Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Military Shoots Down Missile In Test

After several failed test shots and a seven-year flight hiatus, the Army's Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense missile system (THAAD) hit a Hera ballistic missile target this morning over the White Sands range in New Mexico. "It was quite spectacular," said Lockheed Martin vice president Tom McGrath, who manages the $10-billion program. "This flight main goal was to charge the seeker and have the radar perform discrimination [telling the target from background objects]. Both were completely successful. In addition, we did have an intercept." THAAD, like its smaller cousin the Raytheon Patriot Advanced Capability-3, is designed to destroy its target by hitting it rather than exploding near it. The Lockheed Martin system will complement the Patriot in providing last-ditch defense against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, such as those tested by North Korea in recent weeks.Today's successful test comes after a massive program restructuring precipitated by early poor performance. Between 1995 and 1998, THAAD missiles missed their targets in five consecutive tests. The program was suspended in 1999 and resumed ground and flight testing in November. THAAD's failures echo the mixed performances of several U.S. missile defense systems. The Missile Defense Agency's long-range ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California that were put on alert to shoot down North Korean missiles haven't hit a test target since 2002. An Air Force plane designed to shoot down missiles using a powerful laser has been downgraded to an experiment, with no plans to field the system. Test failures don't surprise missile defense expert Philip Coyle, an advisor to the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C. Considering the unforgiving physics of missile trajectories, Coyle likens hitting a ballistic missile to scoring a hole-in-one in golf. And if the missile is equipped with decoys or descends in a cloud of debris, as is common, intercepting it is like "hitting a hole-in-one when there are a bunch of black dots on the green and you can't tell which one is the hole." The Hera target in today's THAAD test used no decoys and did not simulate debris. Still, McGrath calls the test "representative". The Army had been hoping to have THAAD battery ready for deployment as early as 1999, but now anticipates fielding the system "in a few years," according to McGrath. In coming months, THAAD testing will move to a missile range off of Hawaii for several more flights at longer ranges. Beginning with the next flight, all THAAD systems will be operated by regular Army personnel instead of industry testers.

blog counter