NYT/April 18, 1999
Missile Test Success! Next Time We'll Hit the
By WILLIAM J. BROAD
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
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).
-- 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
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
"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
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
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."