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Test of Antimissile System Scores a Hit

Defense: The successful launch boosts the White House's ambitious--and controversial--program.

July 15, 2001|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A Pentagon "kill vehicle" located and destroyed a dummy missile warhead in outer space above the central Pacific on Saturday evening, giving a new boost to the Bush administration's ambitious and controversial missile defense program.

The 120-pound interceptor, launched atop a missile from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, found its target 144 miles into outer space and, at 8:09 p.m. PDT, pulverized it in a blinding flash of light. The target missile had been launched about 7:40 p.m. from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Ventura County.

"We believe we have a successful test in all respects at this time," Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, declared at the Pentagon.

As the interceptor smashed its target, the missile defense team at Kwajalein erupted in cheers. Air Force and Army officers and their civilian colleagues jumped out of their seats, pumped one another's hands and slapped one another on the back.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 19, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Air Base--The location of Vandenberg Air Force Base was incorrect in a story Sunday about a missile test. The base is in Santa Barbara County.

Video of the collision, and the Kwajalein command center, were shown to reporters gathered at the Pentagon.

The success means that two of four flight tests of the antimissile system conducted since October, 1999 have hit their targets. And, although Pentagon officials have been playing down the importance of this developmental test, the success will strengthen advocates' case at a critical moment.

Congress is debating an administration missile defense plan that calls for a 57% hike in program spending and accelerated testing of technologies that could become part of a complex antimissile system. The plan calls for the construction of a missile test site in Alaska that could be deployed in an emergency, and it could force the abandonment of a 29-year-old arms treaty with the Russians that limits antimissile systems. Russia has said it fears a nuclear arms buildup.

The administration and its allies are arguing that the nation needs to move as quickly as possible to defend against other countries' long-range missiles. But critics contend that Congress should cut this budget proposal and avoid any action that forces the United States to abandon the Antiballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 in favor of a technology they regard as unproved.

Jack Spencer, a missile defense supporter at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, said the success was "more evidence that the technology is there--that we can hit a bullet with a bullet."

He said that, while the importance of one test shouldn't be overstated, the successful hit would have a big effect in the public relations battle by undermining the often-heard argument that 'this technology is unfeasible."

One critic of missile defense, Thomas Z. Collina of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that "given the relative simplicity of the test, it shouldn't be seen as justification to move toward a system."

He noted that, in a real attack, the antimissile interceptor could face multiple warheads and multiple decoys. "Until they've tested against all that, they're not really testing the system."

Near Vandenberg, the Coast Guard and Air Force arrested two Greenpeace environmental activists after they swam to shore from an inflatable raft moored off the central California coast, Air Force Sgt. Rebecca Bonilla said. The arrests delayed the launch by two minutes, she said.

The swimmers were among a small group of Greenpeace members who tried to stop the launch, said Carol Gregory, a spokeswoman for the group.

The test began when Air Force technicians turned a key at Vandenberg that launched the target, a modified Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missile. It carried a dummy warhead and a large balloon decoy.

An early warning satellite detected the launch and alerted a missile defense command center at Colorado Springs, Colo., where "battle manager" equipment cued a radar on Kwajalein, 4,800 miles away.

About 20 minutes after the Vandenberg launch, as the target sailed westward over the Pacific, a prototype interceptor missile carrying the kill vehicle in its nose was launched from Kwajalein.

The kill vehicle detached from the booster rocket beneath it and sped toward the target. Using radar data and its own super-sophisticated infrared sensor, the kill vehicle found the warhead in space, picking it out from the balloon decoy and a portion of the Minuteman rocket floating nearby.

The collision took place at a speed of about 15,000 mph. The force generated by a crash at that velocity--nearly 4.5 miles per second--would reduce the equipment to tiny bits of space dust.

Kadish, head of the missile defense team, said the balloon decoy that failed to inflate in last year's test did open in this one. Also unlike last year, the kill vehicle separated properly from the other stage of the interceptor, he said.

Kadish said further analysis may show that some systems didn't perform perfectly. It will be several months before the final analysis will be complete, he said.

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