The Air Force's experimental cruise missile is designed to duck below enemy radar and weave 1,000 miles over varied terrain to deliver a nuclear warhead.
But last month, one unarmed cruise missile instead weaved into a hillside near Ojai, Calif., and another veered into a cattle ranch near Lompoc, Calif. Both had been fired from a B52 bomber about 400 miles off the California coast.
Both missiles were supposed to end up at a Utah test site. But three of five offshore launches have crashed (one dropped into the ocean) and, in all, seven missiles have gone down out of the 16 aircraft-launched tests.
The crashes raised questions not only about the effectiveness of the cruise missile but also about the safety of citizens living near its test path as well.
The two errant missiles that crashed most recently inflicted no injury other than igniting a two-acre brush fire in the Los Padres National Forest. But two additional tests over the same flight path are planned soon, and an undetermined number of additional launches may be made before the cruise missile is deployed in the early 1980's.
Air Force assurances have apparently satisfied Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Calif.) That the flights should continue.
"I'm not unduly concerned," said Lagomarsino, whose district emcompasses the two crash sites. "It is a vital defense mission, and tests like that have to be over somebody's district."
Murray Flander, a spokesman for Cranston, said, "There is no particular reason for anziety. The Air Force appears to be taking all possible precautions."
The testing is part of a "fly-off" between General Dynamics and Boeing Co., which are competing for a $3 billion contract to build the air-launched cruise missile. The three offshore launches that crashed were General Dynamics missiles. One of the two imminent offshore firings will involve a General Dynamics model. But local officials are not so sanguine.
"It's like a big cannor sitting off the coast pointed at Lompoc," said Lompoc Mayor Chuck Ward. "It's a scary situation."
Robert Hedlund, the Santa Barbara County supervisor representing the district where one crash occurred, called on the Air Force to reconsider the tests if the missiles could not be fired "without endangering the lives of citizens over the flight path."
"I don't have too much confidence in the military at this point, to be honest," said J.K. MacDonald chairman of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors. "Sometimes they go off the deep end."
The 500-mile-an-hour missles are supposed to follow a path selected by the military to avoid populated areas while testing the rocket's ability to hug the terrain.
The inland flight path is known to pilots as military training route EI-200, a 10-mile wide corridow that begins near Point Conception, Calif., heads north toward Vandenberg Air Force Base, and then swings sharply east toward the Nevada Border.
The Air Force bases its assurances of safety on a system that includes two following F4 Phantom jets which can override the missile's controls if it veers off course.
But the jets were not able to intervene to prevent the two crashes, which occurred along the designated course. And the missles crashed on public forest and private land, not military reservations.
Air Force claims that the missiles are tightly controlled were further tarnished when it took five hours to locate the latest wreck near Lompoc last week.
"The missile hit in a wooded area and was very difficult to spot eactly." said Robert Holsapple, public affairs director for the Pentagon's Joint Cruise Missile Project.
There is substantial pressure from Washington not to interfere with the testing despite the two crashes because the cruise missile is considered a vital part of a new generation of weapons.
"On balance, we don't have too much choice," said Flander, the aide to Cranston. "We need the missiles, and they have to be tested.'"
Californians cannot expect the tests to be run in Montana, he added. "If the missiles get built, that will mean a lot of jobs for California. There is no free meal here.'"
Dibblee Poett, one of the owners of the San Julian Ranch near Lompoc where the second missile crashed, said he understood the military need. "But if I were a Russian, I wouldn't be too worried," he said.