The US Department of Defense expects to have a plan in place by the end of this month to save the troubled $15 billion Lockheed Martin Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile programme.

The plan will address the technical problems that have caused the hit-to-kill weapon to miss target ballistic missiles in five out of five flight tests. The Pentagon has spent $3.2 billion on the THAAD programme to date.

US Air Force Lt Gen Lester Lyles, director of the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), believes the latest test failure on 12 May was caused by a short-circuit in the missile's thrust vector control mechanism, built by United Technologies' Chemical Systems unit.

Lyles says the THAAD's radar, battle management command and control and launcher subsystems have been trouble-free, adding that the five test failures were caused by different "failure mechanisms" involving the missile.

"We expect to be able to identify the root causes and define the areas for corrective action within the next few weeks," Lyles says. "I expect to receive the final report later this month."

Lyles says termination of the project is not being considered. "We are fully committed to THAAD and I am confident we will solve the problems with the missile." He concedes, however, that the next THAAD test, which was scheduled to take place in August, has been delayed for at least two or three months.

Lyles says Lockheed Martin has brought in "troubleshooters" and set up five review teams to address the technical problems. Still being negotiated is a cost-sharing arrangement under which Lockheed Martin would "-support some aspects of the costs associated with THAAD missile tests, should test failures continue".

Lyles will say only that the company's financial contribution will be "significant", but sources say it is offering to pay a penalty of $15 million for each future test failure.

Five flights remain and the penalty agreement would be nullified if there were three successful tests in a row.

The go-ahead for production of 40 operational evaluation system THAAD missiles awaits the outcome of possible programme restructuring, which may include mandatory development of a second source for the weapon. This was mentioned by the House of Representatives in its version of the fiscal year 1999 defence authorisation Bill.

Source: Flight International