Low-tech glitch leaves high-tech void

A malfunction in a routine rocket booster procedure sabotaged the latest

test flight of the national missile defense system on Saturday, robbing

the array of high-tech sensors and command and control systems of a critical

opportunity to demonstrate the soundness of the Pentagon's NMD plans.

"Everything appeared to be on track with the launch in the battle manager-type

systems, the integrated part of the system," Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish,

director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, told reporters at

the Pentagon shortly after the test. "We launched the interceptor. But we

failed to have the kill vehicle separate from the booster second stage."

The test involved the launch of a modified Minuteman target missile

from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. About 20 minutes later the Pentagon

launched an interceptor missile from 4,300 miles away, in the Kwajalein

atoll in the Marshall Islands. The plan, according to the Pentagon, was

to knock the incoming missile out of the sky about 100 miles above the Pacific

Ocean.

NMD critics have complained that the Pentagon's tests are designed to

help the system succeed and that the planned system will not work against

easy-to-manufacture countermeasures. But even the Pentagon's planned use

of a balloon-wrapped decoy failed on Saturday.

"What it tells me is we have more engineering work to do," said Kadish

of the failed test. "And as we've said all along, this is a very difficult,

challenging job.

"This is rocket science, so there's a lot of things that can happen

in this process," he said. "In this particular case it appears it happened

in an area that has little to do with the functionality of the key component

of the system that we're testing."

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