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Dummy target hit in missile defense test

Barnes is a reporter in our Washington bureau.

The Defense Department conducted a successful test of its missile defense system Friday, taking out a dummy target with an interceptor strike over the Pacific Ocean, an exercise officials hope will build support for the controversial initiative within the incoming Obama administration.

Military officials said the test showed for the first time that various radars and defense systems could be used together.

However, the success of the test was tempered by the failure of the dummy target to deploy planned “countermeasures” -- devices designed to try to throw off the interceptor. As a result, officials could not tell whether the system can distinguish between a warhead and decoys that probably would accompany an actual attack.

Nonetheless, some Pentagon officials hope the test, the last of the Bush administration, will impede attempts by the incoming administration to scale back the missile defense system.

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During the campaign, President-elect Barack Obama and his advisors identified missile defense as an area where spending could be trimmed. But some officials in the Pentagon oppose funding cuts that would slow development of a system that they say has begun to prove itself as effective protection.

The target missile was fired from Alaska shortly after noon Pacific time. About 20 minutes later, an interceptor was fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, colliding with the target about 12:30.

While in flight, the target was tracked by radar systems in Alaska, at sea and at Beale Air Force Base in California. Information from five different sensors was integrated, then sent to the interceptor.

“The key to our protection . . . is to have all of these different sensors simultaneously tracking and [have] the system [know] exactly that it’s not multiple objects -- it’s one object up there,” said Army Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O’Reilly, the head of the Missile Defense Agency. “That gives us great confidence. It is the first time we have done it in an actual test.”

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Critics are likely to raise questions about the test because of the failure of the dummy warhead’s countermeasures. Missile defense skeptics have long maintained that the Pentagon has not staged realistic tests, and the lack of decoy warheads that could throw off the interceptor has been a frequent criticism.

O’Reilly said it is difficult to get countermeasures to work properly. But he said the final stage of the multistage target missile had separated and was nearby, showing the interceptor’s “kill vehicle” was able to discern which of the objects was the warhead.

Brian R. Green, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for strategic capabilities, said the test was realistic and could boost support for the missile defense system.

“The critics will decide for themselves how close this test comes to satisfying their own ideas,” he said. “But successful tests always help reinforce confidence in the system.”

The ground-based missile defense system is designed to intercept ballistic missiles fired at the United States. The system will not work against the most sophisticated missiles from Russia or China, but officials believe it should be able to take out more primitive North Korean missiles.

The test Friday was meant to simulate an attempted strike by North Korea.

The Defense Department wants to spend about $50 billion over the next five years on missile defense. The Pentagon this year requested $10.5 billion, although Congress has cut nearly $500 million from the request. The test Friday cost between $120 million and $150 million, O’Reilly said.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com


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