July 19, 1999

Missile collision will test defense
Described as hitting bullet with a bullet

Mary Boyle - The Gazette ( Colorado Springs, Colo. )

WASHINGTON _ A critical test scheduled for late summer could bring the military a step closer to deploying a national missile defense system that may be headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The test, to take place over the Pacific Ocean in September, will be the first to see whether two missiles fired thousands of miles apart and each traveling at 12,000 mph can collide on command.

It's a daunting challenge that skeptics describe as trying to hit a bullet with a bullet.

But military officials point to the Army's recent success -- after a string of failures -- in testing a short-range intercept missile known as the Theater High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD.

"We learned a lot from THAAD," said Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, spokesman for the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. "That doesn't guarantee success, but it helps minimize failure" on the new project, he said.

The $75 million test will focus predominantly on one component of missile defense: the "kill vehicle." That is a 100-pound box mounted atop a long-range missile that searches for an incoming enemy warhead and destroys it.

Missile defense developers are anxious to see if the kill vehicle steers properly, whether it can find the incoming warhead and how it relays information back to a control center, Lehner said.

Regardless of the outcome, the test is a milestone for a costly and highly controversial program.

The United States so far has spent more than $50 billion developing missile defense. The system now under development costs an additional $11 billion.

"Every test in a program of this kind is a big deal," said John Pike, a space analyst for the Federation of American Scientists and a missile defense critic. "It'll be closely watched."

Failure in the September test is unlikely to threaten the system's future. Most major weapons programs require years of testing and development before they are ready for use, said Michael Krepon, president of the Stimson Center, a Washington-based defense think tank.

What's more, deployment of a missile defense system has gained so much political support that even opponents concede it appears nearly unstoppable.

Only a few years ago, even ardent supporters would not have predicted the testing of a national missile defense system by 2000.

Several factors sped up development. Last year, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield told Congress that foreign ballistic missile programs were more advanced than U.S. intelligence agencies suspected.

A month later, North Korea surprised the world by successfully test-firing a ballistic missile that reached over Japan.

Some experts say as many as 20 nations possess or are developing ballistic missile technology, and the United States should take steps to protect itself.

Congress passed legislation this year that commits the government to deploying a missile defense system when technologically possible. President Clinton indicated his support by setting aside $7 billion for missile defense work.