The Bush administration's effort to build a system for defending the country against ballistic missile attack suffered an embarrassing setback yesterday when an interceptor missile failed to launch during the first flight test of the system in two years.
Pentagon officials could not immediately explain the reason for the failure. They said some kind of anomaly prompted the automatic shutdown of the launch sequence just 23 seconds before the interceptor was due to take off from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. Plans had called for the interceptor to soar into space and knock down a mock warhead fired from Kodiak Island in Alaska about 16 minutes earlier.
The aborted test cast fresh doubt over when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld would decide to put the new system on alert. That decision had been expected earlier this fall, after the installation of an initial set of six interceptors at a launch facility near Fairbanks, Alaska.
For weeks, Pentagon officials have described the facility as going through a "shakedown" phase and have insisted that the decision to declare it operational would be made independent of the outcome of the flight test. Lawrence Di Rita, the Pentagon's top spokesman, reiterated yesterday that "the test was not connected to any decisions about operational capability." He said Rumsfeld had been "given a very cursory description of the test and the results."
But until the root cause of the test failure is determined, the Pentagon cannot be sure of the reliability of the interceptors that have already been installed or what might be required to prevent a similar occurrence in the future.
Whatever the operational impact of the test, Pentagon officials clearly had been mindful that the event would carry considerable political significance given the high priority placed on the program by President Bush. The Missile Defense Agency, which manages the development effort, had gone to extraordinary lengths to try to ensure a successful test, delaying it repeatedly since the spring to scrub the interceptor and other parts of the system of defects.
Those in Congress and the scientific community who have criticized the missile defense program seized on yesterday's failure to press their case that the administration is rushing deployment on the basis of too few tests.
"I think it points out the inherent complexity of the system and underscores the need for rigorous testing before any deployment," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Armed Services Committee. "I've been making that argument for months now."
The interceptor system is just one of a number of antimissile weapons that the administration is pursuing. Officials envision ultimately erecting a multilayered network that will target enemy warheads using land- and sea-based missile interceptors, airborne lasers, and space-based weapons.
Since 1999, the Pentagon has conducted eight flight tests of the interceptor system, five of which resulted in hits. Yesterday's test incorporated for the first time the actual interceptor designed for the mission; previously, surrogate interceptors were used.
The interceptor consists of two main parts -- a booster rocket and a "kill vehicle," a 120-pound package of sensors, computers and thrusters that rides atop the booster. Once in space, the kill vehicle is supposed to separate from the booster and close in on an enemy warhead, destroying it in a high-speed collision.
The script yesterday did not call for an intercept but for what defense officials refer to as a "flyby," meaning the kill vehicle would at least pass near its target. An intercept had been a possibility if everything had gone off as planned.
The previous flight test, in December 2002, also flopped when the kill vehicle failed to separate from the booster. Pentagon officials suspended further flight testing until a new booster could be developed, but that effort took longer than expected.
By spring of this year, the new booster was ready, but the discovery of a faulty circuit board in the kill vehicle prompted Pentagon officials to order a lengthy bottom-up review of all components.