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NYT/April 18, 1999

Missile Test Success! Next Time We'll Hit the Target

By WILLIAM J. BROAD

The Pentagon's missile defense enthusiasts have a long history of exaggerating claims going back to the Reagan administration's "Star Wars" plan to zap incoming warheads. But the spinmeisters spun out of control last month when they claimed that the military's latest attempt to blast an attacking missile out of the sky had achieved 16 of 17 objectives -- even though it failed to shatter the target.

A better count is two of four main goals, eliminating 14 of the claimed successes, officials now say sheepishly. "There was some confusion," said Pam Rogers, a Army spokeswoman in Huntsville, Ala., where the missile-defense program is based.

At first, the new test of the Army's experimental Theater High-Altitude Area Defense system, which has cost taxpayers $3.9 billion since the early 1990s, was hailed as having done everything right on March 29 at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico -- everything but hitting the incoming missile, sort of like a batter with a great swing who can't connect.

After the test, reporters were incorrectly told that 16 of 17 objectives had been achieved, Ms. Rogers said. The error was based, she added, on a hasty analysis of a videotape of the attempted interception.

More than a week after the misinformation sailed into the media ozone, officials disclosed in response to a reporter's questions that only two of the four main goals had actually been met:

-- To demonstrate the system's "closed-loop operation of all the various components" (translation: to see if gizmos worked properly as the test began).

-- To demonstrate the ability of the system's radar to track the target (something radar has been doing for more than a half century).

The failures?

-- To demonstrate the infrared seeker meant to zero in on heat emanating from a mock warhead (which the Pentagon is still analyzing and hoping to move into the more-or-less successful column).

-- To demonstrate "a body-to-body, high endo-atmospheric intercept of a unitary target" (translation: to hit a mock warhead at the fringes of space and smash it to bits), the experiment's main goal, which proved frustratingly elusive.

The test results were further muddied because radio signals from the would-be warhead killer were lost mysteriously one minute into the interceptor's flight.

Lt. Gen. Lester Lyles of the Air Force, director of the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, told reporters immediately after the test that this data loss meant, "We are not able, to date, at this particular moment, to characterize and specifically determine the cause of why we managed to miss the particular intercept."

Even while admitting to the flip-flop and scrambling to clarify the picture, the Pentagon's public-relations whizzes were still excitedly upbeat, happy to call the failed test a big success if its details are examined closely.

"There's a zillion different ways to split up these objectives," said Jennifer Canaff, a Pentagon spokeswoman. "And some of the successes occurred on the seeker side."

Indeed, she added, the 16 of 17 goals of the original misstatement actually understate the feat. "It's a higher number, but I'm not at liberty to say what it is," she said.

Lt. Col. Bill Wheelehan, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, later provided four pages of "preliminary data" on the perceived successes. Marked carefully at the top and bottom of each page was "unclassified," meaning it was originally written for internal military use.

The sheets said nothing about two of four main objectives but instead listed 27 successes out of a possible 31, including the "time synch pulse" of the automated launch sequence and "nominal booster separation." Stretching further to accentuate the positive, the successes included "nominal software performance until telemetry loss."

On Friday, the Pentagon finally made public its analysis of the overall trouble, tracing it to the failure of one of 10 thrusters designed to help steer the interceptor.

In the real world -- where performance tends to have financial consequences -- the prime contractor, the Lockheed Martin Corp., was fined $15 million for the latest failure.

Shortly after the test, Lt. Gen. Paul L. Kern of the Army told reporters that despite the problems he was confident the program would soon make its first interception. It has been trying to do so for more than three years, failing six times so far.

"I am encouraged by the test," he said. "We are much closer to achieving success than we have been for quite some time."


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