 2002, Mr. Bush said he hoped it would be operational by September 2004. But by then, the program had fallen behind schedule by about 10 months.

    In a report last March, the Government Accountability Office, an auditing arm of Congress, said that a first-generation booster built by Orbital Sciences Corporation that was being used in current flight tests had passed its early tests and could be produced, though it was uncertain whether enough could be built for the initial deployment.

    A next-generation booster made by Lockheed Martin was having problems with its flight computers, and accidents at a factory making parts for the booster meant it would not be available for the initial deployment, the G.A.O. said.

    On Monday, Boeing won a $928 million contract for the overall ground-based interceptor project.

    Victoria Samson, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, said the latest failure showed that the system was still "in a very rudimentary state," and that the missile agency had felt the need to rush the process. The center, founded by retired military officers, calls itself a "watchdog on wasteful defense spending."

    Mr. Lehner said there had been no rush. "We took our time," he said. "This is a very deliberate process."

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