'Star Wars' missile defense system fails again

Analysts say timing couldn't be worse, as N. Korea says it has nuclear weapons.

For the second time in two months, and the third straight time in two years, a test of the national missile defense system has failed, reports the Los Angeles Times. Although mock ballistic missile launched Sunday from Alaska without problems, the interceptor designed to shoot it down failed to launch from the Ronald Reagan Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean.

<> The New York Times reports that officials at the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) at the Department of Defense took some "consolation" from the fact that they beleive it was not the missile itself that failed, but a "malfunction in ground support systems."

The L.A. Times reports that analysts say each setback "diminishes credibility" in the program (known as Son of Star Wars," a scaled-down version of the original program proposed in the 80s by Ronald Reagan) at a time when North Korea has just announced that it possesses nuclear weapons.
"It's certainly embarrassing at a time when the administration has basically decided that its North Korea policy is missile defense," said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a nonprofit defense analysis group. "You don't get second chances in nuclear combat."
Bloomberg News reports that the last two tests were "to replicate to a greater degree than previous exercises since 1999 the flight path of an incoming North Korean ballistic missile."

The missile defense system has been championed by President Bush since his election in 2000. In May of 2003 the White House published the National Policy on Ballistic Missile Defense Fact Sheet, which lists the reasons that the US believes that the development of such a program is important.

The current system has had ten tests since 1999, with five of the test scoring hits. But only the last two tests have included the interceptor designed to be used when the system is actually launched. In fact, Pentagon officials have said that now that they are using the actual interceptor, the tests are much more "technologically challenging," and thus more open to the possibility of failure.

The Washington Post reports that this latest failure (each test costs $85 million) could "fuel debate" in Congress over the system, which has cost billions of dollars without any real signs of success. The missile defense system was supposed to be ready for operation by September of 2004, but it could be months before the next test is even held.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has so far refrained from putting the system on alert – a move that had been expected last fall when the first six interceptors were installed at a launch facility near Fairbanks, Alaska. The system, intended to protect the United States against a long-range missile attack, envisions the creation of a multilayered network of land- and sea-based interceptors and space-based weapons.
Reuters reports that President Bush's 2006 budget proposal would cut funds for ballistic missile defense by $1 billion to about $8.8 billion. To date the program has been the single largest US defense research and development project.

New Scientist reports that the program's critics were quick to pounce on the system's latest failure.

"It's clear that the program is being pushed ahead for political reasons regardless of its capability," says David Wright, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "This interceptor has never been tested in an intercept test. Yet the Pentagon has already put eight of them in silos and is building at least another dozen before even knowing if they work."
The New York Times reports that Mr. Bush's decision to make the system operational even though the testing phase is not completed, has drawn heavy criticism as well. Mr. Wright compared it to Henry Ford starting up an automobile production line, and selling cars without "ever taking one for a test drive."

Business Week points to another problem facing the Star Wars program – altered priorities for Mr. Rumsfeld.

"The Rumsfeld vision of future warfare has had a severe collision with reality," says Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank in Arlington, Va. The problems facing missile defense, he says, are "the relatively weak case for the overall mission and the need to spend money in other ways."
Business Week also points out that the current system is designed to destroy the "more rudimentary missiles that Iran and North Korea are developing." But Russia has already developed a new missile, the SS-27 that makes the Star Wars system obsolete.

But what if Pyongyang or Tehran buys an SS-27? "I don't know about that," he [MDA spokesman Rick Lehner] told BusinessWeek Online.

© CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR By Tom Regan Jim Bencivenga Matthew Clark


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