By: David Willman
June 15, 2014
With a convulsive rumble, followed by billowing flames and exhaust, a sleek 60-foot rocket emerged from its silo at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.
It was a test of the backbone of the nation’s missile defense system. If North Korea or Iran ever launched nuclear weapons against the United States, the interceptors at Vandenberg and remote Ft. Greely, Alaska, would be called on to destroy the incoming warheads.
Scientists conducting the test at Vandenberg on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010, had left little to chance. They knew exactly when the target missile would be launched from an atoll in the Marshall Islands 4,900 miles away. They knew its precise dimensions, expected trajectory and speed.
Within minutes, the interceptor’s three boosters had burned out and fallen away, and the kill vehicle was hurtling through space at 4 miles per second. It was supposed to crash into the mock enemy warhead and obliterate it.
At a cost of about $200 million, the mission had failed.
Eleven months later, when the U.S. Missile Defense Agency staged a repeat of the test, it failed, too.
The next attempted intercept, launched from Vandenberg on July 5, 2013, also ended in failure.
The Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, or GMD, was supposed to protect Americans against a chilling new threat from “rogue states” such as North Korea and Iran. But a decade after it was declared operational, and after $40 billion in spending, the missile shield cannot be relied on, even in carefully scripted tests that are much less challenging than an actual attack would be, a Los Angeles Times investigation has found.
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