News

Tuesday, Oct. 5, 1999
Missile test called a success
BY JAMES V. GRIMALDI Knight Ridder Newspapers


WASHINGTON -- Hurtling into each other at an amazing 4 miles a second, a sophisticated military gadget collided with a dummy Minuteman missile Saturday in what the Pentagon called a successful first "hit-to-kill" test of the ambitious national missile-defense system run by Boeing.

The hit was a boon for the scaled-down "Star Wars" missile-defense program that envisions interceptor rockets carrying "kill vehicles" smashing into warhead-laden missiles headed for the United States.

A modified Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., at 7:02 p.m. PDT Saturday and then was blasted from the sky about 30 minutes later by an "exoatmospheric kill vehicle" fired from Kwajalein Missile Range in the Marshall Islands 4,300 miles away, the Pentagon announced.

The 120-pound kill vehicle "located and tracked the target, guiding (itself) to a body-to-body impact with the target and resulting in the target destruction using only the kinetic energy of the collision," the National Missile Defense Office announced.

The results of the test will be analyzed over the next couple of days and contribute to President Clinton's decision in mid-2000 on whether to deploy the program. The other major factor in the decision will be an assessment of the possibility that a "rogue" nation will be ready to deploy a missile with a warhead with nuclear or biological weapons.

Coming on the heels of a series of major missile failures in the aerospace industry, the test also was a major hurdle for Boeing and subcontractor Raytheon of Tuscon, Ariz.

Boeing began overseeing the program last year from its Electronic Systems & Missile Defense branch in Anaheim, Calif., and the Space and Communications Division in Seal Beach, Calif. Work also is being done in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Huntsville, Ala. The Pentagon is planning to spend $10.5 billion through 2005 and eventually the cost could reach at least $60 billion.

Saturday's test, which cost $100 million, also was seen as important for keeping the program on an already ambitious schedule at a time when some national-security officials worry about potential missile threats from a rogue nation. The fear is that nations such as Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya or North Korea, could deploy the kind of missile this program is envisioned to shoot down.

"Success does not mean we are ready to deploy this system tomorrow," a senior Defense official told a cluster of reporters at the Pentagon on Friday. "Success would be a very high confidence builder." North Korea, in particular, startled the intelligence community when it tested a three-stage rocket over Japan that could reach parts of Hawaii or Alaska. In response, the United States and Japan offered economic assistance in exchange for North Korea imposing a moratorium on its rocket testing.

Aside from vetting a key aspect of the technology, the test also was a crucial political hurdle for the program. A raft of critics is waiting in the wings, having repeatedly decried the program as unworkable, risky, impossible to accomplish at the current budget and something that could potentially exacerbate a nuclear threat by provoking Russia or China.

Republicans have faulted the Clinton administration for not building such a system, and several presidential candidates have made it a major plank in their platforms. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman, has sent a fund-raising letter, which Democrats called misleadingly alarmist, warning that Clinton's failure on this program poses dire threats to Americans.

But, if anything, the program already is on a fast-track because of support from Republicans, many Democrats and the Clinton administration, which hesitated at first and then enthusiastically embraced it.

"These tests generally miss more often than they hit, and missile defense would have to work perfectly if it was going to work at all," said program critic John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists. "Republicans are going to try to make it a campaign issue, and Democrats are going to try to prevent it from becoming one. The momentum toward deploying it will continue."



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