Critical $100 Million US
Anti-Missile Test Fails To
Hit Warhead
By Charles Aldinger
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Saturday failed to hit and destroy a target warhead in space with an anti-missile weapon in a $100 million test of a proposed National Missile Defense system, the Defense Department said.
``We did not intercept the warhead tonight. We are disappointed,'' Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, director of the missile defense effort, told reporters at the Pentagon.
It was the second failure in three tries for the system and is expected to weigh heavily in a decision planned by President Clinton in coming months on whether to begin building an Alaskan radar for a limited missile defense next year, over bitter objections from Russia and China.
Kadish said a "hit-to-kill'' weapon fired from Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific did not separate from the second stage of its liftoff rocket and did not get a chance to intercept a warhead launched about 20 minutes earlier from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, 4,300 miles away.
"It tells me we have more engineering work to do,'' he said. ``We had good confidence in this ... This is rocket science -- things do happen,'' he said.
The weapon, with a successful intercept last October and a test failure in January of this year, was launched from Kwajalein at 12:40 a.m. EDT (0440 GMT). It was supposed to intercept and smash into the warhead about 10 minutes later in space at a speed of 15,000 mph.
The failure was a disappointment for Boeing Co., which is coordinating the intricate ``NMD'' system of weapons, radars and communications, and for Raytheon Corp., which builds the prototype 121-pound ``hit-to-kill'' projectile.
Clinton is caught between bitter opposition from Moscow and Beijing, who fear that a mature and successful U.S. anti-missile system could neutralize their nuclear arsenals, and pressure from conservatives in the U.S. Congress for quick deployment of limited protection against threats from such states as North Korea, Iran and Iraq.
A chorus of scientific critics have charged that the three tests to date have been controlled and ``dumbed down'' to make the target easier to hit than it would be in a real attack.
Prominent scientists and former U.S. government officials have also warned the president that the technology is so immature that it would be folly to begin building a system that could cost anywhere from $30 billion to $60 billion.
Although Friday's test result will affect Clinton's decision whether to begin building a base in Alaska next year, it was not a life-or-death event for NMD. Another 16 ``hit-to-kill'' tests are scheduled in the next five years, each more demanding on the high-tech equipment than the previous test.
After detailed technical data from Saturday's test is analyzed by the Pentagon, Boeing and Raytheon, Defense Secretary William Cohen is currently scheduled to send a recommendation to Clinton in coming weeks on NMD's immediate future.
The Cohen report will be based chiefly on the state of current technology and projected cost of a system of 20 interceptors in Alaska in 2005, swelling to 100 interceptors in later years.
But Clinton says his decision will also consider a pending detailed intelligence analysis of the threat from emerging potential enemies such as North Korea as well as U.S. ties with its European allies, China and Russia.
Europe fears that nuclear arms control could unravel and a new arms race begin if the United States breaks the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty by building even a limited system.
White House spokesman P.J. Crowley cautioned reporters on Friday even before the test that the results would not automatically signal Clinton's decision.
And despite calls by scientific critics and former U.S. government officials for the president to pass any NMD decision off to his successor, who will be elected in November and take office next January, Crowley said ``the election is not a factor in the president's decision-making process.''
Clinton is expected to decide by November at least whether to issue contracts for pouring concrete on wind-swept Shemya Island off Alaska, where a powerful new X-Band radar guidance system for the first phase of NMD would be built. Anti-missile weapons would be based elsewhere in Alaska.
The Defense Department says that because of extremely harsh winter conditions on the island, barges must begin ferrying equipment there next spring if the radar is to be completed by 2005.

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