June 10, 1999
Web posted at: 9:44 p.m. EDT (0144 GMT)
WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, New Mexico (CNN) -- In what may have been a milestone in the costly and controversial effort to build an anti-ballistic missile defense system, the U.S. military successfully shot a test missile out of the sky with another missile Thursday morning.
The successful test of the THAAD missile came after six previous failures. Development of the system has already cost nearly $4 billion.
During the test, a missile was fired into the atmosphere, simulating a Scud missile headed toward a target on the White Sands Missile Range. The THAAD missile was then fired toward it, homing in at six times the speed of sound using thermal imagery.
On the edge of earth's atmosphere, almost in space, the THAAD missile hit the target, demolishing it. Military officials said the successful test was akin to hitting a bullet with a bullet.
Military, critics split on system's usefulness
The aerial display could be seen throughout New Mexico and as far west as Phoenix.
"This is a great day for America, the Army and the missile defense community," said Army Col. Lou Deeter, THAAD program manager. "We appreciate all the people standing behind us and letting us prove this could happen."
However, critics -- who say the missile defense system is too costly and offers only the illusion of security -- downplayed the significance of the successful test.
"It's a lot easier to hit one of our own targets on a test range than it is for them to actually intercept nuclear-tipped missiles in a combat environment," said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists.
"The 1-for-7 record isn't that much better than 0-for-6," said Brian Hughes of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Lockheed faces fine for failed flights
THAAD had nine previous test flights -- three to test equipment and six failed attempts to strike a target missile. After the last failure, Lockheed Martin, which makes the missile, was fined $15 million by the Pentagon.
And if Lockheed Martin can't make another successful intercept by July 16, it will owe another $20 million in penalties.
THAAD, which strikes incoming missiles at high altitudes, is designed to protect troops in the field from medium-range ballistic missiles.
In contrast, the Patriot missiles used during the Persian Gulf War were designed to hit missiles at lower altitudes. They also rely on a warhead exploding near the target, rather than a direct hit.
Military officials also insist that THAAD shouldn't be confused with the so-called "Star Wars" defense system proposed during the Reagan Administration, which calls for a shield to knock thousands of enemy missiles out of the sky using orbiting lasers.
Some proponents say Thursday's successful test could make the concept of a national missile defense more credible.
If there are two more successful tests, the program will move into the next phase. The Pentagon hasn't determined how many tests it will require before beginning full-scale production, but military officials want to be able to deploy THAAD by 2007.
Correspondents Aram Roston, Jamie McIntyre and The Associated Press contributed to this report.© 1999 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.