The Washington Post December 16, 1989

Trident II Missile Launch Indicates Flaw Is Fixed

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer

ABOARD THE USS NASHVILLE, Dec. 15 - A Navy submarine successfully launched an unarmed Trident 11 D-5 ballistic missile today, signaling the apparent success of modifications prompted by two earlier failures.

The noisy morning launch, creating a bright flame and towering smoke above calm seas 50 miles off the Florida coast, was designed to put the Navy's principal strategic weapon program back on track and free $1.1 billion withheld by Congress until the missile's performance had improved.

It was the fifth test from a submerged submarine this year and the third the Navy rated a success. After two spectacular failures, including a flaming missile that cartwheeled above the Atlantic Ocean last spring, Congress had ordered a delay in missile purchases.

Vice Adm. Roger Bacon, commander of the Navy's Atlantic Submarine Force, observed the test from the bow of this amphibious transport Ship and said afterward That modifications of the nozzle below the missile's first stage rocket motor "obviously have corrected the problem."

Other Navy officials later affirmed this judgment but cautioned that they will have to study the test results and present findings on Capitol Hill before restarting full-scale production.

The launch of the $25.1 million missile, which normally will be deployed with eight nuclear warheads designed to destroy Soviet missile silos and command bunkers, occurred in an atmosphere of mild tension. Officials were concerned because of the earlier failures and because of expected interference by the activist group Greenpeace, which opposes naval nuclear arms.

The group had forced a test delay in July by hanging protest banners on the launching submarine and used several small boats to harass the Navy earlier this month and provoke a minor, attention-getting collision at sea.

Today, the Navy prepared for a possible clash with Greenpeace forces by deploying four small, high speed chase boats and several extra helicopters in the test area, in addition to six Coast Guard vessels and five Navy ships used to track the missile and monitor its electronic signals.

But Greenpeace was nowhere in evidence. Josh Handler, an analyst with the group in Washington, said its managers had-decided to move their campaign against the Trident's pricetag and strategic mission to Capitol Hill.

A Soviet electronic-intelligence ship, the Vishaya, trailed the test fleet closely but moved outside the approved safety zone on request.

The 44-foot, 65-ton missile emerged on schedule at 9:15 a.m. in a spray of water after being ejected by compressed gas from one of 24 tubes on the USS Tennessee see, a new submarine that will begin routine missions with the D-5 in March.

A yellow flame spewed from the missile's base after it cleared the ocean surface, and it flew briefly at an angle before straightening and flying through low gray clouds. The brief maneuver is intended to move the miile away from the submarine a. quickly as possible to prevent any harm to the crew in event of failure. -

Officials said later that simulated warheads reentered the atmosphere and landed on schedule roughly 35 minutes later neat Ascension Island in the southern midl-Atlantic 4,000 nautical miles away.

The test failures were attributed to an oversight by the D-5's designers, who did not anticipate the extreme stress caused by a collision of the rocket thrust with the plume of water that follows the missile as it breaks the surface. Pressure from the collision fractured the nozzle of the first-stage rocket motor on one flight and damaged hydraulic sup" ports on another.

Engineers from the Navy and Lockheed Corp., the principal missile contractor, believe they solved the problem by constructing a mesh cover for the rocket nozzle that keeps water out and is blown away during ignition.

The Navy intends to buy 899 of the new missiles at a cost of $35.5 billion, according to congressional sources, and plans to deploy them on at-least 19 strategic submarines.

The Trident II is prized by the Pentagon because it is to carry more powerful and accurate warheads than existing Poseidon and Trident I C-4 missiles, giving it a capability to destroy targets in the Soviet Union that can now be eliminated only by accurate and powerful land-based strategic missiles such as the MX and the Minuteman 111.