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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 48, July 2000

US Missile Interceptor Test Failure

Defense Department Press Release

'Update on National Misile Defense Intercept Test,' Department of Defense (DoD) Press Release, DoD transcript, July 8, 2000.

"The Ballistic Missile Defense Organization's (BMDO) National Missile Defense (NMD) Joint Program Office announced July 8 that preliminary analysis from the planned intercept of a ballistic missile target early this morning over the central Pacific Ocean concluded that no separation occurred between the Payload Launch Vehicle (PLV) booster rocket, and the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV). Reports from program officials indicate that while the first and second stages of the booster separated successfully, the PLV started to tumble slowly after it made an energy management maneuver designed to keep it safely within the confines of the missile test range. The second anomaly was that the EKV never received a message from the PLV indicating that the second stage rocket motor had completed its propellant burn. Receipt of this signal is required for the EKV to separate and perform its intercept function. Initial cooldown of the EKV's infrared sensors and all other functions of the EKV were performing as designed up to the point where separation was to occur.

All other elements, including the sensors, the in-flight interceptor communications system (IFICS) and the battle management, command and control and communication systems performed as expected. Preliminary indications are that the prototype X-band radar at Kwajalein Atoll performed well and discriminated the mock warhead from all other objects, including the debris from an improperly inflated decoy balloon.

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. It will be at least several days until this review is completed.

The flight test began with the launch of a modified Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a target warhead from Vandenberg AFB, Calif., at 12:19 a.m. EDT July 8, and the PLV with the EKV on board was launched approximately 20 minutes later about 4,300 miles away from Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands."

Defense Department Briefing

Department of Defense Briefing, DoD transcript, July 8.

Remarks by Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, Director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO): "We did not intercept the warhead that we expected to have tonight. We're disappointed with that, but let me explain what I think happened… We had the launch of the target out of Vandenberg and that operation appeared to be fairly successful. We had an initial delay to the launch because of some battery problems that we worked out on the target. We had, as far as I know, only one anomaly with the target launch in that we did not get the decoy balloon to inflate, so it was an uninflated decoy. Everything appeared to be on track with the launch in the battle manager type systems, the integrated part of the system, to work right. We launched the interceptor. But we failed to have the kill vehicle separate from the booster second stage. All we know based on telemetry now, and of course we will get more data as time goes on, is that the kill vehicle was waiting for a signal that we had second stage separation. We did not receive that signal. Therefore, the timeline shut down and the kill vehicle did not separate, and therefore, we did not attempt or have any activity in the intercept phase. So we had a failure of the booster kill vehicle separation. … I would point out that, as you know, those who have followed the program, that the booster we are using is not the booster we intend to use in the operational system. It is a surrogate. A payload launch vehicle, which is second stage Minuteman booster that we have had high reliability with. So somewhere in this area we failed to get the proper sequence, and therefore the kill vehicle never separated to do its job."

Remarks by Dr. Jack Gansler, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology: "Having spent about 40 years going through this flight test thing…[I have learned that] what you usually find in trying to answer the question about why you don't know already is you get an instant read in real time…about some things like the signal didn't go. It then tends to take you days usually, not hours even, to try to understand by tracing it backwards where that came from and why it didn't go. … I should point out that this is only the fifth time that that particular booster…has been used. In other words, we used it on the first four flights. They're standard boosters, but the configuration is different and therefore the staging is somewhat different. It is planned to be used only another three times, and then after that we use the real booster. So it's a special arrangement that was set up in order to have a surrogate early on until we could get the operational booster. So the focus therefore of the booster portion of it is an important one. We do need to develop the booster. … The thing we were hoping to get out of this was much more information on the interceptor portion of it, which is really the part that is unique and different about this particular flight versus, say, a normal booster development or a missile development. This is closer to, say, a development that we've gone through in the past of anti-aircraft missiles, something like that. You want to see what the end game looks like. In that we normally have development problems, and that's the kind of thing that this represents as far as I can see."

Questions and Answers

"Question: 'General, with many experts claiming that this is a possible $60 billion boondoggle, a system that won't work, you now have two failures and one success. Doesn't that weaken your position considerably?'

Kadish: 'What it tells me is we have more engineering work to do. 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. 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.' …

Question: 'The Secretary has already said he thinks the threat is there, and he thinks the cost is such that we should go forward. But as far as technical feasibility, do you think that it's still possible to give thumbs up for [that]?'

Gansler: 'That's something we're going to be evaluating. To be honest with you, I think it's fair to say that had we not had a kill in that third flight, that you would probably have very low confidence. The fact that the system, which we tested tonight again, and we tested in the second flight with the battle management system, the thing that was added tonight that was different was the link from the ground up to the intercept vehicle while it was in its boost phase. That was really the only new item. … This is an extremely complex system. So you check out the satellites that detect the boost, that part of it worked. You check out the target vehicle. You're checking out the battle management system. You're checking out the X-band radar link. You're checking out the communication link up to the interceptor booster, and then the final part. The part we didn't get and what we were hoping to get was much more information on the terminal phase. So the question is whether we have enough information on the terminal phase in order to be able to make an assessment that says we should go ahead and try to build that site at Shemya. That's one that the Secretary and the President are going to have to call, not...'

Question: 'Is there any chance there would be another test before that decision?'

Gansler: 'The next test that's scheduled right now is in the October/November time period. As you remember in the last flight when we had a failure, we spent quite a bit of time trying to analyze and then fix before we go ahead. If this requires major analysis and fix, that even could be delayed. But otherwise it's probably in the October/November time period. Because of the construction time cycle at Shemya and the fact that we have the engineering work to be done for that site and then the construction to start in the spring, it seems to me that that's trying to push the decision pretty far down. We'd like to have a decision made by November rather than a flight by November.' …

Question: 'You had a glazed look in your eye from the pool coverage when you took the phone call saying it didn't work. You seemed fairly shocked. Is that a good description?'

Kadish: 'I was more disappointed than shocked. I'm never surprised by the things that can happen. This was not - again, this is rocket science and things do happen on this stuff that are unexpected. But of all the things we worried about and had risks associated with it, this was not something we thought would happen.'

Question: 'As someone who's been testing for a long time, would it be your recommendation, is it your determination that there is enough data or not enough data? And would you go ahead with a project like this based on the data that you've got?'

Gansler: '… In terms of the technical feasibility of it, in terms of is this design likely to work under the conditions that we assessed, I would personally say that I gained a great deal of confidence from that intercept that we had successfully in terms of the interceptor portion of it because it did work and it did actually do some discrimination. … What about the rest of the system? The rest of the system now has successfully worked twice, the last two flights, although the interceptor didn't. We didn't get to the interceptor on this one, and the prior one we had a failure on it. So in a sense we've tested the major elements of this system sufficiently to say that the design is probably the one that's pretty solid. That is the same conclusion, by the way, that the Welch committee came to as well in terms of the technical feasibility. We have always said, and they said they same thing, that in terms of making the schedule it is a high risk program, and you wouldn't like, if you had the time, you wouldn't like to make a go-ahead decision of any sort on the basis of what we've seen so far, just these three flights. But because of the fact that we have a significant number of additional flights planned before the '03 decision to build the missiles, one could then decide that it's a low enough risk to go ahead and build the radar at Shemya. That's the decision that they're going to be making, not on whether we're ready to release the missiles.' …

Question: 'General Kadish, I'd just like to ask you to respond to the same question. On the basis of the single time that the intercept phase of this system has been exercised, are you confident you have enough data to draw judgment on the feasibility of that part of the system?'

Kadish: 'I don't think we should draw conclusions from any one test that are irrevocable. What we have is a number of tests and legacy tests for all the elements of the system. When added together, it provides us a great body of evidence of the capability of the system. Certainly on that test that we had the intercept, it gave us all a lot of confidence that the design we have of the kill vehicle, which is the key to the system, worked in a phase that we never had data on. So from that standpoint a key piece of the puzzle was put into place. But just as we've been saying for a long time, no one test tends to tell you everything you need to know. We have a body of tests even before this one that tells us an awful lot. And we have increasing confidence as a result of that.' …

Question: 'Doesn't this test also show that the schedule of 2005 is really unrealistic based on how things are going? …'

Kadish: 'I think what we need to do now, just like we do after every test, whether a success or failure, is evaluate what we need to do from here on out and the viability of our schedules from that point, and see if there are mitigating factors. Dr. Gansler pointed out there is another flight test we have available to us. Whether we can gather the data for that to effect the types of decision making we want in the fall timeframe is going to be a problem, and we have to decide what to do with that.' …"

Comment and Reaction


Vice President Al Gore, July 10: "[The failure] doesn't mean that such a system is impossible to build, although the specific lessons from the failure will have to await a more thorough analysis." (Gore opposes Bush on missiles, Associated Press, July 10.)

Defense Secretary William Cohen, July 10: "It didn't happen because of a failure for something that's quite routine, not because of the science involve toward the interceptors… The test itself was a disappointment but it was one of those failures that was least expected… It would have been helpful to have this test succeed… What I have to do is await the full report, all of the analysis… So at this point I'm just going to withhold any judgement." (Cohen plays down failed US missile defense test, Reuters, July 10.)

National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, July 8: "The failure of the test…is important in assessing how far along this system is technologically… Obviously, this does go to the question of technical feasibility of how far along the system is, but we need an assessment from the Pentagon. … Sometime this summer the President will make a decision as to whether to deploy this system or whether to defer that for a later point…" (Clinton urged to let successor decide on missiles, Reuters, July 9.)

Texas Governor George W. Bush, July 8: "While last night's test is a disappointment, I remain confident that, given the right leadership, America can develop an effective missile defense system. In view of the potential threat we face from an accidental launch or an attack from a rogue nation, the United States must press forward to develop and deploy a missile defense system. Development of a missile defense system will be a priority in my Administration." (Governor Bush's Presidential campaign website, http://www.georgewbush.com )

Senator Byron Dorgan (Democrat - North Dakota), July 8: "It's hard to see how they can recommend a deployment decision of a missile system that doesn't work… I think the test failure should and will mean the President will not make a deployment decision." (Failed missile test raises doubts, Associated Press, July 8.)

Senator Joseph Liberman (Democrat - Connecticut), July 8: "President Clinton, notwithstanding this disappointment on Saturday morning, ought to decide at least to keep the process moving forward. … That may mean nothing more than putting out the contract to turn the earth in Alaska for bids [on the radar site]…and then to let the incoming President next year decide whether we should actually begin to turn the earth…" (Clinton urged to let successor decide on missiles, Reuters, July 9.)

Senator Thad Cochrane (Republican - Mississippi), July 7: "The deployment decision should be positive. We should make a decision to deploy." (Failed missile test raises doubts, Associated Press, July 8.)

Senator Chuck Hagel (Republican - Nebraska), July 8: "The technological piece of this is not yet in place. The cost obviously is not in place. I don't think we've brought our allies on, I don't think we've handled that very well… So therefore it's only responsible in my opinion to allow the next Administration, working with the new Congress, to start making these decisions." (Clinton urged to let successor decide on missiles, Reuters, July 9.)

Representative Curt Weldon (Republican - Pennsylvania), July 10: "Should it slow down where we're going? No. Will it? Probably…" (US missile defense plans uncertain, Associated Press, July 11.)


Sergei Prikhodko, Chief Foreign Policy Adviser to President Putin, July 8: "We have said many times that such a system is faulty both as a concept and from the technical point of view…" (Russians see no surprise in US test failure, Reuters, July 8.)

General Vladimir Yakovlev, Commander, Strategic Rocket Forces, July 8: "In its current technical form, the national missile defense system…cannot guarantee protection of US territory, and attempts to deploy such a system will be a waste of US taxpayers' money… Even [though it] failed, the NMD test is a challenge to the international community cast by the American military…" (Russians see no surprise in US test failure, Reuters, July 8; Russia tells US to drop missile shield, Washington Post, July 9.)

Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, Head of the Defence Ministry's Department of International Affairs, July 8: "Experts in anti-missile defence, both Russian and American, are pretty well aware that it is impossible to create an absolutely safe system… Russia will always have the means to counteract any US anti-missile system. The question is whether it is worth investing huge sums into the project while the problem could be solved through political means. … God favoured justice and us [with this failure]…" (Russians see no surprise in US test failure, Reuters, July 8.)


Unnamed Senior Official, July 8: "If this leads to postponing the missile defense system indefinitely, it will be good news for the entire Alliance…" (Russia tells US to drop missile shield, Washington Post, July 9.)

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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