WASHINGTON — The military plans to conduct the first full flight test of its national missile defense system in nearly two years, with the test coming possibly as early as tonight, officials said Wednesday.
Weather conditions at an Alaska launch site will determine when the test will go forward, said Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency.
The $85-million test comes as the military is in final preparation to activate missile defenses designed to protect against an intercontinental ballistic missile attack from North Korea or elsewhere in eastern Asia.
During the test, a target missile will be launched from Kodiak Island, Alaska, and an interceptor missile will fire from Kwajalein Island in the central Pacific Ocean.
Because the launches would test several new aspects of the missile defense system, Lehner said the interceptor shooting down the target was not the mission's primary goal.
The test is the first in which the interceptor uses the same booster rocket that the operational system uses, Lehner said. It is also the first in which a target missile is launched from Kodiak Island.
In earlier testing, which critics derided as highly scripted, the interceptors were five for eight when launched with the goal of hitting target missiles.
Two previous tests scheduled for this year were delayed because of technical problems. The next test, which will attempt to hit a target missile, is scheduled for early 2005.
In April, the then-chief of missile defense programs, Air Force Lt. Gen. Ron Kadish, said failures in upcoming tests could mean "big problems" for the controversial program.
The Bush administration has made the deployment of missile defenses a key part of its national security policy, saying it is vital to defend the U.S. against missiles launched by hostile nations.
Critics charge the technology is neither ready nor affordable, and say it fails to address the greater threat of weapons of mass destruction brought into the country by terrorists or other means.
Sometime this month, the military expects to announce the missile defense system is operational. It initially will be built around six interceptors at Ft. Greely, Alaska, as well as radars in the Aleutians, in California, and on warships at sea.
In addition, two more interceptors will be placed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The Kwajalein interceptor site is for testing only.