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Missile Defense System Canceled: Navy Program Woes Cause Bush Setback
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<-- Return To 21st Century Warfare

In Depth:
The Phantom Defense: America's Pursuit of the Star Wars Illusion.
Strategic Deception: Rhetoric, Science, and Politics in Missile Defense Advocacy.


Missile Defense System Canceled Navy Program Woes Cause Bush Setback

By Thomas E. Ricks and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 15, 2001; Page A01

The Pentagon, in a serious setback for the Bush administration's missile defense plans, yesterday canceled a multibillion-dollar missile defense system being developed by the Navy, citing "poor performance" and 50 percent cost overruns.

The program, which was scheduled to be deployed in two years, was designed to protect Navy ships and ports from attacks by missiles or manned aircraft. Like the land-based Patriot antimissile system, it was intended to provide a last-ditch defense of small, selected areas if other defenses failed.

The surprise move to cancel the program, combined with the failure Thursday of an interceptor rocket that was being tested for use in a land-based missile defense system, called into question whether the United States would be able to develop any missile defense programs on the timetable projected by the Bush administration.

It came one day after President Bush formally notified Russia that the United States would withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to clear the way for unrestricted tests of missile defense systems that he hopes ultimately will provide a protective shield over the continental United States.

The timing of the Pentagon announcement prompted criticism that the administration had needlessly rushed to withdraw from the ABM Treaty.


The administration said that one of the main reasons for withdrawing was its desire to test part of a sea-based missile defense system.

The Navy program, called Area Missile Defense, has cost $2.8 billion since the early 1990s. It had been seen as one of the areas of missile defense furthest along in development and as a result likely to be deployed sooner than other systems that are planned to defend against longer-range missiles.

"It's unfortunate we've reached this point," the Pentagon's acquisition chief, Edward C. Aldridge, said in a statement. He said the Pentagon would continue trying to develop a system of knocking down incoming missiles at sea, but he did not say how.

Phil Coyle, former head of the Pentagon's office of weapons testing and evaluation, said the Navy system was the most advanced of various "theater" missile defense systems, which in contrast to national systems are designed to protect battlefields and other relatively small areas. He said that theater defense systems were well ahead of those more complicated national missile defense schemes that intercept missiles in the boost phase and in mid-course.

"And so for one of the shortest-range systems to be canceled is not a good sign," he said.

Joseph Cirincione, a missile defense critic at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, added, "You have to consider this a very serious setback for missile defense programs, because it shows that even the simple stuff is difficult."

Richard Perle, a missile defense advocate who served in the Pentagon during the Reagan administration, said he wasn't upset by the cancellation. "I'm for missile defenses, but I'm not for bad programs," he said. "I'd rather move cautiously."

John Pike, director of, an independent consulting firm, said he expected the Navy to renegotiate its contracts with companies working on the Navy Wide Area program, which include Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, L-3 Communications, United Defense and Orbital Sciences.

The Navy program would also have been used to protect warships and amphibious landing forces overseas, such as the ships operating in the Indian Ocean supporting operations by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

In January 1997, the program scored an initial success when it managed to hit a target missile during its first test, said Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, the spokesman for the Defense Department's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. But, he said, "after that, there were numerous problems of integration, and the test schedule kept slipping and slipping and slipping until it became untenable."

Coyle said the Navy program has been struggling with a wide range of technical issues, including the complexity of the computer program to be used on Aegis destroyers, discriminating between real and decoy missiles, search and tracking processors, and the cooling system on the infrared seekers that discern "hot" enemy missiles.

Because other missile defense programs face similar technical issues, the Navy cancellation did not augur well for missile defense in general, Coyle said.

The Navy announcement followed Thursday afternoon's failure of a prototype rocket booster that would be used in mid-course missile defenses.

The booster rocket, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, malfunctioned about 30 seconds into its flight, veered off course and plunged into the Pacific Ocean about one mile off the coast of the base, about 55 miles north of Santa Barbara, Calif.

"It's another setback," Coyle said. "This is supposed to be the easy part, the rocket science part." More difficult parts of the program are supposed to deal with distinguishing between real and decoy missiles.

The cause of the failure is under investigation, the Pentagon said. Thursday's launch was the second test of the three-stage prototype booster, designed and built by Boeing Co.


The first test launch on Aug. 31 was deemed a success by the Defense Department and Boeing.

During that launch, the booster rocket, carrying a mock "kill vehicle" to simulate the weight and mass of an actual missile that would be used in future intercept tests, traveled about 3,000 miles before falling into the Pacific, the Pentagon said.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

In Depth:
The Phantom Defense: America's Pursuit of the Star Wars Illusion.
Strategic Deception: Rhetoric, Science, and Politics in Missile Defense Advocacy.

<-- Return To 21st Century Warfare

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