The political decision about whether to deploy a national missile defense system got a lot more complicated recently when a much-hyped prototype system failed to hit-much less destroy-a target missile over the Pacific Ocean.
The deployment decision scheduled for June is more political than technical. One observer said after the Jan. 19 failure that the missile defense program has as much to do with protecting Al Gore's political backside in an election year as stopping long-range missiles from North Korea.
Aside from politics, and the ridiculously compressed development schedule they impose, the key unanswered question is whether the technology exists to shoot down enemy missiles that would likely be concealed among decoys and other countermeasures. The answer at this point is, No.
The requirement for developing a "kill vehicle" that can destroy a target missile has been likened to stopping a bullet with another bullet. Based on available data, we are using a Civil War-era minie ball to stop missiles traveling at up to 5,000 miles per hour.
Here's what we know about the failed test. The interceptor and at least part of its sensor package, along with its command and control system, worked as predicted up to the end game. Pentagon planners-who also said the Patriot system worked great in the Gulf War until hard data showed otherwise-have concluded that the test failed because two infrared sensors that help pinpoint the target for the kill vehicle failed. And they said they don't know why those IR sensors, manufactured by Raytheon Corp., didn't work as expected.
Program officials estimated they dropped $100 million alone on the failed test. They propose spending billions more on a technically dubious system that could be easily defeated by relatively inexpensive decoys.
The technology being used as the foundation of a U.S. missile-defense system won't work consistently. President Clinton should resist the political temptation to proceed with this questionable and destabilizing program.
Don't bet on it.