The general in charge of the Pentagon's faltering effort to develop a system for defending the United States against ballistic missile attack said yesterday that he has ordered a thorough review of all ground equipment used in testing and appointed a senior Navy officer to oversee future test preparations.
The moves by Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry A. "Trey" Obering III follow failed attempts in December and February to launch interceptor rockets in tests of the fledgling system. Both failures have been blamed on what defense officials say were minor glitches -- a flawed software code in December and a faulty silo retracting arm in February.
In a conference call with reporters, Obering expressed continued confidence in the system. He said that even without the launch of the rockets, the recent tests scored some successes by demonstrating the system's ability to track target missiles and generate intercept instructions. But he acknowledged frustration at the tendency of simple glitches to foil the tests.
"The hard things about missile defense we are accomplishing," Obering said. "The easy things are what we're having trouble with."
The testing setbacks have proven especially disappointing for the Pentagon, which has been hoping to get into a rhythm of regular flight trials after a two-year hiatus in such experiments. The new tests are particularly important because they are the first attempted flights of the system's interceptor missile, which is designed to fly into space and release a "kill vehicle" that would steer into enemy warheads. Previous flight tests relied on a slower, less advanced interceptor.
The tests are part of an effort to construct a scaled-down version of the "Star Wars" network envisioned by President Ronald Reagan two decades ago. While Reagan imagined a shield against a massive Soviet attack, President Bush has pursued a more limited system aimed at thwarting a small number of ballistic missiles that might be fired at the United States not by a major power such as Russia or China but by a smaller adversary such as North Korea or Iran.
But Bush has pushed to make the system operational before it has been subjected to realistic testing, prompting complaints from congressional Democrats and many scientists that the program remains largely unproven. The Pentagon has conducted 10 flight tests since 1999, scoring five hits but under conditions markedly different from what would occur in actual attacks.
Obering said he hopes to run another intercept test by the end of April. But investigators have yet to determine the root cause of last month's failure of the retracting arm -- one of three arms that were in the silo, the general said.
He said the review of all ground-testing equipment that he has ordered is patterned after an intense study of the history of all interceptor components conducted last year. He has also asked a team of independent experts to look "at our complete test process on the ground" for signs of weakness, he said. And he has created a new post -- director of mission readiness -- for managing future test preparations.
The new post will be filled by Rear Adm. Kathleen Paige, who has led a parallel Pentagon effort to develop a ship-based system for intercepting short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. That program has scored successful intercepts in five out of six tries. Obering said he hopes Paige will bring "some of the expertise and procedures from the sea-based program" into the land-based one.
"We've got some things to correct in our test program, but they are not major deficiencies in the system," said the general, who serves as director of the Missile Defense Agency. "These are things that we should not be plagued with; we should not be having these types of glitches.
"They're not going to generate major modifications," he added. "I will take some steps to make sure that we have solved those minor problems that keep tripping us up. But, overall, I'm very optimistic."
The Bush administration had planned to place the land-based system on alert by last October. But even with the first interceptors installed several months ago, the system has remained in what Pentagon officials continue to refer to as a "shakedown" phase.
Obering said adjustments in the system have led to a substantial drop in the time required to switch it from a test mode to an operational one for intercepting enemy missiles.
"It was taking us hours to make the transition," he said. "We've worked that down to minutes."
Eventually, he added, the plan is to be able to achieve the transition in no time at all -- like the flick of a switch.