The Missile-Defense Test 

The Missile-Defense Test 

The Missile-Defense Test 

How you look at things.
July 13 2000 3:00 AM

The Missile-Defense Test 

This weekend, the Pentagon staged the third test of the National Missile Defense system it plans to build over the next five years. In the first and simplest test, the anti-missile struck the target missile after initially drifting off course toward a decoy. In a second test, the anti-missile missed. In this week's test, the anti-missile veered out of control, failed to separate from its booster, and never got near the target. Did the system fail the test? No, the test failed the system. Defense Undersecretary Jack Gansler and Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish explained to reporters how what looked like a failure really wasn't. The anti-missile might have missed its target, but Gansler, Kadish, and other advocates of missile defense struck theirs, by planting a dozen post-test rationalizations in the press. Here's a scorecard of the shots they fired and the targets they hit.

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1. The part that failed wasn't the part we meant to test.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Shots: The failure "happened in an area that has little to do with the functionality of the key component of the system that we're testing" (Kadish). "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 vs., say, a normal booster development or a missile development" (Gansler).

Target struck: "The flaw that doomed the test had nothing to do with the most sophisticated elements of the system, which are supposed to track an incoming missile, differentiate it from a limited number of decoys and intercept it" (New York Times).

2. The part that failed always works, except this time.

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Shot: "This test really didn't establish that the program can't work. The thing that failed in this test is something that we've done hundreds of times before. … It's not something that technologically we don't know how to do" (Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.).

Targets struck: "Instead, it was a failure in a well-developed technology that has been used successfully in rockets that have launched satellites and missiles for decades" (New York Times). It was a "catastrophe involving the tried-and-true process of separating a payload from a booster" (Los Angeles Times).

3. The part that failed was an irrelevant surrogate for a part that we plan to rely on but haven't tested.

Shots: "The booster we are using is not the booster we intend to use in the operational system" (Kadish). "That particular booster … is planned to be used only another three times, and then after that we use the real booster" (Gansler).

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Target struck: "The Pentagon has 16 more flight tests planned, and later tests will use a different type of rocket than the one used Friday" (Chicago Tribune).

4. Let's build the part that worked while we try to fix the part that failed.

Shot: "The decision now [is] relative to trying to build a site at Shemya [Alaska] for the X-band radar—which, by the way, the X-band radar part of it was working. … That's the decision that they're going to be making, not on whether we're ready to release the missiles. … The booster is going to be the gating item for the second decision, which is the one in '01" (Gansler).

Target struck: "Much of the pressure on Clinton to decide this fall revolves around the need to award contracts for a high-power radar station. … A prototype radar [in the test] was able to differentiate between the mock warhead and a decoy balloon" (USA Today).

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5. All the parts have worked, though never simultaneously.

Shots: "The rest of the system now has successfully worked twice, the last two flights, although the interceptor didn't. … 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" (Gansler). "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" (Kadish).

Target struck: "[The] booster rocket … failed to release the 122-pound 'kill vehicle' interceptor. Otherwise, the test went more or less as planned" (Denver Post).

6. The part we meant to test has worked one out of two times. Not too shabby.

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Shot: "We didn't get to the interceptor on this [test], and the prior one we had a failure on it," but "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. … So from that standpoint, a key piece of the puzzle was put into place" (Gansler).

Target struck: "Senior defense officials in the U.S. said scientists have learned much about the system's feasibility from previous trials, including the one successful interception in October, and from computer simulations" (Knight Ridder).

7. Failure is no predictor of failure.

Shots: "If you go back in history to the ICBM development, to the Safeguard development, there were many successes but also many failures early in the program" (Kadish). "To ultimately achieve success, one must experience some failure" (Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo.).

Target struck: "All military programs suffer setbacks from time to time, and the test failure today does not mean that a missile shield can never be constructed" (New York Times).

8. Since the part that failed prevented us from getting to the part we meant to test, the test never really happened.

Shot: "Everything appeared to be on track with the launch in the battle manager type systems, the integrated part of the system, to work right. … 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" (Kadish).

Targets struck: "Key Missile Parts Are Left Untested as Booster Fails" (New York Times). "[T]he important part of the $100 million test—homing in for the collision in space—was never even attempted … and few of the critical technologies of the missile exercise were actually tested" (Times). "[T]he 'kill vehicle'—a 120-pound package of miniature rocket motors, computers and sensors—never got a chance to show whether it can hunt down an incoming warhead" (Washington Post).

9. There are two possible test outcomes: favorable data or insufficient data.

Shots: "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. … I would say we didn't get the data we had hoped to have. The question of whether it's an absolute need or not is the one that the Secretary and the President will be deciding" (Gansler). "[Y]ou can make the case either that we have shown that the design is workable or that the testing has yet to demonstrate its feasibility" (senior military officer quoted in the Washington Post).

Targets struck: "You now lack data from two tests on the intercept phase" (reporter's question at Gansler-Kadish press conference). "The unexpected malfunctioning of the booster meant that the experiment produced few meaningful lessons about the weapon's capabilities" (New York Times). "Critics of the administration's plans … are likely to be emboldened by the ambiguous results" (Washington Post).

10. There are two possible conclusions: The system works now, or it will work later.

Shots: "What it tells me is we have more engineering work to do" (Kadish). "Obviously, this does go to the question of … how far along the system is" and "whether to proceed with the deployment of the system or whether to defer that" (National Security Adviser Sandy Berger). "The technological piece of this is not yet in place" (Kyl). "President Clinton, notwithstanding this disappointment … ought to decide to at least keep the process moving forward" (Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn.).

Target struck: "[I]t's hard to imagine a commander in chief arguing against this kind of self-defense when it becomes technically feasible. But the $100 million miss yesterday raises new doubts about when that will be" (Washington Post).

11. If the system doesn't work, it's just not big enough.

Shots: "I'm more concerned the president will cut a quick deal for an inadequate system than I am that we don't have the technological capability of perfecting the system" (Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn.). "While last night's test is a disappointment, I remain confident that given the right leadership, America can develop an effective missile defense system" (George W. Bush). "The technology is ready; it's the Clinton policy that isn't ready" (Retired Navy Vice Adm. J.D. Williams).

Target struck: "One lesson Pentagon planners and the White House may draw from the test is that any missile defense system may require a significantly larger fleet of antimissile rockets than currently planned" (New York Times).

12. The question is not whether it works, but whether we need it.

Shots: "What we're talking about is how do you deal with an emerging threat. … The system that is under development … seeks to do that" (Berger). "It would be irresponsible if we did not do everything we could to deal with that threat" (Secretary of State Madeleine Albright). "In view of the potential threat … the United States must press forward to develop and deploy a missile defense system" (Bush). "We're simply going to have to continue until we perfect it" (Thompson).

Target struck: "The latest failure … doesn't alter the underlying reasons to seek such a system" (Washington Post).