VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — An unarmed Midgetman missile malfunctioned 70 seconds after launch Thursday and was destroyed in the first test flight of the controversial weapon system, the Air Force reported.
The launch was characterized as a "partial success" by its program director, but critics said the malfunction was a serious setback for the mobile missile that has been at the heart of a political debate over how to modernize the nation's land-based nuclear missiles.
The missile, which was scheduled to travel 4,000 miles during a 30-minute flight, began "tumbling" after its second-stage rocket motor ignited, said Maj. Gen. Edward Barry, the Midgetman program director.
Fifty seconds later, range safety officers destroyed the missile over the Pacific Ocean.
The missile was supposed to have delivered its dummy warhead to a test range in the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
Barry said he did not immediately know what caused the missile to begin tumbling. But he said the Air Force obtained excellent data during the brief flight and will use that information to identify the problem.
The next test flight of the Midgetman is scheduled for late summer.
Barry characterized the flight as a "partial success . . . in that we achieved 50% of our flight objectives. We'd love to have every flight test be successful, but we do have anomalies in a flight-testing program and that is what our developmental testing is all about."
Setback for Midgetman?
But opponents of the Midgetman say the failure of the intercontinental ballistic missile to complete its mission Thursday is a real setback for the program.
"The unsuccessful test launch shows that the program has a long way to go before it's operational," said James Lee, California press secretary for U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), an opponent of the Midgetman program. "We can't afford this program, especially during a period of declining budget revenues and tight fiscal restraints."
The Midgetman is at the center of a political controversy over whether the United States should develop one or two mobile missiles for its nuclear arsenal.
The Midgetman is designed to carry a single nuclear warhead and can be fired from a mobile, truck-like launcher to a target up to 7,000 miles away.
But Defense Secretary Dick Cheney recommended to President Bush last month that the Midgetman program be killed because it is too expensive. Cheney favors a version of the MX missile that can be launched from a railroad car.
The dispute over the MX and the Midgetman divided Congress along party lines, with most liberals favoring the Midgetman and conservatives preferring the MX.
But Bush recently compromised on the issue in the 1990 military budget, deciding that both the MX and the Midgetman should be developed.
The Administration wants mobile missiles because they would be difficult for the Soviets to find during a crisis and to increase the U.S. bargaining position at arms control talks.
Under the Administration's recent military budget proposal, the Pentagon would spend $1.2 billion in fiscal 1990 to produce a system that would permit taking the 50 MX missiles now deployed in silos and redeploying them on railroad cars, beginning in late 1991.
Meanwhile, the Administration proposed to spend only $200 million on Midgetman production during fiscal 1990--a commitment that would prevent deployment of a small mobile missile until 1997.
On Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders have argued that the Midgetman, which is small and more mobile that the rail-based MX, is needed to deter the Soviet Union from attempting a first strike against silo-based missiles.
A spokesman for Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Thursday's aborted test flight should not stop development of the project.
"Opponents are going to use this against the program, but it's not relevant," said Warren Nelson, a spokesman for Aspin. "This is just part of the testing program."
The major advantage of the Midgetman program, he said, is its mobility. The Midgetman weighs about 37,000 pounds and is designed to carry one nuclear warhead. The MX carries 10 warheads and weighs about 100 tons.
It would take hours to transfer MX missiles from their garrisons to trains where they could hide from enemy attack, Nelson said. The Midgetman, however, could be deployed in minutes, he said.
But Republican leaders have contended that the rail-garrison MX plan would be less expensive than the Midgetman program because the MX missiles are already in place in silos. Putting them on railroad cars would cost less than a quarter of what it would cost to develop a new missile system, they say.
The Midgetman's first-stage rocket motor is being developed by Morton Thiokol Inc. of Brigham City, Utah; the second-stage rocket motor is being developed by Aerojet Nevada Rocket Operations of Sacramento, and the third stage by Aerospace Productions Group of Magna, Utah.
Martin Marietta Corp. was hired by the Air Force to oversee assembly and testing, and to provide support services. The missile's truck launcher is being developed by the Boeing Aerospace Co. in Seattle.