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The Associated Press September 02, 2006

Experts warn successful missile test only small step forward

By Robert Jablon

LOS ANGELES – While U.S. military officials celebrated the successful interception of a mock warhead high above the Pacific Ocean, defense experts warned that America's missile defense system was still years away from being able to protect against an attack.
Meanwhile, North Korea called Friday's test a threat of “war against our country,” and promised to strengthen its own nuclear program.

The 54-foot interceptor shot out of an underground silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the central California coast at 10:39 a.m., 17 minutes after a target missile was launched from Kodiak Island, Alaska.

A refrigerator-size “kill vehicle” separated from the interceptor. Moving at 18,000 mph, it struck a 4-foot-long mock warhead released by the other missile and both disintegrated more than 100 miles up and a few hundred miles west of Vandenberg, said Missile Defense Agency spokesman Rick Lehner.

The test was a “total success,” Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering III, the agency director, told a Pentagon news conference.

Obering described the test as realistic, but the target missile did not deploy decoys or other devices that might be aboard an actual long-range ballistic missile fired by an attacking country.

The missile defense system is still far from being able to protect Americans from long-range missile attacks, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

“The whole purpose of this is to be able to tell the North Koreans to take a hike,” said Pike. “They are not close to that yet. Whether it will ever happen is subject to debate.”

North Korea characterized the test as provocation.

The U.S. move “clearly shows that it is the U.S. which is increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula and threatening war against our country,” the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland said in a statement.

The North will strengthen its “self-defensive deterrent,” said the statement, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency. Pyongyang often uses the phrase to refer to its nuclear program.

Stephen Young, a senior analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that advocates curbing the spread of nuclear weapons, said the demonstration was significant because for the first time an actual interceptor was used in a successful intercept test.

All previous tests of the system used other “surrogate” booster rockets, Young said.

Young also argued that the overall concept of the defense system was “fatally flawed” because missile-capable countries can use countermeasures, such as camouflaging warheads by releasing flocks of decoys.

“The real world would be a bunch of basketballs, and one of them would have a bomb in it,” he said.

So far, the U.S. military has deployed only a small number of interceptor missiles – 11 at Fort Greely, Alaska, and two at Vandenberg.

More than $100 billion has been spent on America's missile-defense system since 1983 and it has been the subject of criticism by those who call it a costly boondoggle.

Critics also argued early on that the end of the Cold War made a full-scale missile attack on the U.S. unlikely. Supporters say the U.S. still is vulnerable to missiles from rogue states.

In July, North Korea unsuccessfully test-fired a missile that was believed capable of reaching the northwestern U.S. coast.

When asked the odds of a U.S. interceptor being able to shoot down a North Korean missile using the existing missile defense system, Obering said the estimate is classified secret.

Asked whether he would rate the chances, broadly speaking, as excellent, good, fair or poor, Obering said, “I think we have a good chance. And it's one that I feel a lot safer and sleep a lot better at night.”


AP Military Writer Bob Burns in Washington, D.C., and Associated Press Writers Rachel D'oro in Anchorage, Alaska, and Peter Prengaman in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


Copyright 2006, The Associated Press