VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE — An unarmed Midgetman missile went off course and was destroyed today during the first test flight of the controversial weapon system, the program director said.
Maj. Gen. Ed Barry told reporters that about 70 seconds into the flight the missile began to tumble as its second stage was firing and that the range safety officer issued a destruct command in the third stage.
Barry called the launch a "qualified success" because the flight test met about 50% of the objectives.
The intercontinental ballistic missile, designed to be fired from a truck launcher, blasted off from a concrete pad at 11 a.m.
The missile was supposed to deliver a dummy warhead to a test range about 4,600 miles away on the Kwajalein Atoll.
Single Nuclear Warhead
The Midgetman, formally the small intercontinental ballistic missile, is designed to carry a single nuclear warhead to a target up to 6,900 miles away.
The three-stage missile weighs 37,000 pounds, stands about 50 feet tall and is 46 inches in diameter.
The political controversy involves the issue of whether the United States should develop one or two mobile missiles for its nuclear arsenal. The Soviet Union has already developed and begun deploying two such land-mobile missiles, and the United States has none.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney would prefer to develop one mobile missile--a version of the huge 10-warhead MX that could be carried by and launched from a rail car.
President Bush recently decided, however, to pursue development of the MX and Midgetman to appease Congress.
Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill argue that the nation needs a mobile missile to deter the Soviet Union from attempting a first strike against missiles deployed in silos and that the smaller, more mobile Midgetman is the best alternative.