Defense: Red Alert

For weeks last October, Air Force crews tried to test-fire their Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missile at its silo in Grand Forks, N. Dak. On each of three attempts, its systems control light went red—meaning that the elaborate three-stage bird was unable or unsafe to fire. First it was a failure of a nozzle-control unit, then a glitch in a fail-safe arming circuit, then a guidance failure traced to a tiny capacitor.

Minuteman II has been flashing its red light with disconcerting frequency. The nation's most advanced operational ICBM, with a 7,500-mile...

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