Saturday, September 2, 2006

The U.S. missile defense system yesterday shot down an incoming dummy warhead simulating the last-stage trajectory of a North Korean Taepodong-2 missile, a milestone that U.S. officials expect to counter critics of earlier tests.

It was the first time a dummy North Korean missile was intercepted, and the sixth successful intercept since 1999, said officials from the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency.

“What we did today is a huge step in terms of our systematic approach to continuing to field, continuing to deploy and continuing to develop a missile defense system for the United States, for our allies, our friends, our deployed forces around the world,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency.

He said there is “good chance” the system would be successful against a Taepodong-2 launched from North Korea.

Seven North Korean missiles launched July 4 included a long-range Taepodong-2 that failed less than a minute after launch.

Robert Joseph, undersecretary of state for international security, said the intercept was especially significant in light of North Korea’s missile tests and Iran’s nuclear standoff with the international community.

“Missile defense is an essential element of our overall counterproliferation posture,” Mr. Joseph said. “This successful test … demonstrates that we can and will deploy capabilities necessary to defend the United States and our allies against missile attack.”

Pentagon officials said the warhead was destroyed in outer space above a point several hundred miles west of Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

The test began with a target missile fired from the Kodiak Launch Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska, at 1:22 p.m. and its last stage was rammed by the high-speed interceptor launched from Vandenberg 17 minutes later. The interceptor used data gathered from an early warning radar located at Beale Air Force Base near Sacramento, Calif., and electronics that were used to track and identify the 4-foot-long warhead and guide it into a high-speed, midspace collision.

Both missiles were traveling at 15,000 to 18,000 mph, making the intercept a difficult technical challenge for what the Pentagon calls the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System. The system uses sensors in space, at sea and on the ground, along with communication links stretching from Japan to Colorado.

North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland issued a statement, carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, saying the test “clearly shows that it is the U.S. which is increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula and threatening war against our country.” As a result, Pyongyang will boost its “self-defensive deterrent,” a phrase North Korea often uses for its nuclear program.

Unlike earlier tests, the interceptor was not launched from nearby Fort Greely, Alaska. Its success is expected to counter critics who said the Missile Defense Agency had been using artificial conditions and equipment for its previous tests, instead of realistic weapons trajectories and operational conditions.

“This test validated the confidence that I’ve expressed in the past with the performance of the system.” Gen. Obering told reporters.

In addition to launching the first interceptor from Vandenberg, the test also was the first in which the military used an operational missile defense fire-control system and the operational radar system at Beale, Gen. Obering said.

“We did intercept the re-entry vehicle, and we did use the operational radar data to provide the initial track for that intercept, and the kill vehicle performed its own discrimination and targeting of the kill vehicle,” the general said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld applauded the result, saying it will “increase confidence” in missile defense capability, but warned that the system is not perfected.

“While today’s test was a success, the test program is by no means complete,” he said. “Tests will continue, some of which will be successful and some will not. This was a challenging test, and the tests will become even more challenging in the period ahead.”

Asked when a realistic “end-to-end” test of the system could be held, Gen. Obering said: “Well, you know, I don’t want to ask the North Koreans to launch against us. That would be a realistic end-to-end test. Short of that, this is about as good as it gets with respect to that.”

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