WASHINGTON — The latest setback for the Pentagon's missile-defense project — its second failed intercept in three tries — raised new doubt Saturday whether President Clinton will approve a quick push for a national anti-missile system.
Clinton has said he will decide in several weeks whether to stick with the current Pentagon timetable of building a missile defense for use as early as December 2005.
"This is something we will have to take into account as we look at the technical feasibility of this program," said P.J. Crowley, a spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House.
"The president awaits the secretary's analysis and recommendation and will make a decision on deployment later this year," he said Saturday.
The failure early Saturday suggests to some analysts that the Pentagon needs more time.
"Logically, you do regroup after something like this, and you don't go forward with the existing schedule," said Anthony Cordesman, a defense specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
A critic was more blunt: "It's hard to see how they can recommend a deployment decision of a missile system that doesn't work," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. "I think the test failure should and will mean the president will not announce a deployment decision."
The rocket took off as scheduled from Kwajalein Atoll at 12:40 a.m. EDT Saturday, about 21 minutes after the target missile was launched 4,300 miles to the east at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. But the warhead-busting "kill vehicle" failed to separate from the booster rocket, so it never activated the sensors it uses to hunt down its target.
The interceptor passed harmlessly by the target, and few of the critical technologies of missile defense got put to the test.
The reason for the failure was so unexpected that the three-star Air Force general in charge of the project told reporters minutes afterward that it was "not even on my list" of potential malfunctions.
The blame was placed on the booster rocket, made by Lockheed Martin Missiles & Space. It was supposed to release the kill vehicle from atop its second stage exactly 2 minutes and 37 seconds into flight.
The Pentagon said immediately after the test that the kill vehicle did not release because the booster failed to send the required electronic signal. An updated analysis later Saturday cited an additional "anomaly" — the rocket stage carrying the kill vehicle began to "tumble slowly" after it made a flight maneuver designed to keep the rocket within the confines of the missile range.
The Pentagon said other features worked as expected, including the high-speed computers commanding the mission, the in-flight communications links and the target-tracking radars.
"Government and industry program officials will conduct a thorough review of the test data to determine the reason for the anomalies and any other test objectives that were or were not met," the Pentagon said.
That will take at least several days.
The $100 million test was the third attempt at an intercept and the second to fail. The first failure, in January, was blamed on moisture inside the kill vehicle that prevented it from using heat-seeking devices to "see" its target.
Saturday's test was plagued with problems from the start.
The launch from Vandenberg was delayed by two hours because engineers discovered weak batteries powering the electronic signals that are sent from the missile to ground controllers to pinpoint where the anticipated intercept occurred.
In addition, the Mylar polyester balloon sent aloft with the target missile from Vandenberg to act as a decoy never inflated, Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish said.
The Pentagon said Saturday that preliminary indications showed that a prototype high-powered "X-band" radar on Kwajalein Atoll did distinguish between the mock warhead and debris from the malfunctioning decoy.
The decoy was meant to simulate the kind of evasive measures an attacking country like North Korea might use to fool a U.S. missile-defense system.
Despite the problems, supporters of missile defense are expected to view the outcome as evidence that the Pentagon needs more money for a project already expected to cost at least $36 billion over the coming 20 years.
Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said in an interview Friday that Congress has made its intent clear by requiring that a national missile-defense system be deployed as soon as technologically feasible.
"The deployment decision should be positive," Cochran said. "We should make a decision to deploy."
Cochran said he had no doubt that Congress would approve spending what it takes to build the system.
Vice President Al Gore, the presumed Democratic nominee, favors Clinton's approach of pursuing a limited defensive system that would protect only the 50 U.S. states.
His expected GOP rival, George W. Bush, supports a broader, more ambitious system designed protect the United States as well as its allies.
The first phase of construction, if approved by Clinton, would be for the X-band radar on Shemya Island in the Aleutians. It would be the most powerful tracking and detection radar in the world.
An initial set of 20 missile interceptors — to expand by 100 by 2007 — would be based near Fairbanks, Alaska, with the command and control center at Colorado Springs, Colo.
Besides the questions of cost and technical feasibility, a U.S. president will have to decide yet another sticky question: whether to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, which explicitly bans national missile defenses. That choice likely will be left to Clinton's successor.
The Clinton administration has tried to get Russia to agree to amend the treaty to allow missile defenses. So far, the Russians have refused. China also strongly opposes the U.S. missile-defense plan.
On the Net: Ballistic Missile Defense Organization: www.acq.osd.mil/bmdo/bmdolink/html/
Union of Concerned Scientists: www.ucsusa.org/
CIA assessment of missile threat: www.cia.gov/cia/publications/nie/nie99msl.html