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Missile Tests in Pacific, Caribbean Successful

April 23, 1986|JAMES GERSTENZANG | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Fresh from what it considers a successful display of high-technology combat capability over Libya, the Pentagon disclosed Tuesday that advanced missiles have been successfully tested, further boosting the confidence of military experts assessing their weapons' performance.

In the first test, a $2-million cruise missile was launched from a Pacific submarine and detonated 460 miles away, directly over a target on San Clemente Island, one of California's Channel Islands. In a second successful exercise, the Pentagon reported the firing of six Harpoon missiles in joint Navy-Air Force operations in the Caribbean Sea.

Disclosure of the two recent tests followed closely coordinated Air Force and Navy attacks on Libya last week, raids that produced statements of satisfaction by Pentagon officials.

The Defense Department said that over Libya, weapons systems worked as they should and service branches cooperated--notwithstanding some reports of civilian deaths and damage to sites that were not targeted.

'Accuracy Outstanding'

However, a senior Pentagon official reviewing the accuracy of the weapons used in the Libyan raids last week said, "The equipment is outstanding and the men are outstanding, but anyone who claims perfection is out of step with reality."

The Pentagon disclosed Tuesday that on April 1, a Navy submarine fired a Tomahawk cruise missile equipped with a 1,000-pound "Bull Pup" conventional warhead. The weapon broke the surface of the ocean, arched upward and skimmed eastward at about 630 m.p.h., the Pentagon said.

Directed by an on-board computer, it approached the coast of San Clemente Island, about 60 miles west of San Diego. Using geographical coordinates and the physical features of the island, it found its target, an old RA-5 aircraft, in a dugout shelter surrounded by protective earthen mounds.

A Pentagon videotape of the test showed that the weapon exploded less than 100 feet over the target, displaying an accuracy that a representative of the cruise missile program, Robert E. Holsapple, said was "much better than expected."

Vertical Detonation

While sea-launched cruise missiles, which can carry conventional or nuclear warheads, have already been deployed aboard 23 Navy vessels--submarines, battleships, destroyers and cruisers--the April 1 test was seen at the Pentagon as a demonstration that the weapons can be successfully detonated in the air directly over targets. Earlier tests involved detonation upon impact in either a diving or horizontal strike.

These "air bursts" are considered useful against shelters built below ground level, such as those used by the Soviet Union to protect planes stationed close to runways.

The Navy is planning to buy 2,500 of the Tomahawks, Holsapple said. The missile can fly as high as 10,000 feet, he said, but it cruised at at altitude of 2,000 to 2,500 feet during the test. It has been designed to fly in combat just above the waves or at treetop height over land to avoid detection by enemy radar.

The Harpoon exercise in the Caribbean, conducted Sunday, was as much a test of the weapons as of coordination between the Navy and the Air Force. In one of the six trials, an Air Force B-52G received targeting information from the Navy, launching a missile into a target.

Success to a Point

While the recent exercises involving the Tomahawks and Harpoons demonstrated successful operation of some of the Pentagon's high-technology weaponry, Pentagon officials observed Tuesday that even the most complex guidance and targeting systems, employed in combat by unseasoned fliers, can go awry. "Accuracy is never perfect," said one official.

Pentagon spokesman Robert B. Sims, referring to destruction that occurred in civilian areas of Tripoli last week, acknowledged that "it is possible some (civilian) damage was caused by our forces." But he added, "We don't have any idea of what caused what in civilian areas."

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