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U.S. Set for Biggest Missile Defense Test in 18 Months

At stake is the ability of an interceptor to spot -- not necessarily to hit -- its target.

August 28, 2006|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

FT. GREELY, Alaska — The U.S. military will test its missile defense system Thursday, the fullest demonstration since a pair of tests grounded the program 18 months ago.

Military officials are seeking to lower expectations. Although a target missile will be fired from Kodiak Island, Alaska, and an interceptor rocket topped with a "kill vehicle" will launch from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base, military and industry officials say the goal isn't to actually shoot down the missile.

"We are not going to try to hit the target," said Scott Fancher, head of Boeing Co.'s ground-based missile defense program. "It is not a primary or secondary test objective to hit the target."

After a tour of the missile interceptor silos here Sunday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that although he wanted to see a "full end-to-end test," he was patient. He rejected suggestions that the system should try to hit the target this time.

"Why not proceed in an orderly way with the kind of the test expert people [want to do]?" Rumsfeld told reporters. "They do not have to do it to demonstrate to you."

Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry "Trey" Obering III, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said it was "possible" the kill vehicle would take out the missile even though that was not a goal. But the military, he said, is focused on making sure a redesigned kill vehicle is able to spot the target missile, distinguish between its booster stage and warhead, and communicate with the control centers on the ground.

"This is about as good as it gets in terms of a system test," Obering said.

The general has said several times that he believes the missile defense system can shoot down a long-range North Korean missile aimed at the United States.

"We can protect L.A. -- we can protect the entire United States from both California and Alaska -- from a North Korea threat," he said Saturday.

The military is not going to try to knock out a target missile until December, a test that Obering called the "final stage."

"It will be the same scenario: target out of Alaska, interceptor out of California," the general said. But "the objective will be to intercept the target."

Critics have long raised doubts about the $43-billion system.

Although the interceptors have hit dummy missiles in five out of 10 tests, some outside experts have said the conditions were too controlled and the targets not realistic enough.

Obering rejected any suggestion that the previous tests were rigged. Thursday's test, he said, will use a target missile similar in size and speed to the single-warhead weapon that the military believes North Korea could fire.

"We believe it is very close," Obering said of the target missile. "As much as we know, we believe it is very representative."

The missile defense system was declared operational in 2004, meeting a goal that President Bush had set two years before. Military officials said then that testing and improvement of the system would continue.

After botched tests in December 2004 and February 2005, Obering ordered a halt to the program in order to examine and fix the problems that prevented successful launches and flights of the interceptors.

The testing resumed, in incremental steps, in December. In the first test, an interceptor was launched against a target dropped from an airplane. And in February, the military tested the ability of the ground-based radar in Beale, Calif., near Sacramento, to pick up and track targets.

Thursday's test is more important because it will involve all the main components of the defense system.

The military operates two interceptor sites. One site is at Vandenberg, which will be used for Thursday's test. The Alaska site at Ft. Greely will hold 11 missiles when the latest is placed in the ground today.

During his visit here, Rumsfeld examined the missile waiting to be installed, saw a mock-up of the kill vehicle and climbed into one of the silos.

The military is hoping to install another set of interceptors either in Poland or in the Czech Republic.

Obering said that if Congress appropriated the initial funding for the project this year -- about $56 million for the site and $70 million for the interceptors -- the interceptors could be operational by 2010.

At a meeting Sunday in Fairbanks, Alaska, with Russian Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov, Rumsfeld outlined the Pentagon's plans for the new interceptor site. At a news conference afterward, Ivanov called on the United States to be "transparent" in moving forward and hinted that an interceptor site might not be needed.

"We should proceed from reality," Ivanov said, speaking through a translator.

"How many countries can possess substantial ballistic missiles?"

The two men also discussed American plans to retrofit some nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles with conventional warheads. During the news conference, Rumsfeld said he thought the Russian military should also retrofit some of its missiles.

"We think it would be a good thing five, 10 years from now if both of our countries had that additional weapon available," Rumsfeld said.

"We do not know how the world will evolve. But we do know that there are terrorist networks in the world, and they are already using missiles."

Ivanov said his government had concerns over the plan. But, he allowed, "we will keep in touch."

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