The Pentagon's last hope of flight-testing critical new elements of an antimissile system, before activating the system this autumn, appeared to vanish yesterday with the disclosure that the next flight test has been postponed until late this year, well past the November election.
The Air Force general in charge of the program said the setback will not affect plans to begin operating the system in the next month or two. But the delay leaves the Pentagon pressing ahead with a system that will not have been flight-tested in nearly two years -- and never with the actual interceptor that will be deployed.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said: "This has been a program so fraught with political calculation . . . that I would assume there's some political aspect to the delay."
The postponement also comes against the backdrop of a wide disparity in estimates about the system's likely effectiveness that has emerged among key Pentagon officials.
The Pentagon's chief weapons evaluator has calculated that the system may be capable of hitting its targets only about 20 percent of the time. The Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which is responsible for developing the system, offers estimates of greater than 80 percent, according to several officials familiar with the classified figures.
The missile defense system, a top Bush administration priority, is designed to send interceptors into space to knock down enemy warheads. The first two interceptors have already been lowered into silos at a newly constructed launch facility at Fort Greely, Alaska, and more are to follow.
Since the last flight test in December 2002, a number of critical hardware and software changes have been incorporated into the system, and officials have counted on the next test to gather critical data about the system's accuracy and reliability.
Democratic lawmakers and other critics of the system accused the administration yesterday of playing politics with the test schedule, seeking to avoid the risk of an embarrassing flop during the presidential campaign.
"This has been a program so fraught with political calculation, rather than strategic and scientific thought, that I would assume there's some political aspect to the delay," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Armed Services Committee.
But Lt. Gen. Henry A. "Trey" Obering III, MDA's director, attributed the delay solely to technical considerations.
"I have not been asked, influenced or pressured one way or another with respect to putting this system through its paces, through its tests," he said in an interview, disclosing the postponement.
The flight test, already delayed several times, had most recently been slated to occur at the end of September. Obering said he decided to delay it until the end of November after learning last week of a number of modifications to the test interceptor that were not checked out fully in ground tests.
The modifications were made after the interceptor had been moved to a U.S. launch site in the Marshall Islands, Obering said. The interceptor will now be shipped back to a U.S. assembly facility for reexamination.
Another factor contributing to the delay, Obering said, was the inability so far to find the root cause of a software glitch in the flight computer of the interceptor's booster rocket. That glitch led to an earlier flight test delay -- from mid-August to late September -- as the interceptor was removed from its silo to put in a new computer.
Obering said the problems with the test interceptor should have no bearing on the deployment at Fort Greely. Although the interceptors being installed there underwent the same modifications as the test interceptor, they were thoroughly checked at assembly plants, he said. Further, the flight computer glitch seems to involve only test telemetry data, which is not an issue for the Fort Greely interceptors.