Hit-or-miss cruise tests worry locals

The US Air Force's air-launched cruise missile, undergoing a less-than-sparkling test phase, is beginning to raise public safety questions in California.

Two companies, General Dynamics and the Boeing Company, are nearing the end of a keenly competitive "fly-off" to determine which will receive the lead contract in what is expected to be a $7 billion package.

Of 16 tests made by the firms, seven have ended in crashes -- one on a private farm near Lompoc and one on public land on a hillside near Ojai, both in southern California.

The precise routes and schedule of the test flights are not disclosed, but those in charge say the flight paths do not cross or even come near heavily populated areas. In the two California crashes, the only damage, besides to the missiles, has been a two-acre brush fire (Dec. 6). The most recent accident (Dec. 27) caused no damage when the missile dipped quickly and slammed into a bank of mud.

But the failure rate is worrying some local officials. Lompoc Mayor Chuck Ward told the Los Angeles Times: "It's like a big cannon sitting off the coast pointed at Lompoc. It's a scary situation."

Military officials insist there is no cause for alarm. "I wouldn't say the crashes were expected, but it is a research and development operation and we expect problems," says Robert Holsappel, the public affairs officer for the Joint Cruise Missile Project in Washington. "Is the public safety in jeopardy? I would say not. There is very little chance of it reaching a populated area. There are too many safety features."

Chief among those features, he says, are two F-4 Phantom jets that flank the missiles as they proceed on their test runs from 400 miles off the coast of California to an inland military range in Utah. Should a missile deviate from its designated route, the jets have the capability to override the guidance system.

The missiles, designed to penetrate Soviet air defenses by sneaking under enemy radar to deliver a nuclear warhead, can fly at 500 m.p.h., at times not much higher than tree-top level. At those speeds and altitude a malfunction that sends the missile straight down gives the F-4 pilots almost no time to take control.

But another Air Force official brushed aside early reports from the Santa Barbara County Fire Department that, following the Dec. 27 crash, the search efforts by the Air Force centered on an area more than four miles from where the missile actually went down. The F-4 jets are supposed to be no more than a few hundred yards on either side of the cruise missile.

To date, four General Dynamics and three Boeing missiles have crashed. An Air Force source suggests that the failure rate is due to engineers from each company pushing their product to the limit to prove performance capabilities.

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