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Missile defense tests to resume in the fall

WASHINGTON—Flight tests of the multibillion-dollar missile defense program will resume in the fall for the first time since they were halted in February after three in a row failed, the general in charge of the program said Thursday.

Lt. Gen. Trey Obering III, the chief of the Missile Defense Agency, said six teams had looked at what went wrong, and an independent review panel pulled together their findings.

The review identified six technical risks that it considered possible and 33 others that it found "remote or unlikely," Obering said. Development efforts have focused on "driving those (risks) out of the program," he said.

The agency plans four tests over the next year, beginning in September or October, "with increasing complexity in the testing," Obering said.

President Bush ordered the deployment of a missile defense system in 2002 after pulling out of the 30-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty originally signed with the Soviet Union. The system is intended to protect the country from limited missile attacks by North Korea or other adversaries.

Critics say it isn't technologically feasible. Opponents also argue that an enemy is more likely to smuggle a warhead into the country than to risk retaliation by firing missiles whose launch points can be detected.

In the first test, an interceptor missile will be launched out of Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific equipped with a "kill vehicle," or warhead, but it won't be directed at a target. This test is designed to ensure that problems with a December 2002 launch have been worked out. During that test, the "kill vehicle" didn't separate from its booster.

There were seven launch tests of the ground-based system from 1999 to 2002, and five were successful, said Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency. Tests were halted after missiles failed to leave their silos in December 2004 and February 2005.

The problem in December was a software failure, and in February a support arm in the missile silo didn't retract, Obering said. Those problems have been addressed, and "the odds that we would have the kind of failures we've had with two interceptors in a row are very low," he said.

Critics said the earlier successful tests were contrived and unrealistic.

"This system cannot deal with simple balloon decoys," said Stephen Young, a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "In the real world, anyone who could put a missile together with a nuclear warhead could also put a balloon decoy on that missile as well. Once it gets into space, you could have 40 decoys and one real warhead and this system has no way at all to tell those apart. It simply cannot do it."

Obering didn't address the issue of decoys.

After the first test in the fall, the agency plans to begin launching interceptor tests out of Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., with target missiles launched from Kodiak, Alaska.

Those tests, Obering said, will get "into what I consider to be a lot more operationally realistic scenarios."

The United States has spent $92.5 billion on missile defense since 1983, when President Reagan declared the goal of building a space-based missile shield that would render nuclear weapons obsolete.

Efforts have shifted since then to a system based on detection satellites in space and radars and interceptor missiles on land and at sea. Seven Aegis destroyers have been outfitted to provide long-range surveillance and tracking. Eighteen ships eventually will be outfitted with interceptor missiles.

Britain, Australia, Germany, Denmark, Italy and Japan have signed on to various aspects of the program.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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