Sunday, November 20, 2005

Russia recently conducted a flight test of a new warhead that can change course in midflight, which U.S. and Russian officials are calling part of Moscow’s efforts to defeat U.S. missile defenses.

The warhead was tested Nov. 1 and tracked by U.S. intelligence technical monitors, including satellites, the officials said.

An analysis of the flight test by U.S. intelligence agencies revealed that it was a further test of a maneuverable warhead that Moscow has been developing for several years in response to U.S. missile defenses.

The warhead was flight tested on a Russian Topol-M missile, designated by the Pentagon the SS-27, that flew from the Kapustin Yar launch complex in southern Russia near Volgograd.

The missile booster fired for a shorter-than-usual duration in placing the dummy warhead and re-entry vehicle into space. The warhead then dropped down to a lower trajectory and was able to maneuver.

Kremlin officials were quoted in Russian press reports as saying the new warhead was designed to thwart the new U.S. missile-defense system of interceptors deployed in Alaska and California.

U.S. officials confirmed some characteristics of the new missile warhead based on an analysis of the Nov. 1 flight test, which was first reported earlier this month by several Russian news organizations.

Unlike current ballistic warheads that do not alter their flight paths sharply once they reach space, the new warhead can change course and range while traveling at speeds estimated at about 3 miles per second, the officials said.

Maneuvering warheads represents a difficult physics challenge because changing course at such high speeds normally would cause a warhead to disintegrate.

Maneuverability would let a warhead thwart missile defenses, because such countermeasures rely on sensors to project a warhead’s flight path and impact point so that an interceptor missile can be guided to the right spot to knock out a warhead.

Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA), declined to comment on U.S. intelligence assessments of the latest Russian warhead test because data is classified.

But Mr. Lehner would say that U.S. missile defenses aim to counter a limited number of warheads from a small nuclear power such as North Korea, not a major strike from a nation with hundreds of missiles, such as Russia.

However, Moscow believes future U.S. defenses, including plans to deploy anti-missile interceptors in Europe or the East Coast of the United States, could be used against Russian strategic missiles.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said a year ago that the new strategic-missile system “will have no analogues,” a reference to the hypersonic warhead.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon announced yesterday the Navy’s Aegis missile-defense system conducted the sixth successful test of an anti-missile interceptor hitting a target warhead.

It was the first time that a ship-based SM-3 interceptor missile hit a warhead that had been separated from its booster, the MDA said in a statement. The test was carried out near Hawaii from the Aegis-equipped cruiser USS Lake Erie.

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