he deployment of U.S. troops to the Persian Gulf in 1991 to force Iraq out of Kuwait was a wake-up call for military planners. The vulnerability of soldiers to Iraqi Scud missiles demonstrated the critical need for a missile defense system capable of defending large areas by intercepting and destroying ballistic missiles. The only defense U.S. troops had against the Scuds was the Patriot missile, which proved a dismal failure. Had the Scud missiles been more effective, or been armed with biological or chemical weapons, they could have proved a formidable weapon in the Iraqi arsenal.
Pentagon officials thought they found a solution to their needs in Lockheed Martin's Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. Unlike the Patriot, which was designed to destroy incoming missiles in the lower atmosphere, THAAD is intended to destroy missiles high enough to render ineffective any weapons of mass destruction with which the missiles might be armed.
But six years into the program and $1 billion over budget, some aren't so sure. The system has failed to intercept five target missiles during the initial five flight tests. A sixth test planned for this month has been postponed until the first quarter of 1999, because of test missile problems.
"There is no question we have to have a high-altitude theater engagement system. I mean, we cannot do this job just with low-altitude systems, just with Patriots or just with Standard missiles," Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee in October.
The system has failed in flight tests for a variety of reasons, but underlying them is the program's compressed schedule. To save time, testing has been limited. In the end, however, the compressed schedule may end up costing taxpayers more time and money than a traditional acquisition strategy would cost.
The Institute for Defense Analysis concluded in a Pentagon-sponsored study of missile defense flight test programs that the intense time pressure under which the THAAD program was being executed was counterproductive and created a "rush to failure" environment.
"The causes of failure in these flight tests were found to be in subsystems usually considered to be low risk. The failures typically were caused by poor design and fabrication, inadequate ground checkout discipline, and pressures to move on to the next step," according to the study. The study also faulted contractor Lockheed Martin for poor leadership and management of the contract.
In a precedent-setting decision, Lockheed Martin agreed to pay the government up to $75 million if THAAD continues to fail tests.
"It seems to us that we have three options," said Hamre. The Pentagon could continue testing what so far have proved to be flawed test missiles, build new test missiles under better quality control conditions or rethink the program entirely.
Five more test missiles are left, along with the hardware to build two more. None of the options are good. Delaying the much-needed program will further anger members of Congress who believe the Pentagon is bungling a critical program and are leaving troops vulnerable to missile attack.
But no matter what Congress or the Pentagon wants, Hamre is certainly right about one thing. "We can't deploy a system that doesn't work," he says.