It is not easy to hit a missile warhead streaking through space at 24,000 feet per second some 144 miles above the Earth, but that is what the National Missile Defense (NMD) program tried to do early last Saturday morning. The attempt failed, but it was not a failure of the key hit-to-kill technology. The Pentagon says the problem was a failure of the kill vehicle to separate from the booster rocket.
That is a mechanical problem that should be relatively easy to fix. The basic design is solid, and the technology works. This was the third intercept attempt. The first was a smashing success, literally, as the interceptor smashed into the target warhead and turned it into a ball of flame. The second was a near miss that occurred when a cooling system leak caused the infrared seeker to overheat and miss the target by a few hundred feet. Now, the third test has found another problem to be identified and fixed.
That is what flight tests are for, to find out what may not work and fix it. But the core hit-to-kill technology was demonstrated conclusively last year in six successful intercepts. Five were made by the new shorter-range theater missile defenses that also are under development, but the key technology is the same.
In every one of those hits the interceptor struck the "sweet spot" on the target - a spot the size of a basketball on the 13-foot NMD target and even smaller on the shorter-range missiles. This is rocket science and it takes years of effort and multiple tests to get it right. Ideally, flight tests should be conducted in private until all the bugs are worked out, but the NMD program is so high-profile that each flight test is a major media event.
The pressure to hit the target every time is tremendous. But Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, head of the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, says hitting the target is only one of many criteria for deciding whether to deploy the system. His team, he says, also is watching "about 999 other criteria very closely," and will analyze the operation of all systems to determine which test objectives were met and which were not.
Gen. Kadish has said the one successful intercept already completed is enough proof the technology works to justify continuing development and testing, and to award contracts to begin construction of a radar at Shemya Island in the Aleutians. …