WASHINGTON — In a boost for President Bush's hopes to build a defense against ballistic-missile attack, the Defense Department showed Saturday that sending a missile into space to knock out an incoming enemy nuclear warhead has some measure of technological feasibility.
In a test that produced cheers among Pentagon officials, an interceptor that soared into space from a tiny Pacific isle destroyed its target, a mock nuclear warhead.
It was the first test of the technology the Bush administration hopes will become a key element of a missile-defense network. Of three previous tests in 1999 and 2000, two failed and one succeeded.
"The early indication we have is that everything worked," Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, director of the Pentagon's missile-defense programs, told a news conference less than an hour after the intercept. The Pentagon will need weeks to analyze all the data, but initial indications were that "we hit pretty accurately," he said.
Lieutenant General Kadish said the next test, scheduled for October, might include some additional complexities, such as adding more decoys, which in an actual attack would be used to try to fool the missile interceptor.
At 11:09 p.m. EDT, exactly the scheduled moment of collision between the interceptor and the warhead, an enormous white flash appeared at the planned impact point 144 miles above the earth's surface. Military officials said minutes later that their tracking data showed a direct hit.
The interceptor missile was launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific 21 minutes after its target, a modified Minuteman II intercontinental-range missile equipped with a mock warhead, roared toward the heavens from a launch pad 4,800 miles away at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Navigating by the stars and by information transmitted from a ground station on Kwajalein, the interceptor's weapon, known as a "kill vehicle," rammed the mock warhead. The force of impact obliterated the warhead, thus the term "hit-to-kill," as distinct from other approaches such as detonating an explosive in the flight path of the target.
The kill vehicle separated from the rocket booster as planned and reached the impact point in space about eight minutes after the launch from Kwajalein.
Less was riding on the outcome of Saturday's test than a year ago, when a failed intercept sealed President Clinton's decision to put off initial steps toward deploying a national missile defense.
Mr. Bush has made it clear he would proceed with an accelerated testing program regardless of the outcome Saturday.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor