interceptor missile launch
Spectators look toward the skies as they watch the interceptor missile launch Sunday at Vandenberg Air Force Base.//Ian Gonzaga/Staff

A ground-based interceptor missile successfully blasted off Sunday afternoon from Vandenberg Air Force Base, but missed its intended target after a key radar system didn’t do its job.

Initial results reveal the approximately $120 million test was not successful because a Sea-Based X-Band Radar didn’t perform as expected, Missile Defense Agency officials said about three hours after the test.

“Program officials will conduct an extensive investigation to determine the cause of the failure to intercept,” MDA officials said in a written statement.

More information won’t be available for at least a few days, and the investigation could take at least two months, said spokesman Richard Lehner. As typically happens after a test failure, the data has been frozen for the investigation team’s analysis.

Confirmation of the failed intercept came hours after about 200 people, including uniformed soldiers and airmen along with families with picnics and pet dogs, had gathered Sunday afternoon at the Ronald W. Reagan  Missile Defense Site — a north Vandenberg hilltop overlooking silos — to see the afternoon launch.

After a delay due to a quickly fixed glitch at Vandenberg, the target weapon launched from the Kwajalein Atoll about 3:40 p.m. A few minutes later a three-stage interceptor vehicle was sent skyward from an underground silo at Vandenberg.

The interceptor rose quickly from its launch site, which is surrounded by green vegetation now carpeting Vandenberg hillsides, and climbed into blue sky, as onlookers craned their necks to see. A smattering of applause greeted the weapon’s departure.

This was the first test for a Vandenberg interceptor against a target launched from Kwajalein, and MDA officials say it was designed as more of a “head-on intercept,” rather than the side-to-side hit the system has achieved in the past.

“It’s going to be a more challenging engagement than a side intercept,” MDA spokeswoman Pamela Rogers said prior to the test.

The powerful radar that is designed to detect, acquire and track targets provides the data necessary for the complex Ground-based Midcourse Defense segment. It’s one of several key elements that make up the system

For Sunday’s test, the sea-based radar — it looks like a huge golf ball sitting on an old oil platform in the ocean —  was designed as the “sole tracking sensor responsible for data” during the engagement between the target and interceptor. The radar was suppose to deliver the critical data to other parts of the system.

The ground-based missile-defense interceptors, which are located at Vandenberg and Fort Greely, Alaska, are designed to protect against limited long-range attack from a rogue nation, military officials say.

Opponents contend the system launched a new arms race, with the Santa Barbara-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation labeling the test  “dangerous, destabilizing and provocative.”

 “Missile defense testing by the United States does not make our country more secure...” said David Krieger, president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. “The United States continues throwing billions of dollars into the bottomless pit of missile defense, a technology that remains largely ineffective. ... Such scenarios destabilize relations with other countries and waste taxpayer dollars.”

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 On Sunday, security forces detained eight of 11 people who gathered near the base’s main entrance to protest the missile-defense test. Seven of them were cited and released, but one, who continued to refuse to give his name, was taken into custody and booked into the Lompoc jail, according to Vandenberg officials.

Opponents gathered about 1 p.m. in the designated area near Vandenberg’s main entrance to stage a peaceful protest against the test.

A short time later, security personnel asked them to show identification, according to longtime protester Dennis Apel.

Two people, Apel and MacGregor Eddy, were cited for being on base despite being barred from being there due to previous protests.

Five others were cited and released for refusing to show identification; a sixth was taken into custody for continuing to refuse to show too show identification. 

Col. Joseph Milner, 30th Security Forces Squadron spokesman, said the advisory included on the base’s Web site and handed out to protesters, notes that they must show ID if asked to do so.

“Most of the folks who go out feel our civil rights are being violated,” Apel said.

One woman ended up being taken to the hospital after complaining her shoulder had been injured while she was handcuffed.