A Pentagon "kill vehicle" located and destroyed a dummy missile warhead in outer space above the central Pacific on Saturday evening, giving a new boost to the Bush administration's ambitious and controversial missile defense program.
The 120-pound interceptor, launched atop a missile from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, found its target 144 miles into outer space and, at 8:09 p.m. PDT, pulverized it in a blinding flash of light. The target missile had been launched about 7:40 p.m. from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Ventura County.
"We believe we have a successful test in all respects at this time," Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, declared at the Pentagon.
As the interceptor smashed its target, the missile defense team at Kwajalein erupted in cheers. Air Force and Army officers and their civilian colleagues jumped out of their seats, pumped one another's hands and slapped one another on the back.
Video of the collision, and the Kwajalein command center, were shown to reporters gathered at the Pentagon.
The success means that two of four flight tests of the antimissile system conducted since October, 1999 have hit their targets. And, although Pentagon officials have been playing down the importance of this developmental test, the success will strengthen advocates' case at a critical moment.
Congress is debating an administration missile defense plan that calls for a 57% hike in program spending and accelerated testing of technologies that could become part of a complex antimissile system. The plan calls for the construction of a missile test site in Alaska that could be deployed in an emergency, and it could force the abandonment of a 29-year-old arms treaty with the Russians that limits antimissile systems. Russia has said it fears a nuclear arms buildup.
The administration and its allies are arguing that the nation needs to move as quickly as possible to defend against other countries' long-range missiles. But critics contend that Congress should cut this budget proposal and avoid any action that forces the United States to abandon the Antiballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 in favor of a technology they regard as unproved.
Jack Spencer, a missile defense supporter at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, said the success was "more evidence that the technology is there--that we can hit a bullet with a bullet."
He said that, while the importance of one test shouldn't be overstated, the successful hit would have a big effect in the public relations battle by undermining the often-heard argument that 'this technology is unfeasible."
One critic of missile defense, Thomas Z. Collina of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that "given the relative simplicity of the test, it shouldn't be seen as justification to move toward a system."
He noted that, in a real attack, the antimissile interceptor could face multiple warheads and multiple decoys. "Until they've tested against all that, they're not really testing the system."
Near Vandenberg, the Coast Guard and Air Force arrested two Greenpeace environmental activists after they swam to shore from an inflatable raft moored off the central California coast, Air Force Sgt. Rebecca Bonilla said. The arrests delayed the launch by two minutes, she said.
The swimmers were among a small group of Greenpeace members who tried to stop the launch, said Carol Gregory, a spokeswoman for the group.
The test began when Air Force technicians turned a key at Vandenberg that launched the target, a modified Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missile. It carried a dummy warhead and a large balloon decoy.
An early warning satellite detected the launch and alerted a missile defense command center at Colorado Springs, Colo., where "battle manager" equipment cued a radar on Kwajalein, 4,800 miles away.
About 20 minutes after the Vandenberg launch, as the target sailed westward over the Pacific, a prototype interceptor missile carrying the kill vehicle in its nose was launched from Kwajalein.
The kill vehicle detached from the booster rocket beneath it and sped toward the target. Using radar data and its own super-sophisticated infrared sensor, the kill vehicle found the warhead in space, picking it out from the balloon decoy and a portion of the Minuteman rocket floating nearby.
The collision took place at a speed of about 15,000 mph. The force generated by a crash at that velocity--nearly 4.5 miles per second--would reduce the equipment to tiny bits of space dust.
Kadish, head of the missile defense team, said the balloon decoy that failed to inflate in last year's test did open in this one. Also unlike last year, the kill vehicle separated properly from the other stage of the interceptor, he said.
Kadish said further analysis may show that some systems didn't perform perfectly. It will be several months before the final analysis will be complete, he said.
A failure would have been a major embarrassment, given the scrutiny the program has gotten. When a test last July failed, the missile program delayed the follow-up test for many months in an effort to avoid a repeat failure.
The Pentagon has been working hard to reduce expectations.
Kadish said Friday that he was "quietly confident" that the test would come off as planned, But he added that the organization "expects successes and we expect failures." The test "will either give us more confidence in our approach . . . or we're going to learn more from it."
The missile test was much like the failed test that took place July 7, 2000. Even so, it was highly complex, and experts had said there was a good chance that it could fail either because of the more experimental technologies involved or because of the more mature parts of the systems.
The test involved some components, including the booster rocket and the high-resolution X-band radar, that basically were stand-ins for hardware that is yet to be developed.
The missile defense team wants to learn all it can from the performance of all the component systems. But they particularly were interested in seeing if the kill vehicle could perform the tough job of finding and striking the dummy warhead.
Philip E. Coyle, who was the Pentagon's chief weapon tester under President Clinton, compared this task to "trying to hit a hole in one when the hole is moving at 15,000 mph." And he pointed out that the kill vehicle's sensor has a very confined field of view. "It's like looking through a soda straw."
A first such test, in October 1999, led to a successful interception, though critics contended that the test had been oversimplified.
In a second test, in January 2000, the kill vehicle missed its target after a clogged cooling pipe disabled its infrared sensors, which are used to distinguish the warhead.
In the third test, last July, the kill vehicle failed to separate from the booster. Subsequent analysis showed that a software failure was part of the problem in this mishap.
Two months later, Clinton, citing test failures, postponed a decision about whether to go ahead with plans for a limited, land-based antimissile system.
The test involves huge financial stakes, for taxpayers and for the defense companies that are keenly interested in the biggest Pentagon development program now underway.
Each test costs about $100 million, and the Pentagon has proposed to increase its schedule from one or two major flight tests a year to as many as eight.
It's not clear how much the ambitious missile defense plan that President Bush backs would cost, but one estimate put the Clinton plan, which was to be entirely ground-based, at $60 billion to build. The Pentagon now is experimenting with a variety of technologies to explore the feasibility of a "layered" system to knock down missiles from the air, ground, sea and perhaps, eventually, from space.
Critics say the Bush program could cost hundreds of billions of dollars to deploy, though advocates of missile defense dispute that.
Much of the technology involved in the tests has been developed in California.
Boeing Co.'s Space and Communications group, with headquarters in Seal Beach, is the lead system integrator for the program, while Raytheon Corp.'s Electronic Systems division in El Segundo developed the kill vehicle, including the crucial infrared sensors.
Lockheed Martin Co.'s Sunnyvale space and missile operations is providing the modified Minuteman II booster rocket.