By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 2, 2006
The U.S. military shot down a target missile using its long-range missile defense system yesterday, the first time such a test has intercepted a mock enemy warhead since 2002, officials said.
An interceptor missile was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and collided with its target more than 100 miles above Earth, according to the Missile Defense Agency. The target, launched from Alaska, was the first to have a trajectory similar to the path a missile fired from North Korea might follow in an attack on West Coast cities.
Pentagon officials hailed the test as a major step forward for the nation's "shield" against incoming ballistic missiles, saying it vindicates their confidence in the military's ability to thwart an overseas launch of a missile carrying weapons of mass destruction.
But experts cautioned that the test lacked some real-world conditions, such as enemy efforts to defeat the missile defense system, a surprise attack and an attack involving multiple missiles. They said it does not indicate that the nation is secure from a missile attack.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry A. "Trey" Obering III, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said yesterday that he thinks the U.S. military would have "a good chance" of shooting down a missile that threatened the United States with a system that "would be very capable" if it had to be used today. He said the military tried to mimic North Korea's Taepodong-2 missile and intercepted the target even though the goal of the exercise was simply to gather data.
"This is about as close as we can come to an end-to-end test of our long-range missile defense system," Obering said at a Pentagon news conference. The exercise tested nearly every component of the developing system, from the detection and tracking of an incoming missile to its destruction, he said.
Experts said, however, that the test was not decisive because it was the first time the improved interceptor was successful. It will take several such results to prove any level of reliability, they said.
Anthony H. Cordesman, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that the successful test is a step forward but that the military is a long way away from having a working anti-missile system. He described the U.S. capability as "very limited," requiring a far more intensive testing program.
"It's important to have the test, but you need a frequency and a level of testing that proves you can do this reliably," Cordesman said. "Is this a milestone of a kind? Yes. Does it prove we have a mature, ready system? No way."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week during a visit to Alaska that he would like to see a full test of the missile system's capabilities. In a written statement about yesterday's test, Rumsfeld was cautious, saying the success should increase U.S. confidence as work proceeds toward developing an initial missile defense capability.
"Tests will continue, some of which will be successful and some of which will not," he said. "This was a challenging test, and the tests will become even more challenging in the period ahead."
Officials operating the system yesterday knew roughly when the target would be launched and where it would originate, Obering said, factors that in a real attack would be almost entirely unpredictable.
The military also has yet to fully deploy an advanced radar system -- called X-band radar -- that eventually will be located on a floating platform off Alaska's coast. Though the radar was tested yesterday off the coast of California, it has not been winterized for northern conditions. It is scheduled to be transferred to Alaska this fall.
The cost of yesterday's test was estimated at more than $85 million. The missile defense program has cost nearly $100 billion since it began in the early 1980s with President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" concept of space-based lasers.
The program is now designed to intercept missile attacks with a complex system of radars and land- and sea-based interceptors propelled into space by booster rockets. The interceptors deploy "kill vehicles" that destroy the incoming warheads by colliding with them.
The program has been controversial both for its cost and for its lack of demonstrated capabilities. Yesterday's success follows two failed attempts in late 2004 and early 2005, when the interceptors did not make it out of their silos because of technical problems.
The test was done to evaluate several parts of the system. The data collected covered how the booster rocket and kill vehicle performed, and how well the system tracked and reported the incoming target missile.
The U.S. military positioned ships off the coast of North Korea to detect missile launches in late June, preparing the missile defense system in case it needed to intercept one. North Korea launched six missiles on July 4 -- including one test Taepodong-2 -- but they failed seconds after takeoff and did not pose a threat to the United States.
Obering said tests scheduled for December will increase in difficulty. Future exercises are likely to include countermeasures such as decoys intended to confuse the kill vehicle.