NMD Test Delayed until July; Review to Start in June

By Boese, Wade | Arms Control Today, June 2000 | Go to article overview

NMD Test Delayed until July; Review to Start in June


Boese, Wade, Arms Control Today


A CRUCIAL TEST of the proposed limited national missile defense (NMD) scheduled for June 26 will slip until at least early July and possibly as late as the end of August. Despite the testing delay and accusations that data revealing the system can be easily defeated have been fraudulently covered up, the Pentagon will start its deployment readiness review June 20. President Bill Clinton, who has found little support abroad for the proposed defense, is to decide on whether to deploy the system after the Pentagon completes its review.

Originally scheduled for April 27 and then pushed back until June 26, the next NMD intercept attempt of a dummy warhead, the third of a planned 19, will now be in early July. Pentagon officials attributed the latest delay to a wiring problem on the interceptor. If further delays occur, the test could be postponed until after mid-August.

The United States has an agreement with the Marshall Islands to suspend testing activities at the Kwajalein Atoll, where the test U.S. missile defense interceptors are launched, for approximately a month, starting July 12, to protect local fishermen.

When the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), which oversees U.S. missile defense programs, revealed the first delay on March 21, BMDO Director Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish said it would be "prudent to adjust the schedule for the deployment readiness review." Initially planned for June, the review would be pushed back to start in July to permit a 30-day analysis of the then-June 26 test, according to Kadish.

However, a BMDO spokesperson said the Pentagon review is now set to begin on June 20 with no firm end date. "The review will go on until someone determines we're ready to make a recommendation [on whether the system is ready for deployment) to the secretary of defense, ' the spokesperson explained. The effect of another delay in the next intercept test on the review is "a speculative question," the spokesperson said.

Testing Data Questioned

A longtime critic of missile defenses, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Theodore Postol sent a letter May 11 to the White House calling on the president to appoint an independent team of scientists to review the NMD program, alleging that the defense could be easily penetrated and that BMDO and private contractors had manipulated testing data to hide this fact.

Analyzing BMDO data from the system's first flight test, Postol charged that the defense's exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV), which is designed to collide with incoming warheads, could not distinguish between warheads and decoys. Using onboard infrared sensors, the EKV attempts to discriminate between warheads and decoys by examining how light from each object fluctuates over time. But Postol claimed the testing data revealed that light signals from the decoys and warheads "fluctuated in a varied and totally unpredictable way," thereby rendering some of the incoming objects "essentially indistinguishable" from one another.

According to Postol's letter, BMDO dealt with this problem by arbitrarily rejecting and selecting data to prove the system could work as advertised. As proof that BMDO knowingly covered up the system's shortcomings, Postol noted that the number of objects to be used in subsequent flight tests was reduced from a planned 10 to the actual use of only two-the dummy warhead and one decoy.

The White House deferred a response to the Pentagon, which subsequently classified Postol's letter as secret. On May 18, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon deemed the request for an outside review as "premature at this stage." BMDO issued a short statement calling Postol's conclusions "wrong" and charging the professor with neglecting other system elements, such as radar systems and space-based sensors, which will help the EKV discriminate between decoys and warheads. "For obvious security reasons, we do not discuss the capabilities of the system and how they deal with countermeasures," the BMDO statement concluded. …

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